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.
In one way or another, all Clinton-era “scandals” trace back to Whitewater. That was the late-1970s Arkansas real estate deal that prompted an investigative crusade by the NYT during Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992 and well into his first term. Congressional and special-prosecutor investigations followed. Whitewater was one of the matters Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster was dealing with at the time of his suicide. It was how special prosecutor Kenneth Starr first got onto the Clintons’ trail. The strongest case that it was all a misbegotten and cynical anti-Clinton effort was made by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason in their 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. I find their argument convincing; judge for yourself.
But if you were ever wondering, where did this all happen?, I am here to help. The scene above is of a serpentine portion of the White River in central Arkansas, namesake of Whitewater, as it appeared yesterday on a steamy June afternoon, looking southward out the left window from an altitude of 4,500 feet. This part of the river, in the vicinity of Searcy, is about 100 miles south of the hillier and more wooded area where the actual Whitewater development was located. Still: White(River)water!
Similarly on the rivers-from-above theme, here is the mighty Mississippi, looking toward to the north yesterday out the right window. This bend is near the corner where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri come together, with Arkansas not far to the south and the southern tip of Illinois at Cairo just to the north:
And looking south toward the Red River. The area on the near side of the river is Oklahoma; on the other side, Texas.
While I’m at it, a non-riverine view of Arkansas farm land, south of Jonesboro.
That is all. This is in preparation for upcoming reports from Texas and Kansas.
(America by Air archive here. Submission guidelines here.)
One of my favorite features of our American Futures project is the occasional serendipity of crossing the path of some surprising, remarkable person. Like Jerrie Mock, the Columbus, Ohio, housewife who was the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964, in her Cessna 180. Or abolitionist and suffragist Eliza Tibbets, who started the navel orange industry in Riverside, California, from two small seedlings that she nurtured from her dishpan water. Or Joe Max Higgins, the tougher-than-nails sheriff’s son from Arkansas, who brought $5 billion of new heavy industry to the Golden Triangle of Northeast Mississippi.
Now there is Bobby Q. Narcho, a Tohono O’odham tribal member, who grew up on the reservation, colloquially called “the res,” in Sells, Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Bobby took naturally to taking pictures and making music and spent a lot of his youth doing that. In what he calls his “breakout project” at the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a group dedicated to the sustainability of the health and culture of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Bobby caught the eye of his teacher, a professional photographer. He was able to earn a few paychecks through his talent, and invested it in an iPhone.
With that iPhone, still his only tool, Bobby started making videos for Facebook and Instagram. “Back in the day,” this 24-year-old says, straight-faced, he would share his 15-second videos on Instagram.
Bobby moved to Ajo, about 70 miles from Sells, to be near his cousin, Victor Garcia, who is also an artist. Now, Bobby has five different jobs and seems to be connected with almost everything going on in Ajo, which isn’t that hard in a town of only 2,300 folks. One connection, Lily Williams at the Desert Senita Health Center, who oversees Bobby’s work at the Edible Ajo Schoolyard project (EASY), encouraged Bobby to join a digital storytelling workshop sponsored by the Center’s Plan4Health grant. The theme was biking, a popular new focus in Ajo, and health. Before I tell you the rest of the story, please—please!—watch Bobby’s three-minute video:
Bobby’s idea was to make a one-shoot short film about his personal story of health and biking, and one that is grounded in his Tohono O’odham traditions. The story of health, as he describes in the video, comes from the “signs of sickness in his people,” meaning diabetes, and from seeing signs of sickness in himself. (The 28,000 member Tohono O’odham tribe has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world: about 50 percent.)
The story of biking is Bobby’s decision to take his health into his own hands and start exercising. It’s grounded in the Tohono tradition of starting the day in a healthy and meaningful way, as his forefathers did, by “running east, toward the sunrise” (or in Bobby’s case, biking) and by burning sage as an offering of thanks to his creator.
Bobby used only his iPhone, as his wifi connections were too unstable to support the workshop’s video software. Bobby and his cousin Victor set out on their bikes; Victor shot the middle scenes of Bobby biking, and Bobby shot the slow scenes. Bobby also composed and produced all the music with GarageBand for the iPhone.
And how is Bobby’s healthy new focus for his life going so far? Fine, he said, until he got a flat tire. Now Bobby needs a new tube and tire. Until then, he told me, he’s getting by with walking, and healthy eating, and doing some home exercises.
Bobby managed to produce this video and music, from self-taught beginnings, with only an iPhone and a cousin. I am confident he can manage to get a new bike tire and get back on track to his health. Watch for this name: Bobby Q. Narcho.
Over the years my wife Deb and I have frequently mentioned the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. You can read about some of its successes in posts collected here, and about its recent funding challenges here.
