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.
This afternoon at the annual conference of New America, in Washington, I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren give a speech about how to deal with the economic dislocations of the “gig economy.”
The text is here (in PDF), and it’s actually worth reading. “Actually” in that it was neither just a bleat/complaint about the injustices of the new tech economy nor a simple assurance that technology and innovation will solve all the problems they create. (Ie, that the long-term arc of creative destruction will always bend toward greater creativity.)
Instead Warren addressed the question I said was on my mind, at the end of my March issue article. That was the Second Gilded Age question: if the dislocations, the inequalities, the injustices, but also the possibilities of this era of high-speed technical change parallel those of 125 years ago, is there any hope or guidance to be drawn from the responses of the Progressive era through the New Deal?
Lots of scholars and writers have taken their cracks as the topic — one obvious example is Paul Starr’s “How Gilded Ages End” — always with proper cautions that history never quite repeats itself. Without belaboring the historiography, Elizabeth Warren made the main, simple point: technology creates new wealth and opportunities, and vibrant economies have always embraced it. But policy shapes how the wealth is shared, and how the inevitable pain and damage of rapid change can be minimized. As she put it:
It’s exciting—and very hip—to talk about Uber and Lyft and Taskrabbit, but the promise and risks of these companies isn’t new. For centuries, technological advances have helped create new wealth and have increased GDP. But it is policy – rules and regulations – that will determine whether workers have a meaningful opportunity to share in that new wealth.
A century ago, the industrial revolution radically altered the American economy. Millions moved from farms to factories. These sweeping changes in our economy generated enormous wealth.
They also wreaked havoc on workers and their families. Workplaces were monstrously unsafe. Wages were paltry and hours were grueling.
America’s response wasn’t to abandon the technological innovations and improvements of the industrial revolution. We didn’t send everyone back to their farms. No. Instead, we came together, and through our government we changed public policies to adapt to a changing economy – to keep the good and get rid of much of the bad.
The list of new laws and regulations was long: A minimum wage. Workplace safety. Workers compensation. Child labor laws. The 40-hour workweek. Social Security. The right to unionize.
But each of these changes made a profound difference. They put guardrails around the ability of giant corporations to exploit workers to generate additional profits at any cost. They helped make sure that part of the increased wealth generated by innovation would be used to build a strong middle class.
Warren’s speech doesn’t answer all these questions, but at least it’s a beginning. It’s worth reading and using as a benchmark for what the U.S. might do, if it wanted to do something to maximize the creativity and minimize the destruction of this era.
Bonus, on why national-level policy would be useful:
Wherever possible, [we should] streamline laws at the federal level so that employers operating across state lines don’t have to jump through a crazy number of hoops when they employ workers from more than one state. A small business owner with workers in several states shouldn’t have to spend her valuable time struggling to master different state regulations.
After Warren, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, also spoke at the conference. I don’t see any version of his speech online any place right now, but if you come across it sometime: please compare his version of a “response” to today’s challenges with Warren’s.
For the record: #1, I’m involved with New America, having been the chairman of its board for its first eight years of existence (and still being on the board). #2, one of my sons is a director at Uber.
Americans … are strikingly pessimistic about the national economy yet comparatively upbeat about their own financial circumstances.
Just 42 percent of adults describe the U.S. economy as good, according to a survey released Wednesday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But two-thirds say their own households are faring well.
Ongoing theme in this space: the United States faces serious economic, political, and social challenges in this, its Second Gilded Age. But surprisingly large numbers of individuals, families, communities, and institutions feel as if the parts of the country they experience directly are figuring out ways to deal with the challenges, rather than just being crushed. Meanwhile the media and political temper of the times leads many people to assume that their local successes must be fortunate anomalies in a landscape that overall is bleak.
Serious challenges, yes; bleakness, no — this is something people recognize about their own communities, and I think should about the country.
On the value-of-upbeatness front, I’ll take this opportunity to note that today would have been the 91st birthday of my father, Dr. James A. Fallows, known in his boyhood, for good reason, as Sunny Jim.
Short version of his analysis: most Americans think that they themselves are doing better, but the country as a whole is going to hell:
What is equally striking about this election year is how little this growing economic optimism has affected broader assessments of the direction of the country.
Matthew Yglesias in Vox says more about John Sides’s findings too. Including this point on how there can be a politically salient expression of rage by some part of the electorate, when on the whole Americans are not feeling betrayed or left behind:
Obviously an average is an average (it is worth noting that the positive trend is evident for all income groups), and in a big country you can still have enormous pockets of anger and discontent alongside an overall atmosphere of placidity.
In most domains that aren't politics, attracting a passionate minority following is a perfectly good business strategy. It's a great way to secure ratings for a television show, for example, whether it's The Apprentice or The Sean Hannity Show. But in politics you need a majority, and it doesn't seem to be the case that the majority is feeling some historically anomalous level of economic discontent.
More explanation another time (I’m on the road overseas) — or, you can check out my March issue article, or the other items in this thread. Sketched-out hypothesis: having been caught by surprise (as I was too) by Trump’s popularity, many reporters over-interpreted it to believe that most Americans (as opposed to an important minority) were as convinced as he was that the country was in ashes and that nothing went right any more.
I’ve mentioned several times how interested I’ve been in the American Prairie Reserve, in northern Montana. (And, yes, this is what I’d prefer to talk about on this latest primary-election night.) The beauty of the place is obvious, though still surprising to see in person. For me the fascination involves the match between what its creators are trying to do, and the era in which they’re trying to do it.
Their goal is to create what would be the largest natural reserve in the lower 48 states, of more than three million acres (or more than 5,000 square miles), and restore it to something like its pre-Lewis and Clark wildlife and vegetation, complete with large herds of free-roaming bison and other animals. Such grand efforts would be challenging at any time, but they are harder now than 130+ years ago, when Yellowstone Park was being created and human settlement had not yet left such a mark.
The APR’s route toward this end is a thoroughly modern “all of the above” approach. In part it relies on already protected public lands, with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of the Missouri at the heart of the envisioned reserve. In part it means gathering raising money to buy land for permanent protection. In part it is collaboration with the tribes from the large, adjoining reservations: Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east. And in very large part it means using market incentives to enlist neighboring ranchers in the effort. An organization called Wild Sky pays ranchers a premium for cattle raised with wildlife-friendly practices, from special kinds of fencing to a tolerance for wildlife and predators. In turn it sells Wild Sky beef as a premium brand at stores and restaurants around the country.
Last week the APR announced a new “Ken Burns Prize” program, named for the documentary filmmaker and designed to honor people whose work has “advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” I talked with Burns this morning by phone, to ask him how he got connected with the APR, and what this prize was about. A lightly edited version of our talk is below.
JF: How did you get involved with the American Prairie Reserve? What’s the connection between you, them, and this prize?
Ken Burns: “They’re in an area I know pretty well. For my Lewis and Clark project I felt compelled to retrace their steps in both directions, and more than once.
“I fell in love with the area. But I was also conscious of how difficult it was [when filming] to achieve the pristine perspective of Lewis and Clark. There was a fenceline of an old homestead here, a crumbling shack there, the cattle who were tagged and lowing contentedly in the field. There were highways and hydro dams and even the black cars of the servicemen who serviced the nuclear missile sites.
“So we were straining to find a sense of what Lewis and Clark saw. And we were amazed at how we spend so much time in our ADD existing flying over or avoiding the ‘boredom’ of what is our magnificent prairie.
“My National Parks film was being rebroadcast, and the Park Service essentially represents the federal government saying: Manifest Destiny is terrific, but let’s save a few of these places! Not every river needs to be dammed. Not every forest needs to be measured in board feet. Not every canyon needs to be mined for its mineral wealth.
“That impulse, of preserving the land, attracts me to it, and of course it’s a tremendous honor that they would create the prize in my name.”
JF: What about the approach the American Prairie Reserve is taking, with its mixture of market incentives and other tools?
Ken Burns: “I think you’ve got to develop a lot of strategies to accomplish anything in this area today. We’ve essentially run out of real estate. So we’re not talking any more about opening land to settlers, and saving this little piece of it. It’s a much more complex and sophisticated — and civilized operation that is going on.
“I don’t mean civilized as opposed to ‘uncivilized.’ I mean what happens when you get a complex society. These negotiations have to proceed with strategies that don’t at first blush seem clear-cut. This sort of re-ceding of the land [he spells it out to distinguish it from seeding] — this re-ceding of the prairie — is going to require creativity. And I am drawn to their approach.
“Not all of the attempts will be successful, not all will be without pushback and controversy. But we have the sense that committed individuals can carve out an area in one of our least populated regions and turn it to something like what it once was.
“At the time of Lewis and Clark it was said that a squirrel could climb a tree near the Atlantic coastline, and not touch ground before the Mississippi. The glory of the prairies is different from that. But we have the opportunity once again to have that shared glory.”
JF: Tell me more about “shared glory.”
Ken Burns: “In one way or another, every film I have worked on has been trying to work on this tension, between individual freedom and collective freedom—between what we need individually and what we need together. We can perceive that we live in a narcissistic age when it’s All About Me. But you can just look at a little girl seeing the falls in Yosemite and understand what our common wealth means.
“And not in any socialist way, but in the idea that we share things in common. We got out of the depression together, we’ve done many things together. We’d like to use this prize as a kind of megaphone to herald the good news of this project, and to celebrate a kind of American spirit that we think is concurrent with the values of the American Prairie Reserve.”
For the record, my wife Deb and I have no connection with the APR other than as interested observers, nor any with Ken Burns other than as long-time viewers. And right at the moment I’d prefer to think about this aspect of America rather than more immediate news.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
For most young people, the social and emotional benefits of taking masks off outdoors greatly outweigh the personal and public-health advantages of keeping them on.
As parents gradually reap the rewards of vaccination—including unmasking outdoors, socializing unmasked indoors with other vaccinated people, and abandoning anxiety about getting seriously ill—they’re wondering if they need to keep up pandemic precautions for their children’s sake.
I am a primary-care doctor, and the parents I talk with are deeply concerned about their communities; they also want to see their kids reengage in life. They want to liberate themselves from the intensity of pandemic child care and worry. I can empathize: I’m a mother of three.
Although emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine was granted this week for 12-to-15-year-olds, kids in this age group and younger ones don’t need to wait for freedom through shots. They can and should enjoy some benefits of our collective progress. That’s why I’ve begun telling my patients that their kids, vaccinated or not, do not need to wear masks outside—despite the fact that the CDC recently issued summer-camp guidelines that recommend kids wear masks whenever physical distancing is difficult, including outside. I know that parents in some communities get dirty looks at the playground if they let their kids run around without masks, but doing so is not a sign of recalcitrance; it’s a sign that they’re following the science.
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”
By early February 2020, China had effectively locked down tens of millions of its citizens. Entire hospitals were sprouting from scratch to cope with an onslaught of coronavirus cases there. The World Health Organization had just declared that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was a “public health emergency of international concern.” And on February 7, I went on a radio show and spent much of the segment discussing the economic implications of the ordeal for East Asia.
I often think about that segment now and wonder how I could have been so unimaginative. I was so focused on the desperate scenes in China that I failed to consider that similar scenes could soon transpire around the world. Why didn’t I grab the mic, dispense with the usual commentary, and issue an urgent plea for the world to wake up?
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.
Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home.
This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s.
The modern Republican Party does not tolerate criticism of its once—and current—leader.
One of the many Republican principles that Donald Trump obliterated was what was known as Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Like several of the stone-tablet dictates (the prohibitions on committing adultery and bearing false witness come to mind), this directive was lightly followed and rarely enforced—politics is a rough sport. But Reagan’s edict served the purpose of keeping internal GOP disputes from getting out of hand. Candidates and party leaders (including a former vice president named Dick Cheney) regularly used the line as a way to de-escalate intraparty fights.
Trump, of course, spares no one his vituperation. Insults are his shtick and his identity, and Republican voters love him for it. Just as he has remade the party in his image—on trade, on spending, on immigration, and on interventionism, among other policy areas—so too has he revised Reagan’s unwritten rule to apply not to fellow Republicans but to him alone. That commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of Donald Trump”—is the one that House Republicans enforced this morning when they ousted Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming as their conference chair in one of the more anticlimactic votes in recent memory. GOP lawmakers claim they removed Cheney because her refusal to let go of Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection amounted to “a distraction” in their attempt to regain the House majority. But anyone can see that her sin was far simpler: Cheney continues to call out Trump as a threat to democracy, and the party no longer abides such criticism—not from a party leader, and not publicly.
On Clubhouse, a black badge was meant to identify trolls. It’s become an emblem of the app’s dysfunctional moderation system.
To block someone on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is not, in the scheme of things, a big deal. You’ll no longer see them on the platform, they’ll no longer see you, and then you’ll both go on social networking, largely as you did before. Since your feed is made up of discrete posts personalized for you by an algorithm, blocking one person’s in particular can be a simple, unobtrusive action. It’s among the saving graces of a realm buffeted by bots and wracked with rancor.
But what if blocking didn’t, or couldn’t, work that way? The year-old social audio app Clubhouse is built on live group conversations: Everyone in a given “room”—a virtual space convened around a given topic—hears the same person speak at the same time, and that shared context forms the basis of all interactions. A conversation in which certain people’s voices are silenced for certain other people would be incoherent to all. So when Clubhouse went to develop its own blocking feature in the fall, in response to user outcries over rampant misogyny, anti-Semitism, and coronavirus misinformation, it had to come up with a new approach.
The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.
The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.
Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In February 2020, I traveled to New York to celebrate a zeroth birthday and an 80th birthday. First, I saw a close friend’s baby, who had been born only a month earlier. The next day, I went to my grandmother’s birthday party at a crowded Italian restaurant near Times Square.
I would say that this experience made me think about aging and what the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss (of all people) called “the Great Span”: the way that seemingly distant history is only a few lifetimes away. But this would be a writer’s white lie. I think about time’s bucket brigade probably too much, and I am constantly looking for tidy anecdotes. Weeks earlier, I had already written in the notes app of my phone: “When my friend’s baby is my grandmother’s age, it will be 2100.”
When the richest of the rich split up, the usual dilemmas are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and billion-dollar stock holdings.
When Bill and Melinda Gates announced on Monday that they would be ending their 27-year marriage, they tweeted intandem that they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple.” The reasoning wasn’t unusual for a 21st-century divorce, but their private emotional journey has highly atypical financial implications: Between their personal holdings and the charitable foundation they started together, the amount of money they control—somewhere around$180 billion—is roughly equal to the annual GDP of Kazakhstan or Qatar.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they launched 25 years after Bill co-founded Microsoft, is one of the biggest private charitable foundations in the world, with an endowment of about $50 billion. In a sense, the jobs of its 1,600 employees and its investments in malaria prevention and early-childhood education have rested on the bedrock of Bill and Melinda’s marriage.