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.
Last night the PBS NewsHourran 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.
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.
Now a note that arrived from Igor Ferst, who recently moved from S.F. to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is of course a relatively large city, #15 by population in the United States. It’s also the home of the Ohio State university and the state’s capitol and government offices. But for media purposes it’s in flyover territory and is featured mainly during political events (like today’s primary) or for sports news. Also, in our reports from there, we emphasized the city’s consciousness of being just the right size: big enough to offer just about anything, small and manageable enough to get things done.
From Igor Ferst:
Your reporting in the March issue on the civic and economic revival you encountered in your travels to small and medium-sized cities across America resonated with me immensely, as my wife and I are young professionals in the software business who recently chose to relocate to Columbus, OH after four years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The biggest improvement to our quality of life is not a lower median house price (though that doesn’t hurt). Rather, it is a sense of freedom that comes from finding personal and professional fulfillment in a vibrant and welcoming city, away from the Bay Area’s grinding commutes and careerist, status-obsessed culture.
I hope other young professionals read your story and start judging cities not by their wealthiest or most famous residents, but by those people quietly working to bring a shared prosperity to the community they love.
Similarly, on Facebook a tech figure named Morgan Fitzgibbons has been chronicling his move from San Francisco back to his original home of Toledo, Ohio. (Both of these items are in honor of the Ohio primary today.) I was particularly interested in his interview with Hoodline, in San Francisco, before he left (emphasis added):
Tell us a little bit about why you're leaving.
The short answer is cost of living. You cannot have creative community in a city that is exorbitantly expensive. It could work if the people with all the money gave to the things that needed to be supported, but unfortunately, that's not the case.
The ceiling in Toledo is much higher for me. It's dirt-cheap to live, and we can really create something special there. For example, there's a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Toledo in really great shape, and it's for sale for $175K. You put a down payment on that, and the mortgage is $1,000 a month. That's the kind of opportunity you're never going to get here.
Unlike when I moved here, San Francisco's not the only place anymore where it's okay to smoke weed and be gay. There's been a big cultural shift in the rest of the country in the past few years. The thing that drew me to San Francisco is because it's where my people were, but it's no longer the only place.
To be clear about this: America is a big, complex place, and through its history people have always been moving back and forth, metropolis to countryside to suburb and back again. The point in emphasizing the activity in the Columbuses, the Fresnos, the Allentowns, the Toledos is that their activity has gotten less attention than it deserves.
Finally for today, a new story in PS magazine — formally Pacific Standard, formerly Miller-McCune, and for the record a publication with many ties to the Atlantic. (Its current editor is Atlantic alumnus Nicholas Jackson; its previous editor was Maria Streshinsky, once our managing editor here and now at Mother Jones; before her was my friend John Mecklin, now of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Also for the record, the story I’m about to mention originated with the New America Foundation, which I helped create. Its author, Chayenne Polimédio, is a current New America researcher.)
This new PS story, called “And Now For Some Good News About America,” makes a case that I obviously sympathize with. Namely, that our all-too-obvious national level dysfunction coexists with, and masks, lower-level civic health. For example:
In fact, despite plummeting levels of confidence in government, Gastil and Lukensmeyer [John Gastil of Penn State and Carol Lukensmyer of Arizona] see a new trend of people wanting to be part of the solution.
And yes, people might not have the time to stay up-to-date on government affairs at all times; they might not always care. But when they do, and when they believe that there is real skin the in the game, and get to interact with the government in a substantial way, as Russon-Gilman [Hollie Russon-Gilman of New America] explains, things change.
But how can we give people that extra push that will make them care about what goes on in their community? …
For Lukensmeyer, it comes down to remembering that humans are social beings. We respond to the structures and signals in which we exist. Our response to a certain issue largely depends on how that issue is framed, who is in the room with us when we have that conversation, and to what extent we can manage to keep a civil discourse regardless of likeness of opinion.
More details follow, leading up to:
We need to stop fetishizing leadership; we need to get up from the couch and go to our city hall meetings; we need to talk to our neighbors; and we need to start carrying our own weight in governing ourselves. John Adams, in a letter to a friend, recognized that the glorification of leadership was a hindrance to democratic progress: "The country won't improve," he said, "until the people begin to consider themselves as the fountain of power."...
We can, at the very least, say that, if we're tired of hearing that America is broken, we ourselves can start talking about how to fix it.
Probably a better message to reflect on that whatever we hear this evening about the Ohio and Florida results. (Thanks to Titus Levi for the PS tip.)
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.
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.
Those reports emphasized that if a society wants more jobs, it needs to keep fostering more new companies. That is because of the non-obvious but well-substantiated point that, in toto, virtually all the growth in jobs come from companies in their first few years of existence. Big businesses have big payrolls, but taken as a group, long-established companies are laying off as many people as they’re hiring. Thus putting more people to work means reducing the practical barriers between having an idea and starting a small company.
