Reporter's Notebook

The American Futures Notebook
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On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

Show 51 Newer Notes

From Fresno to Duluth to Allentown, with Montana in Between: Civic Updates

Downtown Fresno mural                                                                   (James Fallows)

Here are some generally positive developments from places we’ve visited in our travels.

Fresno: This evening Fresno, California, held its big “State of Downtown” event. You can see the details here. As we’ve reported over the years, Fresno’s bet on re-doing its downtown, made by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and many of the local business and civic leaders, is one of the most consequential in the country. You can hear tonight the update on how it’s going. Here’s a report on last year’s State of Downtown event.

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Some of the startups at Bridgeworks (JF)

Allentown: Allentown, Pennsylvania, is two or three years ahead of Fresno on the downtown renovation cycle. In common with many other places we’ve been, it has an ambitious manufacturing-oriented startup/incubator zone, known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.

Bridgeworks has just released a report on the new businesses that have started there. You can read it here. There’s some much less positive news also coming out of Allentown, as you can read here. We’ll go back there to follow up.

Skyline of the city that American Futures cruelly left out (Eric Schramm / Visit Salt Lake)

We’re back to followup on my March issue story about local-level civic coherence, even at a time of the worst national-level dysfunction in at least a century. Here goes:

1. Salt Lake City: Can’t We Just Get Along?

Until now, I’ve always considered myself on good terms with the “Crossroads of the West,” also known as SLC. Since my first visit there on a Boy Scout trip, I’ve returned many times. My wife Deb and I have put in visiting stints at both Brigham Young University, in Provo, and at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City itself. It’s a great place!

Thus naturally my feelings were hurt by the headline below from the Daily Utah Chronicle, over a story by Emma Tanner:

People of Utah, please!

The Obamas in Havana today. If you keep reading, you’ll see the connection. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Let’s get back to some positive news — actually, let’s connect the positive news I’m about to give, to the drear of domestic U.S. political news that consumes us all.

In today’s NYT Magazine, Adam Davidson has an excellent and fresh analysis of the way Donald Trump talks about both business and international affairs. For Trump it’s all win or lose, smart or dumb, they’re screwing us and we have to start screwing them. The underlying reason, Davidson points out, is that Trump comes from a part of the business world that is abnormally “rent-seeking” (in the economist’s sense) and zero-sum: the world of Manhattan real estate.

There is only so much space to build in Manhattan, there are only so many permits to be had, only so many ways you can “be disruptive” or “change the world” through a real estate deal. What you can do, as Davidson points out, is get a little bigger slice of the pie for yourself, which leaves a little less for the other guy — making you the winner and the other guy the loser. This view underlies the way Trump talks about everything. Davidson says:

Manhattan real estate development is about as far as it is possible to get, within the United States, from that Econ 101 notion of mutually beneficial transactions.

This is not a marketplace characterized by competition and dynamism; instead, Manhattan real estate looks an awful lot more like a Middle Eastern rentier economy. It is a hereditary system. We talk about families, not entrepreneurs. A handful of families have dominated the city’s real estate development for decades: Speyer, Tishman, Durst, Fisher, Malkin, Milstein, Resnick, LeFrak, Rose, Zeckendorf. Having grown up in Manhattan myself, I think of these names the way I heard Middle Easterners speak of the great sheikhs who ran big families in Jordan, Iraq and Syria. These are people of immense power and influence, but their actual skills and abilities are opaque. They do, however, make ‘‘deals.’’

Of course deals matter at every level, from haggling at a bazaar to striking a nuclear arms-control agreement. But in the parts of economic and social life where new things are being created, the deal is the means, not the end itself. The founders of Apple and of Google, of Disney and of WalMart, of Tesla and of Nike and whatever example you’d choose, are aware of deals. But none of them began with the deal centrally in mind. The business, the product, the disruption, the creation were what originally fascinated and motivated them. The deals protected what they’d figured out. But figuring it out, and then making it happen, was the attraction and challenge.

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Understanding the impulses behind entrepreneurship and creativity, and the practical circumstances that make these efforts more or less attainable, really matters for a society. It matters much more than “making good deals.” It matters because of the reality underscored in the Kauffman Foundation research that I mention in my March issue cover story, and the updated report that Kauffman put out last month.

Ohio Statehouse, in Columbus, last year. No, this story is not about the Ohio primaries! (Deborah Fallows)

A big theme of our March issue cover stories (main story here; “11 signs of success” checklist; “Library Card”) is that one the bleakest aspect of modern America is the one now dominating the headlines: the dysfunction and bitterness in our national-level politics. The bleakness of that theme is unfortunately what I’ve been writing about through the past week (for instance here).

