Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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

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The Economic Logic of Preserving Wild Areas

Wild Sky Beef logo

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.

A small plot farmed by the Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ajo, Arizona (Deborah Fallows)

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.

From Clarion: A Journal of Spirituality and Justice

An ongoing theme in this space, most recently in discussion of citrus-flavored IPAs, is that America is “already becoming great again.”

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.

Pro-suffrage cartoon by Hy Mayer in Puck, in 1915. That was during the Progressive wave that followed the original Gilded Age. (Wikimedia)

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?

AP website, May 18, 2016

Previously in the Hmmmm series, please see this, this, this, this, and this. The theme of the poll reported in today’s AP story is summed up thus:

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.

Previously in the Hmmmm series, please see this, this, this, this. Now a very interesting analysis from John Sides in the WaPo:

From the Washington Post.

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.

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.

Congrats to all!

The Dequindre Cut in Detroit, one of the civic projects that has just won support in a nationwide competition sponsored by the Knight Foundation. (Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)

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.

Thus I was very interested to see the announcement yesterday from the John S and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, whose motto emphasizes its support for “informed and engaged communities,” of the winners of its Knight Cities Challenge Grant.

This Knight program is in its second cycle. Two years ago, it chose 32 winners. This time, it awarded a total of $5 million to 37 winning programs, chosen from 158 finalists and more than 4400 total entries.

According to Knight, they judged the entries on three main criteria:

Postcard of the old Clyde Iron Works in its prime, via Perfect Duluth Day.

As part of the unfolding saga of start-up businesses as the crucial creators of new jobs, and of particular start-ups like craft breweries (along with tech incubators, arts companies, manufacturing “maker spaces,” and others) in bringing life to fringe areas of recovering cities, I talked about the civic and economic role of the Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth, Minnesota.

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.

Duluth’s renaissance has been remarkable.

Citizen University (Alan Alabastro Photography)

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 ...

From Donald Trump’s rally in Bethpage, Long Island, this week. The saying on that sign is not one of the quotes I have in mind. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Quote one, from Michael Cohen’s report for the Boston Globe on the big Trump rally in Long Island. Emphasis added:

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….