All this is the background to news in the NYT last month that the young Collison brothers of Ireland, John and Patrick, who together have founded the online payments system Stripe, had introduced a new feature designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs around the world to reach a global market. The feature is called Stripe Atlas, and you can see info and watch a video about it here. (For the record: I have met John and Patrick Collison of Stripe, and their journalist-brother Tommy, in San Francisco but have no connection to the company beyond being interested in its idea.)
The new Stripe Atlas features may not sound like much. Essentially, they offer a low-cost way for small businesses around the world to set up a presence in the U.S. financial and banking system. For a fee of $500, the companies get a U.S. bank account, so they can accept payments in U.S. dollars; a U.S. corporate identity, as a Delaware corporation, of course; and U.S. tax registration and tax/legal advice. As a result of these changes and some others, an entrepreneur in Egypt or Turkey or Ghana or Poland is able to operate as if it had a U.S. branch, which previously only much larger companies would have been able to afford. As Patrick Collison explained in an email:
The nuts and bolts of the business infrastructure was the hardest part
of getting started for them. Now, entrepreneurs across more than 170
countries (with a combined population of 6 billion people!) can get
access to the same business infrastructure enjoyed by technology
companies across the US and Europe.
One obvious question is: Does any of this matter? To see how it might, consider other mundane-seeming changes that profoundly changed the terrain of opportunity. A generation ago, FedEx and Express Mail allowed small companies to do what previously had required a large corporation’s shipping department. A decade ago, easy web-creation and blogging tools allowed anyone to establish an online presence. The worldwide ATM network, along with international credit-card acceptance, has greatly streamlined the previously headache-filled process of dealing with foreign currencies. None of these is particularly “interesting” as a concept, but cumulatively they’ve had a profound effect.
The other potential Trump-era American question, or reaction, is: Oh no! One more tool for the foreigners!! Without making the whole case right now, I think that reflects the Manhattan deal-maker’s zero-sum mentality, as opposed to the way businesses and opportunities are really developing around the world and in the United States. No American jobs are going to be “taken” by the little Egyptian or Turkish startups you see in some of the Atlas videos. While I’m a long-time skeptic of the automatic benefits of globalized trade, everything I’ve seen over the decades tells me that helping dispersed entrepreneurs like these (versus large state industries) will be good for them, good for their countries, good for the world, and good for the United States.
Now, applying this to the news of the day: For more than half a century, the U.S. embargo of Cuba has made it illegal for U.S.-based entities to do business of almost any sort there. But in the preparation for President Obama’s visit to Cuba starting today, this past week the Treasury relaxed some of those regulations — specifically including ones that affected the Stripe Atlas features. As Harry McCracken reported this week in Fast Company:
“A few weeks ago, the White House reached out to us,” says John Collison, who cofounded Stripe in 2010 with his brother Patrick. As the White House had been making plans for the new banking policies and next week's trip, "people on the ground in Cuba suggested the president check out this Atlas thing," Collison told me.
After hearing from the Obama administration, Stripe moved quickly to prep a version of the service it could offer in Cuba.
That’s part of what is going on in Havana right now — and other sites in the United States and around the world. I hope to speak with some of Stripe’s Cuba-based team this week, and will follow up.
In the meantime, this is an example of the adaptive, creative, entrepreneurial activity underway in so many more places than usually make it onto the media radar. And since the Collisons are also an aviation family, I must close with one of the pictures Patrick has posted via Twitter, of flying his own little airplane from Miami to Havana yesterday.
An en route picture:
And on the ground in Cuba, with Patrick Collison on the left.
To wrap this up: the nastiest part of our political dialogue has been based on a fixed-pie, I-win/you-lose version of economic life that might make sense in New York real estate deal making, but which (I think) deeply misunderstands the most important trends in the “real” economy. Those trends are part of what we’re trying to report.
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:
A follow-up article by Tanner is here, making the case that Salt Lake City stands up well on an official 11-point Checklist For Civic Success. No offense meant! We have another season of reporting-travel coming up this summer and fall and might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile I salute the spirit with which Tanner closes out her series, especially the wry final line.
Fallows’ fourth point [on the checklist] addresses whether people in an area understand and “know the civic story.” Again, the LDS church has made its claim and created a clear identity. Not only do Utah residents know, for the most part, what role the Mormons have played in establishing and sustaining successful state operations through an interesting and sometimes twisted history, but people around the globe know Utah for its Mormons, for better or worse….
Lastly, points five and eleven address whether the city has a downtown and craft breweries. An obvious and distinct downtown is necessary because it is considered the “bones” of the city, the reflection of everything the area represents and stands for. Its appearance and functionality matter, and Salt Lake City has, in my opinion, one of the nicest downtowns I’ve ever seen. It’s clean, airy, has great proximity to everything (mountains, resorts, recreation, freeways, other major state cities, etc.), and is well-organized and managed. Craft breweries matter as an indicator of entrepreneurship and appeal to young people. Utah, as of now, has more than ten craft breweries, which my twenty-year-old self hears are pretty great.