Back toward the light! To break up the Götterdämmerung chronicles of our national struggle, here come some more reports on the local level. This weekend, my wife Deb reported on the way that public libraries were converting themselves into “maker spaces”—and recapturing some of Benjamin Franklin’s original vision.

Today, some connected reports, starting with ones on the reverse big sort.

In my article I mentioned that even as certain industries were concentrating in the big coastal centers, regional centers were also re-populating. People who had trained, worked, and lived in San Francisco or New York decided that the better overall life balance could be found in Duluth or Greenville or Fresno or Bend. On that theme, here’s an update on the expansion of the aerospace center that has emerged in Duluth, spawned by Cirrus; and another about startups at the Bridgework Enterprise Center in Allentown.

Nighttime photo of the Liberty Bridge, over the Reedy River, in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. This was the focus of a long struggle to revive the city’s downtown. (Rosales and Partners / Wikimedia commons.)

Last night the PBS NewsHour ran a 10-minute segment hosted by Judy Woodruff and shot in Greenville, South Carolina, where Deb and I have visited frequently and reported extensively over the past few years. A magazine article I did comparing the politically very conservative Greenville with the politically very liberal Burlington, Vermont, is here. Deb’s original and later stories on Greenville’s very innovative public schools are here, here, and here. A full collection of our Greenville and related South Carolina reportage is here.

I thought this NewsHour report did a very effective job of conveying a range of things we’ve seen in Greenville and elsewhere, and that Deb and I have written about in the March issue. Including:

how this part of the former textile zone prepared for the disappearance of that industry, and survived it; how a state with a very troubled racial history develops cross-racial institutions and organizations; how a region considered to be backward in public schooling has developed some of the most creative public schools in the country; how and why governance can function well locally, when it is paralyzed at the national level; how the inequalities and strains of the Second Gilded Age persist; and so on, including some aviation footage.

See for yourself! (A PBS embed is after the jump.) If you haven’t been to Greenville, I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the scenes from the very large (and racially diverse) Redemption Church, and from the Elementary School for Engineering and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, among others. We appreciate the effort the NewsHour team put into this production, including filming during atypically frigid conditions in Greenville last month.

FDR signing the G.I. Bill into law in 1944. That’s what a national-level effort looks like. (Wikimedia)

The GOP/Fox last night was genuinely depressing. Donald Trump has brought the other candidates down to his level, in the process of demolishing the Republican party. No living American has seen anything like what is happening to the GOP this year, because the last time a national party split apart in such an apparently fundamental way was in the mid-19th century, with the self-destruction of the Whigs.

Meta-point: our two-party national politics and our national governing system are for-real in trouble, as I argued here and here. While they flounder, a damage-limiting step is to identify what parts of the American system are still working, and what might be done to expand their recognition and impact.

Three notes on this front:

1) The latest update by my wife Deb, about an innovative and encouraging public middle-school in Greeville, South Carolina. This follows her “America’s tiniest engineers” report on an innovation elementary school in Greenville. (Also, please see this Economist article on our reports and a new book by Antoine van Agtmael.)

2)  A note from a reader in Irvine, California, about the dangers of a persistent gap between viable local governance and failed national politics:

I've been reading the reactions to your recent article and your follow on commentary in the "notes" section with interest.  I've had a few thoughts regarding your reference of Warren Buffet's recent annual letter, the recent Tom Friedman column, and also the themes you've explored during the course of the American Futures project:

  • I think what you were thinking when you referenced Buffet is in line with what Paul Krugman would call a "Scandinavia lite" approach i.e. a country with open trade policies, flexible labor markets, whose citizens are shielded from the inherent uncertainty of such a system by a strong safety net that secures essential things like a universal basic income and healthcare for everyone.  However, doing this will require intelligent, pragmatic action at the federal level and not at the local, city level. [JF note: agree, as I pointed out.]

From Thomas Friedman in the NYT, emphasis added:

… what will be required to produce resilient citizens and communities [is] forcing a politics that is much more of a hybrid of left and right.

It is the kind of politics you already see practiced in successful communities and towns in America — places like Minneapolis; Austin, Tex.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. — where coalitions made up of the business community, educators and local government come together to forge hybrid solutions to improve their competitiveness and resilience. We can’t get there at the national level since one of our two major parties has gone nuts and we have designed paralysis into our politics.