A reader who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, where the school is based, and graduated from MSMS writes about why its survival matters:
I cannot pass up the opportunity to thank you for the coverage you have granted my little hometown, and particularly my alma mater, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science -- or as I like to describe it, the last, best hope for public STEM education in Mississippi.
The faculty, staff, alumni, and students know how desperately the services of such a center of educational excellence is needed statewide, but with the resources available, it's hard to even keep the core of the school operational.
One comment with an eye to the future: I'm glad you find the "one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school's private fundraising" touching. However, one of my dreams is that someday the Foundation can move to a large-budget, literally industrial-scale donation model. Only with a larger budget can the true needs be met for the deserving students hailing from some of the most underperforming districts in the nation.
Despite the negative press frequently generated by the state government, I live in hope that such coverage as you provide accelerates the process of acquiring the attention of those with the means to make a difference. Under the day-to-day inanities, there is struggle and value and hope amongst the sleepy towns, like flowers struggling to grow through the cracks; and I hope they get their chance -- as I did.
Over the past two years my wife Deb and I have reported frequently on the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in the eastern Mississippi town of Columbus. You can read two of Deb’s original posts here and here; one by me here; and a collection of all reports from the region here.
MSMS, as it’s known, is a two-year, public, residential high school for talented students from across the state, based on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women, known as “the W.” The students are drawn from Mississippi’s full racial, economic, and geographic range.
As Deb said in an early report, “The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.” Nearly all of them go off to college. During last fall’s selection of Rhodes Scholars, Ericka Wheeler became the first-ever African-American woman to be chosen from Mississippi. She is an MSMS alum.
This week Bracey Harris of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson reported that MSMS has been steadily cutting its enrollment. The reason is not a lack of applicants — on the contrary — but rather cutbacks in funding from the state Department of Education. Sample:
The last time MSMS was near its full capacity of 275-300 students was five years ago.
Wade Leonard, a spokesman for MSMS, said enrollment has been scaled back by 12 percent from 271 students during the 2011-12 school year to 238 students for the 2016-17 school year.
If more funding is not received, the school’s class size is expected to drop to 220 by the 2017-18 year, an all-time low….
As a statewide special school, MSMS can’t draw on normal local school-tax revenues and depends on grants from the Department of Education and private donors. I found one other part of the Clarion-Ledger story impressive, and touching, in explaining the one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school’s private fund-raising:
The upcoming class of 2017 would have been trimmed by four students if not for donations from Chad Edmonson, a 1999 graduate, and the MSMS Foundation. [More about him here.]
Edmonson’s gift of roughly $60,000 allowed MSMS to accept three more students, while an additional $36,000 raised by the foundation made it possible for a fourth student to attend the school….
Active in the MSMS Foundation, Edmonson recalled how his jaw dropped when he learned of the decrease in enrollment.
“It was shocking because it was more on the side of 280-290 students when I was in school. That’s such a dramatic drop in that it was a directional change. (I started thinking) about the school not being open anymore. After the board meeting, I agreed to make a donation.”
Here’s another statement about what the school means, from India Yarborough, a recent alum (and daughter of an MSMS teacher, Chuck Yarborough), writing in the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus:
By offering advanced courses in all subjects, this beacon of excellence attracts Mississippi's best students and provides them an environment where they can flourish. This in a state where academic excellence is often not expected and too seldom found.
Without essential support, MSMS will flounder in its efforts to elevate the student from the Delta who dreams of pursuing medicine, or lift the poverty-stricken student from the Pine Belt who hopes for a brighter future through education.
We’ve reported on positive developments around the country, and also on setbacks and challenges. This is another challenge, for a state and students with a lot of them.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a new collaboration between the filmmaker Ken Burns and the creators of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. They’re working together on a prize in Burns’s name, to recognize artists, historians, or other cultural and civic leaders who have advanced modern awareness of the American idea. “The American Idea” is the Atlantic’s favorite term for this concept, that being part of our magazine’s founding charter; the Prairie Reserve people use the term “American spirit,” but we’re talking about the same thing.
In that item and other reports on the APR, I’ve mentioned their non-traditional, market-minded approach to protecting plant and animal life and recreating, across millions of acres, something like the pre-Lewis & Clark plains bioscape. In response, reader W.B. sent in a lead to a Library of Economic Liberty podcast last fall, in which Peter Geddes of the APR talks with economist Russ Roberts about the economic logic of the undertaking. The podcast is an hour long, and a transcription accompanies it. I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the long-term economics of sustainability. (Which was also the theme of my Al Gore piece last fall.)
Two samples. One, about the proper scale of the Reserve:
Roberts: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough?
Geddes: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great.
So, again, Northeastern Montana is a place that has had fewer people today than when Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Closing of the American Frontier” back in 1876. Way fewer than, less than 1 person per square mile. So you've got to pick places for conservation where: a). you have the right habitat conditions; b). you have the right sociology, the right demographics, I guess, so that it's not a place that is getting an influx of people but rather an outflux of people; and c). where you can actually afford to buy the land.
Next, they talk about not just coexisting but cooperating with the cattle ranchers who are now are the major economic and cultural figures in the area. Geddes explains the “Wild Sky” branding program, which offers a higher price-per-pound to ranchers who abide by certain wildlife-friendly practices:
Geddes: The key thing to growing wildlife numbers, and this is not unique to our project, in fact happens all around the world, is to minimize human conflict. And in most places, people view wildlife as a cost rather than an economic benefit.
Six or seven years ago members of our team were over in Africa and they were travelling around to various camps, and they came to one in Namibia where the wildlife park, their parks over there, game parks, had figured out a way to live with cheetahs, and make the local communities, the beneficiaries of having cheetahs on their land rather than the enemies of that. There are all sorts of work that's been done in Africa for the last 20 years to try to flip this dynamic.
So, we imported those ideas back to the American Prairie Reserve; and we bought a beef company. Some of our critics think we are anti-cows, but we actually own a cattle company. And the idea is: Neighboring ranchers who want to participate in our Wild Sky Beef program, in exchange for operating their livestock in a more wildlife-friendly way.. we've paid them a premium for their cattle when we buy them in fall or in the spring.
And it's kind of like a frequent flier program at Delta or United. You can be silver, gold, diamond, platinum, medallion, whatever it is. And as you move up that frequent-flier status, that means you are more tolerant of wildlife. So that the top of the food chain is you agree to have grizzly bears on your property. And the amount of money that you get for going ever higher in your frequent flier status increases over time.
And again, this is an attempt to--first, it recognizes that we are going to have holdouts in the American Prairie Reserve, for a very long time. We are going to have people on the periphery who are going to be cattle ranchers. Indeed, we are going to be surrounded by about a half million head of cows when we are completely finished.
We've got to make things go well for those people. So we need to figure out a way where we don't compromise on the biodiversity values that we want; and again, so that people see our wildlife, our wildlife that's spilling over from the reserve onto their land, as a benefit rather than a cost….
Instead of selling soap or shampoo or coffee, we've tried to--we've picked a business that fits with the local culture, that recognizes that these are people who love being cowboys and cowgirls, and they will for a very, very long time. So, trying to figure out a way to make, saying, 'Stick with the local culture.' And for these ranchers to see economic benefit.
There’s a lot more in the discussion, which explains many of the ambitions and challenges of the project — and offers a specimen of how usually-opposing interests might be reconciled.
My wife Deb Fallows has a new post up to kick off the next season of our American Futures series, on a surprising implication of a quasi-familiar urban development.
That development is the “locavore” / local-food movement. If your first thought is Portlandia, Deb offers a second thought, which is the public-health, economic, and cultural importance of the movement in a remote desert community with very serious nutrition-related health problems.
That community is Ajo, Arizona, which we’ve written about before. The regional population includes large numbers of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, plus members of the Tohono O’odham nation — groups with disproportionate rates of diabetes and related problems. As the story points out:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a report about Ajo, a grant recipient of its “Local Foods, Local Places” effort, describes in sobering terms: “The health of Ajo residents is a major concern for the community: high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are present, and food insecurity—especially among children and the elderly—is prevalent.”
More details in Deb’s story, and more reports about to begin.
Reader Monte Peterson, a seminarian in Ohio with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, writes to ask whether I am familiar with the theological resonances of this phrase. (Answer: No. I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence. But this particular phrase was not part of my mental or moral formation.)
Ms. Peterson writes:
“America already becoming great again.’ Are you familiar with the theological idea of ‘already and not yet’? [As above: No.]
Over and over, ‘articles in this series’ have reminded me of that idea--the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Now, this idea get interpreted in lots of ways, some troubling. But still, I find it a helpful description of the world as I understand it.
“The Kingdom” so often gets reduced to some cultural fantasy of heaven, with cherubs and clouds or “pie in the sky after we die”--when really it's something already here, among us, around us, in this life. And yet clearly it's not here yet--there is still so much pain and death and war and anxiety. So in the meantime, we wait with hope and we actively join in the work of bringing the kingdom to fruition--making the world a place where all God's children are fed, are cared for, are known.
We are called to become what we already are, as the Rev. Kevin Strickland recently said. The reports you have shared of small cities, businesses and schools that work well are part of this--and maybe even the citrus IPA's, of which I am a fan!
I realize this is more “God” talk than I've ever read in your columns, and could well be more than you're comfortable with. Nevertheless, I still think that theological ideas have something to contribute to our civic conversation, so I'm offering this up.
To which I say, Thanks, and I will reflect upon this.
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.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
The U.S. could have hundreds of thousands of fewer births next year than it would have in the absence of a pandemic.
By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the “COVIDbabybust.”
One would think that a baby bust would take at least nine months to reveal itself, but traces of one seem to have already appeared. As Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has noted, births started to decline in California and Florida during the summer. That’d be too soon, though, to reflect a drop in conceptions during the pandemic, or a rise in abortions or miscarriages (which tend to happenearlier on in pregnancy). Three possible explanations, Cohen told me, are errors or lags in states’ data on births, large numbers of pregnant people moving during the pandemic and giving birth in another state, or a large, unexpected drop-off in births that was already going to happen regardless of the pandemic.
“We are on an absolutely catastrophic path,” said a COVID-19 doctor at America’s best-prepared hospital.
Perhaps no hospital in the United States was better prepared for a pandemic than the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. The people on staff had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere.
When Fox News called Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden shortly after the polls closed there on Election Night, right-wing social media erupted in fury. Fox is the most conservative of the nation’s major news outlets, and its aggressive Arizona call—which most other national outlets did not follow for days—left true believers on the right feeling betrayed. On the social-media app Parler, which has been gaining popularity among supporters of President Donald Trump, posts alleging electoral irregularities mixed with assorted hashtags decrying Fox itself: #BOYCOTTFOXNEWS, #DUMPFOXNEWS, #FAKEFOXNEWS, #FOXNEWSISDEAD, and #FOXNEWSSUCKS. Throughout Election Day, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been cracking down on a flurry of allegations about voter fraud in Arizona; the platforms quickly applied warning labels to new posts containing false or disputed information and reduced the distribution of groups spreading them. In response, pro-Trump influencers exhorted their followers to congregate on Parler, which tells users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”
Growing up in fear of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
The question shouldn’t be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon—and those are not the same thing.
As Donald Trump’s tenure in office comes in for its landing, a major question is whether the president—facing questions about liability for offenses including bank and tax fraud—can pardon himself.
This might seem like the right operational question, but it is imprecise as a constitutional one. Article II of the Constitution says that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Did you catch that? The president has the power not to pardon people, but “to grant … Pardons” (emphasis added). So the question is not whether Trump can pardon himself. It’s whether he can grant himself a pardon.
The president convinced many voters that his response to the pandemic was not a disaster. The psychology of medical fraud is simple, timeless, and tragic.
At some basic level, Americans do seem to agree that the coronavirus is a major threat. Despite attempts to politicize and divide us on the pandemic, we are at least united in anxiety. In September, a survey of almost 4,000 Americans found that only 12 percent disagreed with requiring masks in public. Fully 70 percent wanted the government to do more to protect people, and only 8 percent wanted it to do less.
Since then, though, the government under President Donald Trump has done less. The U.S. has suffered the most documented coronavirus deaths in the world, by far. The Trump administration has continued to downplay and ignore the virus as its spread has accelerated in almost every region of the country. On Wednesday, the U.S. shattered the world record for daily coronavirus cases by topping 100,000 for the first time—only to break the record again each subsequent day until a Saturday high of 128,000. Field hospitals and makeshift morgues are appearing around the country. Daily death counts have risen to more than 1,000.
Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.
Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.
That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.
Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.
There is no perfectly safe way to gather. That said, here’s how to make the holiday less dangerous.
Most years, in the anxious days before Thanksgiving, I write a health-related FAQ. It’s meant to be fun, reminding us of the timeless risks that spike every year around this day, such as Salmonella poisoning and fires from exploding turkeys.
This year is different. On Thursday, the CDC advised Americans not to congregate with people outside their immediate household. If anything, the advisory understated the risk at hand, saying that “travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.” Travel does increase your risk. It should have read: Do not travel.Do not gather. Effectively, Thanksgiving is canceled. Just wait one year, and then have a basically normal holiday. If everyone in the United States did this, we’d likely save thousands of lives.
In delaying the transition, the General Services Administration chief is acting like an ideologue.
I don’t know for certain that Emily Murphy gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says to herself, “You are a good person.” But I am willing to bet that she does. Most people in her position—most people who are undermining the rules of their group, destroying their institution, harming their society—are doing so because they have become convinced that they are good people, virtuous people, brave people, dedicated people. Nothing suggests that Murphy is an exception.
Murphy is the head of the General Services Administration, the unglamorous bit of the federal government that actually runs the federal government. Part of her job—a part that no one has ever before considered controversial or even noteworthy—is to “ascertain” who has won the U.S. presidential election, and then to release the congressionally mandated funds that allow the winner to begin his transition. Usually, that process also unlocks cooperation between incoming and outgoing officials. Before leaving office in 2017, aides to Barack Obama had prepared elaborate explanations of the state of the world, including a 69-page playbook for how to manage a pandemic. They handed the documents over to Donald Trump’s transition team, which ignored them.