2) “Does Knoxville Have What it Takes?” A very nice piece by Alan Sims, who writes as “Urban Guy” for Inside of Knoxville, on how the capital of eastern Tennessee measures up. I was particularly interested in this part, about what I’d listed as the #9 trait of successful cities we’d seen: that they “make themselves open.”
[The checklist said:] “The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something people expressed in most of the cities we visited. On the contrary, politicians, educators, business people, students and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people . . . Every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.”
[Fallows] mentions that the mayor of Greenville, SC pointed out how many languages are heard on the sidewalks in that city, which is something I’ve often commented on in my articles about our city. I think the frequency of just that is increasing in Knoxville.
On this front I think our mayor has been particularly keen in welcoming everyone and framing that into city policy. Our state and county doesn’t always help matters. I’m thinking of incidents like Sheriff JJ Jones threatening to “stack immigrants like cord wood,” in jail. That doesn’t help. Still, in speaking specifically of the city, I think we do well on this variable.
I’ve met the mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero, and agree about what she is trying to do in the city. We’ll try to take a closer look soon. (Thanks to Knoxville resident and longtime friend Neil McBride for the tip.)
3) On the difficulty of properly registering areas of progress and retrogress at the civic and national level, consider this short note from reader Jerry Glynn of Illinois:
I was in Chicago for two days and one night recently from Urbana IL, where my wife and I live and where are four kids grew up.
I looked out our hotel window and saw three of the many bridges across the river and remembered that almost all of the old bridges in town had been rebuilt, one by one, in the past 15 years. Beautiful and important work. But no stories in the struggling newspapers remind us of this most important work. No politician is getting regular credit for pushing this work through. Too bad.
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.
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.
As we’ve described in previous visits and in the latest article, Duluth, Minnesota, has gone from being a grain, timber, and ore metropolis of yesteryear, plus model for Zenith city in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, to being a center of aerospace tech, health care, and outdoors-tourism. Early this month Cirrus aircraft, main player in the regional aerospace business, announced an expansion that will bring 150 additional manufacturing jobs in the city, for a total of 825 inside Duluth.
For the record, Cirrus is now owned by the Chinese aerospace ministry (for reasons described in China Airborne); produces the best-selling airplane of its type in the world (which is the one we’ve been flying around the country on our project_; and also has operations in Grand Forks, North Dakota and, soon, Knoxville, Tennessee.
As mentioned in some earlier dispatches, the American Prairie Reserve This is an ambitious, idealistic, “market-minded environmentalist” approach restoring a Serengeti-sized area of northern Montana grassland to the flora and fauna that were there more than 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark traversed the area. Late last year Peter Geddes, managing director of the APR, described it and similar efforts by environmental entrepreneurs as “the Yellowstones of the future” in a very interesting long piece for the NYT.
The long-term vision for the reserve includes offering local ranchers higher prices for their beef, to be sold under the premium Wild Sky label, if they raise their cattle in “wildlife-friendly” ways that allow the return of bison, elk, prairie dogs, and ultimately predators like wolves and cougars; collaborating with tribes from the very large adjoining reservations, Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east; and, significantly, continuing buy land as it becomes available and returning it to nature-reserve use.
In the past few weeks the APR has announced a series of major gifts to its “Land of Legacy” program, of donations for land acquisition and improving the reserve. My point is not to sell you on the reserve, though I’ve ended up being impressed by the way its creators are trying to balance an array of overlapping interests: economic, environmental, ranching-family traditional, tribal and far-more-traditional, local-versus-global, etc. Mainly I am noting their continued progress toward their announced goal.
“Almost everything we have is a disaster,” a leading presidential candidate said today, referring to the nation he hopes to lead. You may be surprised to learn that the claim is not correct.
If you’re going to subscribe to only one magazine — well, really you should be subscribing to more! But you could start with The Atlantic, and then move on to include, as I have, All About Beer on your list (subscribe!).
I mention it now on general principles, and because its site now features an interesting piece by Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible, extending my premise that craft breweries have become a no-joke indicator of larger civic revival. This is how he explains it, in a way that rings absolutely true to what my wife Deb and I have seen from Georgia to California to Mississippi to Minnesota:
[Fallows] suggests that the appearance of a craft brewery is one effect of community health—but I’d argue that it’s at least in part the cause of a community’s vitality.
Breweries are industrial operations, and they’re expensive. Beer is a mass beverage, and even making it on a brewpub scale means you have to have quite a bit of space for the brewhouse, fermentation, and storage. All that equipment costs a lot, and real estate does, too. When you’re spending a quarter- or half-million dollars on equipment, you can’t afford expensive commercial space. So breweries end up on the fringes, in bad parts of town where the rent is cheap. That alone is the first step of revitalization. [Emphasis in first paragraph was from Alworth. This emphasis is added by me.]