Sounds right to me! This is very much in sync with what my wife Deb and I have seen across the country, and have tried to explain here.

***

Previously in the Hmmm series:

  • We’ve seen things that fit Warren Buffett’s world view: America is in way better overall economic shape than the rest of the world, and also has better prospects than political rhetoric suggests. But it needs to do more to help those being hurt and left behind by today’s technological transformations.
  • We’ve internalized the Robert Wood Johnson / NPR / Harvard study: Americans think the nation’s health care system as a whole is a disaster, but are surprisingly satisfied with the care they get themselves.
  • Like the Kauffman Foundation (as noted here) and now Bo Cutter of the Roosevelt Institute (co-author of a new e-book called The Good Economy), we’ve seen signs of widespread startup, “maker,” and entrepreneurial activity around the country.
  • We what’ve seen place-by-place parallels the NYT’s observation that while politicians are angrier than ever, many voters (even while casting votes for the likes of Trump) take the longer, calmer view.
  • And now we’re nodding along with T. Friedman in his observation that local-level governance continues to function—partly because people there don’t have the luxury of becoming purely “shut it down!” obstructionist like the national-level GOP.

This compilation is just to note harmonic resonance among observations that don’t fit the “everything is getting worse” tone of national political discussions. The country has lots of problems, and lots of people figuring out solutions.

Headline on an editorial-page essay in this morning’s NYT:

From the essay itself:

In the presidential primary on Tuesday, Texas Republicans seem set to throw themselves behind the two candidates [Trump and Cruz] who are doing all they can to stress the seams, pop the rivets, blow apart whatever counts as unity in 21st-century Texas...One way or another, it looks as if white grievance will finish first and second with the Texas G.O.P.

But on a trip across southeast Texas on the eve of the primary, I met voters who — with an exception or two — did not seem to think they were near any abyss, as Mr. Cruz has warned. At a nostalgically 19th-century event — a rodeo parade on Saturday in Houston — Texans seemed perfectly at ease with the times.

Political rhetoric suggesting that the country is on the verge of collapse, and meanwhile a city-by-city, person-by-person sense that the apocalypse is still quite some distance away — yes indeed! That sounds very much like the country my wife Deb and I have been reporting on and trying to describe in our pages.

***

This passage by Lawrence Downes resembled many other moments across the country through the past few years:

I watched [the parade] for a while with Kemal Anbarci, a 52-year-old petroleum engineer, born in Turkey, who loves Houston. “I really feel American,” he said. “I feel like I belong here.” He said he voted Republican when he lived in California, but was waiting until after the primary to see who is the most unifying candidate. He called Houston “a wonderful place to be if you are not native-born.” He observed that the riders in the parade were ethnically diverse, but rode in segregated groups. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “but they are in chunks.” He laughed.

From NPR’s Morning Edition today.

The pull-quote at the beginning of my current cover story says:

Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.

This sounds like the old political saw that people hate the Congress but feel better about their own Representative. But it’s different in a significant way.

The hate-the-Congress / like-the- Congressman paradox is based on the tension between locally connected politicians, who by definition know how to make themselves likable to their own constituency, and the Congress as a whole, which everyone can see is polarized and hamstrung. You don’t have to wait to be told that national government is stalemated. You know that it is, because of the nonstop news of shutdowns and faceoffs.

But the NPR / Robert Wood Johnson / Harvard study that is the basis of today’s report  parallels what my wife Deb and I have reported about economic, educational, cultural, and social trends across the country. Namely, that people feel more positive about the part of America they directly experience than the other part they hear referred to in political discourse in the news.

“Feel more positive” doesn’t mean “think there are no problems.” The health system, the school system, and every other system is under severe strain. But more people feel more positively about more aspects of the current U.S. scene that you would infer from most coverage, or from virtually any political discourse. Recognizing this point matters not for generating complacency but rather for grasping the possibility of progress. As my current piece says in its conclusion:

When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.