But breweries aren’t like the average industrial plant. They are people magnets, bringing folks in who are curious to try a pint of locally made IPA. In fairly short order, breweries can create little pockets of prosperity in cities that can (and often do) radiate out into the neighborhood. Pretty soon, other businesses see the bustle and consider moving in, too.
It doesn’t hurt that breweries often find run-down parts of towns that have great buildings. Once a brewery moves in and refurbishes an old building, it reveals the innate promise of adjacent buildings to prospective renters.
Alworth gives an example of the way a brewpub is affecting development in bigger cities like Tampa. Then he adds:
But the effect may even be stronger in smaller communities. Little towns are often underserved with regard to cool places to hang out. When they open up shop, they provide much-needed social hubs. That the rent is cheaper there than in big cities gives these breweries a competitive boost, to boot—and we have seen many small towns (like Petaluma, California; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Milton, Delaware) spawn outsized breweries. And whether they’re in small towns or cities, breweries serve an important community-building function. They’re not only a nice place to spend an evening, but serve as venues for events like meetings, weddings, and even children’s birthday parties.
Agreed on all points. So you’ve now heard this from two separate beer-interested writers, Jeff Alworth and me. By journalism’s hallowed two-source rule, it must be true.
Bonus beer news:
The hottest thing on the ever-hot Seattle beer scene is Holy Mountain beer. At least that is what the Seattle Times tells us. (Thanks to Bruce Williams.)
Some craft brewers are not as small and craft-ish as you think, according to this list of corporate ownership of “crafty” brews, from Men’s Journal. This is a complicated subject — if we were describing it in beer (or wine) tasting terms, we could even say it was “layered” and “complex”! A shift in ownership to a much larger parent company makes a brewery less “local,” by definition. It doesn’t necessarily make it bad.
For instance: I hadn’t realized that Lagunitas, of Petaluma, California, is half owned by Heineken. I still like their beers. On the other hand, I don’t like Blue Moon beers, which is separate from the fact that they’re owned by MillerCoors. But it’s an interesting list, so check it out. (Thanks to Michael Ham.)
A big theme in our ongoing reports from across the United States, and of my story in our March issue, is that Americans feel much better about the part of the country they can observe first-hand, than about the conditions elsewhere they hear or read about.
That is: According to almost everyone, America is going to hell. But according to most people, conditions in their city / region / family / company involve real challenges but are generally moving in the right direction.
There are lots of possible reasons for this divergence. For the moment I’m mainly emphasizing that it is real. Today CNBC had a poll showing another aspect of the split, the results of which are shown above. According to these results, 57% of Americans are “happy” or “satisfied” with their personal financial position, and only 21% are either “dissatisfied” or “angry.” But their view of the country as a whole is much darker.
No larger point for the moment beyond what I made in the piece itself. (As a reminder, one of those points was that Donald Trump, in specific, was whipping up anger and discontent in the country, at least as much as he was “expressing” it.) I’m interested in the recurrence of this pattern, of people being surprised that their own lives are proceeding as well as they are, considering the disaster they assume is happening everywhere else.
And yes, of course, I agree with everyone who is “angry” about the last question, on the “political situation in DC.” About that, grrrrr.
Previously in the Hmmmm series, please see this, this, and this.
A smiling old man proudly displayed to me a T-shirt that read “Trump: Get On Board or Get Run Over.” Another read: “Up Yours Hillary.” When I asked the man to pose for a picture, his wife pulled me over and told me “everything in America is terrible” — the economy, health care, the military. “Don’t you worry about your kids future?”
Quote two, in Thomas Fuller’s report in the NYT of a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mandate six weeks of paid parental leave for public and private employees within the city. (Private employees must have worked at their firm for 180 days; the rules will apply, starting next year, to firms with more than 50 employees, and eventually to firms with 20 or more.) Again emphasis added:
Scott Wiener, the supervisor who introduced the measure, said that San Francisco lawmakers had chosen to take up the issue partly because there was little hope of change at the national level.
“Whether it’s paid parental leave, infrastructure investment, minimum wage, paid sick leave or addressing carbon emissions, we know the states have to act,” Mr. Wiener said in an interview before the vote….
Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor [and former mayor of San Francisco], said the country’s divisions were making action by the states more urgent and necessary.
“The nation is alive from the bottom up,” Mr. Newsom said. “For all the disproportionate focus on Washington, D.C., there’s a whole other America out there, and it should give pause to the pessimists.”
Let’s make the obvious “to be sure” points. Of course many things in America are terrible. These start with the economic inequalities and polarization of this Second Gilded Age, and the racial injustice that is America’s original sin and ongoing challenge. Anyone who thinks (as most GOP candidates claim) that the U.S. military is weak is simply delusional; but the military too is overextended and has its problems, as I wrote about last year (“The Tragedy of the American Military”). And of course there are drawbacks when individuals, cities, and states assume into irrelevance a paralyzed national government. That’s a point Tim Egan addresses in a NYT column today, and that I try to deal with in the conclusion to my recent magazine article.
But with “to be sure” out of the way, in these two quotes is the tension in how we think about the country.
Everyone is fully-exposed-and-more to the “everything is terrible” argument. It is much, much harder to grapple politically or through the media with the point Scott Wiener and Gavin Newsom are making: that place by place and issue by issue, many people are finding ways to cope with the terribleness and build something better. It’s difficult to register this at the national level. But it is happening, and deserves notice even in a contentious election year.
Here are some recent developments that are related to the “America Is Putting Itself Back Together” argument in our March issue. They’re also connected to the subject of my post earlier today: that an under-appreciated axis in American politics and culture is between those who think, like the woman at the Trump rally, that “everything in America is terrible” and getting worse, and those who agree with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California that “the nation is alive from the bottom up.”
You can guess which one rings truer to me.
But let’s hear from others:
Wichita: Robert Litan, who for ten years was a senior official at the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, writes that his new home town is finding ways to apply a cooperative approach to its development. Sample:
Shortly after moving back to Wichita about two years ago, I became aware of an ongoing communitywide effort, the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, which has brought together business, university and community leaders across eight industry “clusters” in 10 counties in south-central Kansas. BREG’s mission: to find and implement ways of cooperating to enhance innovation, develop workforces, and expand growth opportunities for businesses in this region.
Litan says he assumed this talk of “collaboration” was just so much sloganeering. But ...
Over the past 18 months, I have abandoned my initial skepticism of cooperation by committee once I got to know those involved with BREG, especially those on and leading the Entrepreneurship Task Force. What I discovered is that people here seem to be following a famous maxim uttered by President Reagan: “You can accomplish much if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
You hear none of this hope in the declinist tone of the leading presidential candidates in both parties.
This isn’t to dismiss that many people are finding it difficult to navigate their way in our new economy, and government should do more to help them. That’s what our political conversations should be about, mindful that Wichita, and America, are being reinvented.
Knoxville. National Beer Day was yesterday, but it’s always timely to note the role of craft brewers in improving a region’s economy. Ed Marcum of the News Sentinel reports on the development of a Knoxville Ale Trail to link the city’s startup brewers. Sample:
Adam Palmer, president of the brewers association, said the Ale Trail is something Knoxville brewers have been planning for a while.
"When we formed the association, we had a couple of things in mind as far as our vision," he said. "A big part of it was to educate people and grow awareness of the craft-beer scene in Knoxville."
Local craft brewers knew an ale trail would have to wait until there were a good number of breweries, Palmer said. That happened rapidly. From a few breweries, the craft-beer scene in Knoxville has burgeoned since early 2015, he said.
Coast-to-coast. Steve Nicholas of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which operates around the world and has U.S. offices in Vermont and Washington DC, writes about the way he has seen city, state, and regional groups picking up the slack left by a paralyzed national-government. It’s full of examples (and refers to my article), but here are samples:
It was no surprise to read last week that a coalition of more than 50 local governments, along with the National League of Cities and the US Conference of Mayors, filed a legal brief supporting implementation of the EPA Clean Power Plan. The plan, which for the first time would limit carbon pollution from power plants, is just another axle around which our national politics are wrapped…. The message of a very large, very bipartisan group of local leaders is refreshingly clear and straightforward: the Clean Power Plan will improve the current and future wellbeing of our communities, so can we please just get on with it?!
And (with emphasis in the original):
While our Congress dillies and dallies, but does very little, about life-or-death issues – from climate change to gun violence to immigration reform – local leaders are working together to invent new ways of making their communities better. Why is that? Don’t “bipartisan politics” exist at the local level, too? Of course they do – in droves. But they are bounded by leaders’ close proximity to real problems and real people, who hold them accountable for real results. At the community scale, results reign supreme, and ideological squabbling gives way to getting stuff done, rather than the other way around.
Salisbury. For family-ties reasons I’ve always liked this largest city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where one of my uncles lived and worked. Now Greg Bassett of the Salisbury Independent Newsbrings the welcome info that Salisbury stacks up well on the Atlantic’sOfficial 11-point Checklist for civic success. (Including through the renaissance of craft brewing, led by Evolution.) Sample, based on our claim that successful cities have well-known lists of “local patriots.”
Salisbury, it could be said, has a healthy roster of “local patriots.” Building that list is remarkably easy, as we all know who the difference-makers are. And, more importantly, unknown people who make a difference — and do so without the expected fanfare — are being discovered all the time.
(In fact, Salisbury Independent has made it a mission to find these people, tell their stories and highlight their contributions.)
Seattle: Last month my wife Deb and I spoke about what we’d seen across the country, at the convention of Citizen University, which exists to “promote and teach the art of powerful citizenship.” A YouTube version of our presentation, plus introduction by Citizen U’s Eric Liu, is here. An archive of all the videos from the session is here. This conference was fascinating, and I’ll write more about it soon.
Reader Peter Hatinen of Minneapolis says that Duluth is actually a test case of the Jane Jacobs-like process of distributed, organic revival that is happening a number of the cities we have visited and written about. The step-by-step evolution he’s describing is worth presenting in detail, because it has such resonance elsewhere.
And for anyone who hasn’t (yet) spent time in Duluth, a city I love and have visited at least a dozen times since the late 1990s, it’s important to understand its economic background. Through the past generation Duluth has fit anyone’s definition of a struggling Rust Belt city. Its grand homes and faded-glory downtown buildings were from a lost era of wealth from timber, ore and grain shipments, and heavy manufacturing. Through much of the late-20th century Duluth’s factories closed, its downtown decayed, its population aged and shrank.
Recently a lot of has been changing, fast, as I sketched out in my recent cover story. Peter Hatinen describes more of what is going on:
After time in New York City and Boston, my wife and I settled in Minneapolis. Much of my family grew up and settled around Duluth. Since settling in Minneapolis ourselves, my wife and I have spent nearly every other weekend in Duluth during the summers, delighting in its restaurants, breweries, and distillery. We then pay penance for our indulgences by sailing, rowing, and running or biking the city's countless trails.
I suspect it started with the interstate tunnel project. Much like Boston’s Big Dig, that project reunited the city with its gorgeous waterfront. That led to the burgeoning development in and around canal park which, in turn, spread eastward and up the hill toward the university.
But, for a decade, or even two, it never spread west. That division of the city always saddened me. One thing I’ve loved about the city is the unique combination of industry and the stunning natural beauty of Lake Superior and the rock faces and bluffs that rise out of it. Why did the prosperity stop roughly at Mesaba Avenue?
A handful of years ago, things began to change. You and Deb may have visited or been told about Clyde Ironworks, which was a foundry that has been converted into a beautiful restaurant and entertainment space. [JF note: yes, we have been there!] Nearby now is the Heritage Hockey Rink and Sports Center, which is dear to my heart as a lifelong fan of hockey. It’s a veritable shrine to hockey in Duluth.
Now we come to your beloved beer. Bent Paddle cast its lot in the heart of downtrodden Duluth, about two miles from the traffic it could have picked up from Clyde Ironworks. (If you haven't done so, please some time stop by Northern Waters Smokehouse, pick up sandwiches, and then head out to Bent Paddle. Sit down with your sandwiches and beer and just watch the demographic of the visitors who come and go. We love it. There is a demotic genuineness that place fosters that is rare and is to be prized).
Since Bent Paddle has established itself, it has created a dynamo of entrepreneurial activity nearby. Your thesis about breweries generating growth outside of vital city centers is being affirmed as we speak.
You’ve certainly heard about its wonderful relationship with Vikre distillery down by the waterfront. [JF: Yes] We take great pleasure in that symbiotic relationship. But, what is more important for the
city is what is happening very nearby the brewery. In the last couple of weeks, the Duluth News Tribune has highlighted a new restaurant,
another brewery, and a new coffeehouse, all opening within blocks of Bent Paddle.
The investment Bent Paddle has made and the traffic it has inspired are clearly driving this development. It's wonderful. I wish I had another lifetime to watch what will happen on the west side of town. [JF note: and I, to visit all of the countless other places about which we’ve heard similar reports.]
Your observations about Loll, Cirrus, and Bent Paddle are right on, but only scratch the surface. Duluth is an amazing place.
Skyline on Lake Superior, with some of the elevators and port facilities that were part of Duluth’s original source of wealth:
A big question in national politics this year is what exactly “engagement” means, beyond showing up at rallies. As Yoni Appelbaum pointed out last week, Donald Trump supporters are notable for their low level of other forms of civic engagement: clubs, teams, volunteer groups, or anything that involves being more than a spectator. Although Bernie Sanders still has fewer votes and delegates than Hillary Clinton, his success in the caucuses suggests how engaged his supporters have been — and so the question for the Democratic party and the progressive cause is how many of them stay engaged this fall and beyond. And so on.
A big ongoing theme of the “American Futures” reports my wife Deb and I have presented is how different you would feel about circa-2016 American society if you observed it community by community, than if you mainly watched the political rallies and debates. In nearly every place we’ve gone, it’s been easy rather than hard to find groups and individuals devoting time, money, passion, ingenuity to improving various aspects of their civic life. You can read about it here.
Talent (“Cities are stronger for everyone when they can attract and keep talented people. People, both younger and older, are returning to cities in record numbers, looking for the best of city life.”) Opportunity (“To succeed, cities need to create places where people of diverse backgrounds and income levels can connect. ”) And Engagement (“Cities need spaces and programming that enable people to come together and help shape their city’s future. ”)
You can see the whole list of 37 winners here. An announcement I got about the program said:
The projects range in focus from encouraging entrepreneurship to rehabbing vacant lots and other public spaces. One would use hip-hop to provide low-income communities hands-on business training. Another would convert unused shipping containers into pop-up shops for local artisans. And one winner in sunny southern California would transform a public park into an outdoor workspace to encourage local entrepreneurs.
From Akron to Tallahassee, Grand Forks to Ft. Wayne and Long Beach to Milledgeville, this year’s Challenge winners highlight the creativity and resilience of the American people. They show the ways engaged citizens are working to empower their neighbors and redefine what city life can mean in 21st century America.
Sounds good to me! I spoke with the people involved in three of the projects to get the backstory on how their projects evolved and what they hoped to do with their grants.
The $165,000 grant to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is to extend their work (which Knight has previously supported) in improving and revitalizing a total of 5 ½ miles of riverfront, with parks and gardens and commercial areas. The Riverfront Conservancy has also worked to connect bike paths and running/hiking trails in greenways through the city.
Later this month a new greenway area in the Dequindre Cut will have its official opening. The winning project proposes to support new local businesses in the downtown riverfront area by using shipping containers as sites for pop-up retail stores. “Rather than try to set up brick-and-mortar store fronts, we thought it would make sense to allow the flexibility of using containers for these little pop-up stores,” Marc Pasco, of the Riverfront Conservancy, told me. “We thought the shipping containers would be cool, along the Detroit riverfront, where there’s a lot of shipping — it’s a nice thematic tie-in. And there are a lot of containers sitting around that can be put to use!”
Leave it vacant? “It troubles me that we will end up with a huge piece of concrete,” an Akron resident said at a public hearing. “I’m afraid it will look like a parking lot at Rolling Acres Mall [an abandoned site].” Open it for development — when the city already lots of vacant office space? Something else?
Jonathan Morschl, a designer by trade and engaged-citizen by avocation, proposed turning the property into an urban mountain-bike park. “We had community forums, where the main idea was to activate the area as a public space,” he told me. “My idea was to add it to what people already appreciate, which is our park system — the biking and hiking trails. As we took that thought and applied it to all the vacant land, the idea emerged of the urban mountain-biking park area.” That is what Knight is giving $120,000 to support.
Morschl pointed out that the newly available land is near existing towpath trails. “People could be on that trail, then hop off and use the park — or it could attract more people to come downtown. Hopefully it could reconnect the fabric that was disrupted when the highway was first put in.”
When I asked him if there were any drawings or schematics of what he had in mind, Morschl said no — but that a similar under-freeway park in Seattle illustrated the possibilities. Here is what that looks like, underneath I-5:
Like the many other libraries we have seen (and Deb Fallows has described) around the country, the public library system in Lexington, Kentucky, is involved in a lot of ambitious civic-engagement projects.
“Our Central Library is literally at the center of Lexington,” Anne Donworth, development officer of the library system, told me. But around it is a concrete-heavy urban space, and Phoenix Park, which she said often is a gathering place for an “at-risk population,” including street people and the mentally ill.
“We would like to bring the library out, and the park in,” she said. By this she meant bringing some library attractions and services outside its walls into the surrounding park. “We can take reading materials out, wifi hot spots, librarians to provide services.” Inside, the library offers services like those Deb has described in other parts of the country: an art gallery, a theater, homework help for students, a range of classes.
“We want to make this as inviting and user-friendly a space as we can,” Donworth said. “We’d like to activate this whole space, get more people downtown, and make it a place where people of diverse backgrounds can learn and play together. Because of where we are located this can make entire downtown more inviting.” Knight has committed $150,000 toward this end.
I haven’t seen any of these sites first-hand, but will try to visit some of them and the other 34 on Knight’s new awardees list. There’s a lot of action, and engagement, going on all around the country.
During our West Coast travels for American Futures reports in the winter of 2014-2015, my wife Deb and I were based at the University of Redlands, in southern California. From there we did reports on neighboring San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, and Winters in California; Ajo, Arizona; central Oregon; and other locales.
This weekend Deb was back at the university as one of their honorees at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. In the clip above you see the U of R’s president Ralph Kuncl and dean Fred Rabinowitz introducing Deb and describing her writing about China, America, and other topics. Then she speaks for three minutes about lessons for life, working in a reference to the importance of microbreweries. She ends with a message all young grads need to hear (“Call your parents! They miss you”), and then turns the stage over to Jane Goodall, with a powerfully understated commencement speech about environmental responsibility.
The video above covers the whole three-hour span. It should be cued to start at around time 1:05:00 with Deb’s part in the ceremony; Jane Goodall is introduced starting around time 1:15:00, and she gets a big laugh out of the entire crowd for a riff that begins at around 1:21:30.
Georgia had an early surge of the virus, and now cases are spiking again. Brian Kemp has refused to learn a thing.
America has botched its coronavirus response in so, so many ways since the pandemic began. Even in a country that stands apart from the world for its horrific failures, there have been as many leadership bungles as there are states: Some failed to heed early warnings. Others refused to learn the lessons of outbreaks that came before theirs. Still others played politics instead of following science. And then there’s Georgia.
Georgia’s response to the pandemic has not been going well. It was bad from the beginning: Back in early April, weeks after other states took initial precautions, Georgia dawdled toward a shutdown while its coronavirus cases surged. Still, less than a month later, the state chose to be among the first in the nation to reopen, bringing back businesses known to accelerate the virus’s spread, such as restaurants and gyms, even though new infections had never made a significant or sustained decline. In June, the state welcomed back bars. What happened next was predictable, and was predicted: Case counts came roaring back. More people got sick and died. Many of these deaths were preventable. The state now has the sixth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, behind five states with significantly larger populations.
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
The Biden vice-presidential-nominee finalist discusses Trump’s pandemic response, Benghazi, and her family’s politics.
A few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice held a press briefing in her office to talk about the threats she saw on the horizon as Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close. “What keeps you up at night? one reporter asked toward the end of the meeting. Her answer: a pandemic that spirals out of control.
Yesterday afternoon, I asked Rice how the past five months have compared to what she’d been worried about in the early days of 2017. “This is about in the realm of my worst nightmare,” she told me. That’s why, Rice said, she worked to put together plans, and why she oversaw the creation of the pandemic-preparedness office that Trump famously closed. “We knew it was going to happen. We just couldn’t know when.”
Three predictions for what the future might look like
In March, tens of millions of American workers—mostly in white-collar industries such as tech, finance, and media—were thrust into a sudden, chaotic experiment in working from home. Four months later, the experiment isn’t close to ending. For many, the test run is looking more like the long run.
Google announced in July that its roughly 200,000 employees will continue to work from home until at least next summer. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to be remote within the decade. Twitter has told staff they can stay home permanently.
With corporate giants welcoming far-flung workforces, real-estate markets in the superstar cities that combine high-paid work and high-cost housing are in turmoil. In the San Francisco Bay Area, rents are tumbling. In New York City, offices are still empty; so many well-heeled families with second homes have abandoned Manhattan that it’s causing headaches for the census.
A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million.
How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else
From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.
I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. One very cold morning just after Thanksgiving in 2006, I was on the way to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being bait-and-switched when their employee-ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.
The comedian’s employees say that fame has enabled callousness and abuse on her show. The warm testimonies of her superstar friends highlight their point.
Famous people want the world to know that Ellen DeGeneres is nice to famous people. Addressing media reports alleging a culture of harassment and bullying at DeGeneres’s talk show, the singer Katy Perry tweeted Tuesday that she’s “only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen.” Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton, and the superstar agent Scooter Braun have all recently made similar declarations about DeGeneres’s kindness, so as to push back against claims painting her as callous toward staffers, fans, and other entertainment-industry figures. “Looking forward to the future where we get back to loving one another,” Hart wrote, blasting those who have criticized DeGeneres and called for her to step down. “This hate shit has to stop.”
A white man of the Jim Crow South, he couldn’t escape the burden of race, yet derived creative force from it.
In June 2005, Oprah Winfrey announced a surprising choice as the 55th selection for her influential book club. The coming months would be, she proclaimed, a “Summer of Faulkner,” focused on three of his novels—As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August, available in a special 1,100-page box set weighing in at two pounds. Oprah’s website posted short videotaped lectures by three literature professors to assist readers in making sense of the writer’s notoriously demanding prose. The Faulkner trilogy quickly rose to the No. 2 spot on Amazon’s best-seller list. Some literary critics hailed Winfrey for bringing William Faulkner back into popular consciousness; others challenged any notion of recovery or revival, asking whether he had ever really gone away.
Reopening universities will accomplish little and endanger many.
Despite the continuedspread of the coronavirus, many colleges around the country plan to welcome students back to campus over the coming weeks.
Colleges want to reopen for good, nontrivial reasons. Administrators believe that most students learn better when they are physically assembled in the same place. And they know that the American college experience, at any rate, has long been about more than the classroom. It allows students to cut the umbilical cord, make friends with like-minded people, and pursue extracurricular activities—all of which are much harder to do if your freshman year consists of joining Zoom sessions from your parents’ basement. Many universities also face serious financial problems. If they are unable to reopen this fall, some may collapse.