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A very interesting graph from the NPR report, showing how views of each person’s own health-care experience vary with income:

Alyson Hurt / NPR
Warren Buffett playing ping-pong, at a Berkshire Hathaway meeting last year. Another billionaire looks on. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

When I was living in and reporting from China, I spent a lot of time trying to hammer this point home: whatever you might say about China — good or bad, friendly or hostile — there was some place in the country where it was true, and also some place where its opposite was true. Thus embracing China’s contradictory realities was not some minor fine-tuning detail but a starting-point necessity in thinking about the place. In case you haven’t read China Airborne, a further riff on this theme comes after the jump.*

Today’s America is not quite as contradictory as China. Yes, the U.S. has extreme poverty and growing inequality; but no, we don’t have a peasant population in the hundreds of millions. But America is complex and contradictory enough. Thus the message of my current cover story involves this superficially contradictory sequence:

  1. The United States is suffering the ills of the Second Gilded Age, as it is distorted by the same pressures toward inequality and dislocation that affect virtually every society today.
  2. Despite point #1, America’s overall prospects remain better than any other major country’s. That’s because of scale, resources, adaptability, geographic advantage, education (yes), research-and-entrepreneurship culture, “soft power,” openness to immigration, and lots more.
  3. Despite point #2, the main American weakness, in both relative and absolute terms, is that our system of national government is at a historic ebb in effectiveness. That’s particularly troublesome now, because adapting to the turbulence of this era would be so much easier and less destructive with some national policies, like those that accompanied the adjustment to the previous Gilded Age. Then it was: worker-safety and child-labor laws, the minimum wage, unionization. Now: portability of health care, pensions, lifelong training, and other benefits as the “gig economy” replaces the long-term one-company career.
  4. Despite point #3, lots of American families, organizations, and communities are figuring out their own responses to this era’s opportunities and problems. These are worth noticing in their own right; and as they accumulate, they can provide a guide for national action — if such a thing should become possible again.

***

With that, bring on Warren Buffett! Today’s NYT has a story about Buffett’s annual shareholder letter for Berkshire Hathaway. The Times headline conveys the contrast with today’s political rhetoric.

Members of San Bernardino’s “Generation Now” last year. The NYT has a story about work they and others are doing to improve a hard-pressed city. (Deborah Fallows)

Two updates today:

1) On Point. I spoke today with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR and his On Point audience, about my contention (in the current cover story) that even in this time of wage stagnation, political paralysis, and growing inequality, more is happening at the local level than most Americans realize. You can find the whole show here or listen below.

I valued this conversation because for the first half-hour Ashbrook (whom I’ve known since we were correspondents in Japan in the 1980s) asked me in six different ways: Really, how can what you’re saying be true? Then in the second half callers asked their versions of the same question.

All this gave me a chance to try six+ different presentations of points that seem contradictory but, according to me, are simultaneously true.

  • One is that the United States is suffering the strains of a Second Gilded age, in ways ranging from increasing inequality to decreasing faith in national institutions of any sort (except the military).
  • Another is that at the same time, many organizations, institutions, localities, and other groups are finding ways to adapt more successfully to these circumstances — and that the news of their record is under-represented in our sense-of-America in these times.
  • And precisely because national-level responses to these strains are logjammed for the foreseeable future, it’s worth recognizing what alternatives we have.

In the article I quote Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, to similar effect:

“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

You can hear the show and see what you think.

***

Protest march in Columbus, Mississippi (Ricky Ball a Cry for Justice)

Over the past few years we’ve mentioned many of the positive developments underway in the three counties of northern Mississippi (Lowndes, Clay, and Oktibbeha) collectively known as the “Golden Triangle.” They’re featured in my current cover story; in the video that the Atlantic’s team has produced; in the discussion I had yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS; and in the remarkable student essays that my wife Deb has collected from high school students at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus. The two latest offerings from MSMS students are here and here. Earlier ones are here. I promise you won’t regret the few minutes it takes to look at them.

All of the places we’ve reported on, like the country they’re part of, have a mixture of good and bad trends. Columbus is now coping with its local version of the racial police-violence problems being brought to light nationwide.

Last October, a white Columbus police officer named Canyon Boykin shot and killed a black Columbus resident named Ricky Ball. The shooting was on a Friday night, after a traffic stop (for broken tail light). You can read the background in this story soon after the shooting from the Columbus Dispatch, and this follow-up.

Since then the situation has grown more complicated and much more bitter. In two recent stories for the Guardian, here and here, Matt Kessler of the University of Mississippi has written about the police department’s contradictory reports about the case, and about the lawsuit that Boykin, the police officer who was fired after the shooting, has filed alleging that his treatment reflects anti-white racial bias.

For more, here is the Justice for Ricky Ball site, run by those claiming that the officer had a vendetta against Ball, and its Facebook page. Here is a YouTube video of a protest march by The Ricky Ball a Call for Justice. Last week the Columbus Dispatch ran an editorial about the shooting and its aftermath: