On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.
Last night my wife Deb put up a report called “Little Town, Big Art.” It’s about how a surprisingly ambitious effort in The Arts—painting, sculpture, photography, drama, music, festivals (like the Pirate Festival underway this weekend), etc.—had given a very small place a much larger economic and cultural presence than it would otherwise have.
Here is a follow-up note on a less artsy aspect of that same place, Eastport, Maine. As I mentioned in this item, “The World Comes to a Tiny Town,” one of the ways in which this part of Down East Maine was connected to the world was by shipping pregnant cows across the Atlantic, mainly to Turkey. That business has become yet another casualty of the horrific warfare in Syria and its spillover effects into Turkey.
Bob Godfrey of Eastport, one of whose careers has been as a photographer, sends an email about the kind of surprise the pregnant cattle brought to his town:
In my Indiana photography business my largest client was an animal pharmaceutical company. As a result, I did a lot of photography of cattle. Little did I know that in Eastport tens of thousands of head of cattle would pass through this tiny place.
One day a couple of years ago I was having coffee, facing the window at the Happy Crab, when I noticed a black Angus running past the library! I was not drinking Irish coffee.
A cowboy showed up at the shore walk next to the WaCo Diner, threw the cow, and hogtied it. Several men rolled the animal onto a pallet, a fork lift raised the pallet onto a flatbed trailer, and the critter was trucked back to the port.
Apparently, even cattle can have second thoughts about crossing the ocean.
His note was titled “the Reluctant Bovine Sailor.” No larger point, just part of the surprises of our vast country—and a reason to point again to Deb’s new piece. Good wishes to Eastporters for this weekend’s Pirate Festival.
During our American Futures tour around the country over the past three years, Jim and I have seen libraries, one after another, stretching to engage the people in their communities. They sometimes work in surprising and quite un-library-like ways, at least by traditional measures.
For example, libraries become offices for entrepreneurs and start-ups. They are safe places for children, and sometimes offer supervised homework help and even meals. Librarians learn how to help patrons with health issues and personal financial challenges.
Libraries are hubs of technology, from helping library users print documents to sponsoring Maker Spaces. And they are centers for the community, providing space for citizenship classes or a corner for seed-lending programs for avid gardeners.
This week, more than 250 libraries and organizations around the country, and actually the world, are busy broadcasting the message of the new relevance of libraries in people’s communities and lives.
Outside the Lines is a week-long celebration of creative library events and experiences to introduce, or re-introduce libraries to their communities. The idea grew from a collaboration betweenpassionate Colorado library directors and marketers, including the Colorado State Library and Anythink Libraries, a public library system in Adams County, Colorado, Erica Grossman of Anythink described to me.
In Colorado, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife is partnering with the state libraries so that hikers can check out from their local library a week’s pass to the state’s parks, plus a backpack, binoculars, and park information. That effort began in June.
And my personal favorite, where Jim’s world and mine collide: Vermillion, South Dakota, is hosting a beer-and-books event. Go to the library’s beer garden (!) to grab an craft beer and meet the new library director. It’s Friday; don’t miss it!
Not to over-personalize, but I feel as if my life in the past few weeks recapitulates the argument my wife Deb and I have been making in our American Futures travels.
When I’ve been embroiled in national politics—which matter!— through magazine articles, or the Trump Time Capsules or Trump Nation series, I completely feel the embroiled-ness, and the embattlement, that this campaign has brought to the nation as a whole.
But then Deb and I get to go back to reporting on the aspects of current American life other than the national political struggle, and find that even now they remain surprisingly positive. (“Positive” in the same sense I argued in my cover story back in March: The country has big problems, but in much of the country, most of the time, people feel as if they are moving forward rather than backward in dealing with them.)
Two examples: Last week at this time, I was in Fresno, California, talking with representatives of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley about the ways their collaborative efforts matched patterns we’d seen elsewhere in the country, from Maine to Mississippi. I also had a chance to see how far and fast work has progressed on re-doing Fresno’s historic Fulton Street Mall, whose saga over the years you can read about starting here and here. The one sad note in Fresno is that Peeve’s Pub, whose founder Craig Scharton has been a central figure in Fresno’s re-imagining of itself, and whose ups and downs I’ve tried to chronicle, is in a down phase and has closed its doors. It is missed.
As a “Do not despair!” note to myself during the extremity of this presidential campaign; as a thought-organizer before this afternoon’s conference in Erie; and as a little glimpse for readers of the richness of what Deb and I have been finding around the country, here is a sample of the things we would already have written if the campaign weren’t destroying my brain, and that we will get to once it’s over.
From Erie and its environs:
the history of this Jefferson Society, which plays a very unusual role that could set an example for other cities with similar challenges;
the structural cruelty of the funding system for the Erie public schools, which should be a shame to the state of Pennsylvania and is a cautionary example for other parts of the country;
the role of a tech collaborative called Radius CoWork, and what it has done to make open new entrepreneurial possibilities in a city shifting out of its heavy-manufacturing, GE-dominated era;
how the local Behrend campus of Penn State has worked with advanced-manufacturing plants in the region to connect local workers with higher-wage skilled jobs;
why the company that is now the city’s largest private employer, Erie Insurance, has stayed in the area and redeveloped a significant chunk of downtown;
how a publication that started as a local alt-weekly has developed;
and some other things.
There’s a similar list of upcoming stories from western Kansas, including the surprising effects of the “Why not Dodge?” campaign in Dodge City, and the growth of local distilleries and breweries there. And more from Alabama, Texas, and beyond.
I tell myself, with 27 days to go until the election, Don’t despair! Better things are happening than what dominates the news—and has dominated my own recent output. I tell readers too: Don’t despair! Will provide more evidence for that assertion soon.
Over the past year-plus my wife Deb and I have been arguing that the “build a wall!”-style anti-immigration furor in Republican party politics does not match the lived reality of the parts of the United States where immigration is having the biggest and most obvious effect.
That’s part of the case I made in a cover story in March; that I wrote about in Dodge City, Kansas, in July; and that Deb chronicled in a visit with a Syrian refugee family in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August. Through American history, immigration has always been disruptive—at many periods, much more disruptive than it is now. At nearly every point in its history, people already present have viewed whatever group is most recently arrived as “different” and “worse” than the groups that had previously assimilated and generally succeeded. But compared with most other societies, the process of assimilation has continued to grind on in the United States, and overall (as I argue elsewhere) has been to the country’s enormous benefit.
Now the Atlantic’s video team has put out a great video treatment of this theme. It’s produced by Nic Pollock and was shot this summer in Dodge City, Erie, and also the San Joaquin Valley of California around Fresno.
I’ll have more to say about the video and the theme soon, but for now I say: I hope you’ll watch this. It’s the first of a series of videos that match national-level rhetoric on an election-year issue with the city-by-city reality of these difficult questions. I hope you find this interesting—and, well, moving, as we did in meeting the families you see here.
Again, think of the actual people you see in this video, as Deb and I cannot help doing, as you listen to the next “build a wall” speech.
This screenshot from the video is (a good) part of the on-the-road reporting experience, in this case at Ms. De La Torre’s tortilleria. With me is Ernestor De La Rosa, the city administrator in Dodge City whom I wrote about here.
I hope you'll check out the second in the series of short films that TheAtlantic’s video team has done with my wife Deb and me, as we’ve been on the move around the country during the election year. The first in the series is here, and my item describing it is here.
Both these videos, produced by TheAtlantic’s Nic Pollock, are meant to match issues that are prominent in the national campaign level with their city-by-city ramifications. This one has scenes from three cities coping with economic and social dislocations: Erie, Pennsylvania; Dodge City, Kansas; and Fresno, California.
You can see for yourself what it shows. But for me one very powerful theme that comes through is the generational contrast we’ve encountered again and again across the country.
It’s starkest in Erie: people in their 50s and 60s, or older, grew up expecting a steady job in a big factory. The last of those giant factories is slowly closing down—sending most of its jobs not to Mexico or China but to (gasp) Texas—and people who used to work there are mournful. People in their 20s and 30s never expected to have those jobs and are reacting differently. As you will see:
To extend a point we’ve made nonstop through these reports since 2013 and in my cover story earlier this year, the dislocations, the polarization, the pain, and the anger of America’s Second Gilded Age are real. But what’s also real is the sense in many (of course not all) parts of the country that a response is possible, that they can be agents of their own destiny, and their community’s, rather than just objects of crushing outside forces.
That is one of the motifs you’ll notice in this video. It touches on several others that we’re primed to start writing about again (as outlined here), if this election campaign ever ends and if I regain any control over my life: the breadth of the innovative efforts in Erie; the scale of the downtown redevelopment schemes in Fresno and the impact of tech centers like Bitwise (whose co-founder you’ll see in the film); the dramatic step Dodge City took years ago with its “Why Not Dodge” campaign, which is now having such effects.
For now, another look at the previous video in this series, about the difference between the national-level “build a wall!” fury with which immigration is discussed and the calmer tone in the places where significant numbers of immigrants and refugees are actually being absorbed:
National politics this cycle makes me feel worse. Exposure to the country outside politics should make anyone feel better. There is a lot going on.
Mainly we were talking about the election, immigration, the cycles of class friction through American history, the strategic and economic implications of TPP, and so on. But near the end, Chuck (whom I know from his days as editor of Hotline, part of the Atlantic combine) asked me where I’d like to live next.
The premise was: over the years my wife Deb and I, plus our kids when they were little, had lived in a sequence of foreign spots, reporting on what seemed interesting. What and where would be interesting next?
I hadn’t been expecting the question and just said, without thinking, “the interior of the United States.”
By “interior” I meant a shorthand for the places other than the handful of big coastal cities that dominate media awareness and the sense of chic: Boston to DC on the East Coast, Seattle to LA in the west, a courtesy extension to Miami and San Diego, and a smattering of others. Basically this media-mind-map creates a picture of the United States as if it were Australia, with the action all happening along the rim.
Of course a sense of excitement about the rest of the country reflects what Deb and I have been reporting in our travels these past few years, but it actually is something I believe more strongly the more I see. If you were traveling the country wide-eyed and mainly tuned out from the national political news, you would think this is a big, interesting, diverse civilization, in the process of dealing with and beginning to solve the many ills of the era.
Much as I wasn’t expecting the question, Chuck wasn’t expecting the answer, but we agreed and went on to some of the political and economic ramifications thereof.
Applications and nominations for the 2017 grants are open for one more week. You have until noon Eastern Time next Thursday, November 3, to apply on behalf of your neighborhood, civic organization, or community. Details here. It’s a good program and worth checking out.
Deb Fallows has a new post up, about what’s actually involved in settling immigrants from Syria—or Somalia or Congo or Bhutan—in the American cities that have taken the lead in doing so. It’s based on our reporting in Sioux Falls, Burlington, Erie, Fresno, Dodge City, and elsewhere. I encourage you to read it on general principles, and for these additional reasons:
1. More and more an axis in this campaign, and in the ongoing struggles to define what comes next for America, is a disagreement over whether America is better as a more racially and culturally diverse society, or as one that is more “traditional” homogeneous society.
Compared with most other developed societies, Americans are more pro-diversity. That is what a major Pew global survey found this year:
But within the United States, Democrats/Clinton supporters are dramatically more comfortable with this kind of change than Republicans and Trump supporters. From another Pew survey:
If you’d like to see those differences playing themselves out, I invite you to check out (warily) the comments section of Deb’s latest post, in which some people lambaste the menace of outsiders and others welcome them.
2. Our experience around the country has been that the more people are exposed to immigrants and refugees, the less panicked they are about them. I won’t try to give you a referenced-and-linked proof of that right now, though I will give a link to this video. I will say that it’s a powerful, consistent impression—and that, for instance, you’ll hear Donald Trump get lustier cheers for “Build that wall!” in New Hampshire or Iowa than you will in Texas or California.
I will also recommend this recent piece in the NYT from Garden City, Kansas, where we have also spent time. It’s about the recent white-nationalist plot to attack Somali refugees and immigrants there. Its theme, similar to what we have seen, was that the community itself was incorporating its new members, but people from elsewhere decided to deal with this alien “threat.”
(For the record, and for later discussion: Somalis and Sudanese are more obvious outsiders in western Kansas than the Mexican and other Latino immigrants who have been there for generations. The Somalis and Sudanese are more likely to arrive as unattached young men, rather than in families. They have much less of an established community to join. They are mainly Muslim, and thus more religiously foreign than the mainly Catholic Latino immigrants. The linguistic and cultural gap is wider. Still: it wasn’t people in Garden City itself who decided to plot against them.)
3. The former Wall Street figure, now photographer and writer (including for The Atlantic)Chris Arnade has been doing a series of travels across the country that are a kind of sine-wave complement to what Deb and I have been doing. He has been dramatizing the people harmed and left out by economic polarization; we’ve been aware of them but also talking about the people trying to find a way forward. These are two parts of a complex modern whole. Our views on the immigration front are more directly congruent than on some other topics. You can read about it in a tweet series by him, starting here.
Short version: we’re all saying that if you want to feel more encouraged about the possibilities in this country, do what has been true in most eras of our history: talk with people who have fought to make this the arena for their family’s futures.
4. Deb and I will be discussing these issues and others tomorrow morning, October 30, live from 8:30am ET to 9:15 on C-Span’s Washington Journal, with Steve Scully (who himself is from Erie). We’ll be on at the same time as the Marine Corps Marathon, which I used to run in back in its early days, and just before the Redskins-Bengals game from London.
Ann Coulter, whose views of America’s future and of immigration are … somewhat different, will also be on tomorrow, but not at the same time.
The Boston Globehad a story over the weekend about the never-say-die small city of Eastport, Maine. As we’ve been chronicling online for the past few years, and in this magazine story in early 2014, Eastport balances the difficulties and the opportunities of its unusual location, at the northeastern extreme of Down East Maine across a strait from Campobello Island in Canada.
Difficulty: it is so far from anyplace else. It’s two-plus hours by car from Bangor, four-plus from Portland. Opportunity: its distant setting is so pristine and beautiful, and so close to both the tidal-power potential of the Bay of Fundy and the touristic and marine-economy potential of the sea.
Difficulty: it has so few people, roughly 1,300, who are poorer-and-older than average even for a state that is overall poor and that has the highest median age of all states. Opportunity: so many of these few people have been so inventive in exploring arts-related, advanced-tech, recreational, environmental, and other possible futures for their town.
The Globe follows up on a twist in the Eastport economy I reported in early September: the way the ramifications of the warfare in Syria had reached even this seemingly insulated locale, plus how the bad luck of a collapsing breakfront has complicated the city’s efforts. Worth reading, for the combination of hardship and hope, and also for the very good photos and graphic illustration of the pregnant-cow trade.
As part of the Eastport story, it’s also worth checking out this piece by Deb in early September, about the surprisingly ambitious and large-scale arts scene in a little town. Among other characters you’ll meet Jenie Smith, the nephrologist who doubles as a coffee-bar owner (and whom we first saw as stage manager at the local playhouse, at a production of The Glass Menagerie). She provides a nice closing quote in the Globe piece. Also Richelle Gribelle, shown below, part of the artist-in-residence program in town.
Continued good luck and better fortune to the local patriots of Eastport, especially now as another winter comes on.
At its peak, nearly one century ago in 1920, the coal-mining industry employed nearly 800,000 people in the United States. Decade by decade, as America’s population has swelled and its economy has grown, and as total coal output as also increased, employment in coal mines has steadily fallen. (The one exception was in the late 1970s, immediately after the first “oil shocks,” when the number of miners rose from about 195,000 to about 230,000. By 1985, it was back down to 170,000.)
Presidential administrations come and go; energy and environmental policies change; but the one-way pressure of technology is such that the barely 80,000 people who now work in U.S. mines produce vastly more coal than 800,000 did a century ago. It’s no “war on coal.” It’s what has happened in the world since the dawn of the industrial age.
But of course the plight of the coal industry, which is all too real for the people affected, comes up frequently in political and economic discussions—compared with, say, the situation of dental hygienists, of whom there are more than twice as many as coal miners. Or of bus drivers, of whom there are nearly ten times as many.
Or, crucially, of those employed in the energy industries that come after coal: solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, and other renewable sources. Employment there is growing much faster than it’s shrinking in coal, yet somehow this is barely part of our political or state-of-America awareness. Employment in solar alone nearly doubled in just three years, from around 120,000 in 2012 to around 240,000 in 2015. That’s three times as many solar-industry employees as coal miners, but they have at best one-third the mind-share in media and politics.
This is understandable: what’s familiar, and fading, is easier to recognize than what’s new and just taking form. But it does distort the way Americans think (and feel) about so many things, starting with the overall balance between decline and renewal in the country.
This is the set-up for the next video in TheAtlantic’s election-season American Futures coverage. This one is from our familiar and favored stomping grounds of Erie, Pennsylvania; Fresno and environs in California; and Dodge City and neighboring Spearville in western Kansas.
In a different way in each of these different parts of the country, renewable energy is serving as the source for new companies and increased jobs. I think you will find this interesting:
For convenient one-stop shopping, here are previous videos in the series. This one is about the way immigrants and refugees are becoming part of existing communities, even in today’s direct political atmosphere.
And here is one about the generational divide in the hope/despair balance in many of the communities that have suffered from large-scale, long-term economic dislocations.
And while I’m at it, a related one from the “Golden Triangle” of Mississippi:
Thanks to Nic Pollock and the entire intrepid video team for telling this part of the modern American story.
I mentioned yesterday that several local initiatives could mean as much to their communities or states as the outcome of most national races. The two historical examples I naturally think of are from California, Propositions 13 and 187. Prop 13, which was passed nearly 40 years ago, strictly capped property taxes—and in so doing helped shift California’s public schools from among the best-funded in the country, as they were in my school days, to among the worst.
Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994, limited public services for illegal/undocumented immigrants. It was a Republican-backed measure, championed by then-governor Pete Wilson, and was very unpopular with Latinos. You can’t prove exact cause and effect, but there’s no denying this change: In the decades leading up to Prop 187, the California of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. Since then, coincident with its growing Latino population, California has been the Democrats’ most important bulwark. (In the 11 presidential elections from 1948 to 1992, Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, California went Democratic only twice. In every election since then the Democrat has won, with margins that keep going up.)
Two of the measures I mentioned yesterday were city-wide. One is San Bernardino’s long-overdue reform of its dysfunctional city charter, via Measure L on today’s ballot. The other is Stockton’s attempt, through its Measure M, to approve a very small (quarter-cent) sales tax increase to fund libraries and recreation centers for young people and families who now badly lack them.
Stockton, once a site of commercial and industrial wealth, has become one of California’s poorer cities. Many of its people are immigrants; the population mix is roughly “40/30/20/10,” or roughly 40% Latino, 30% white, 20% Asian, and 10% black. “We’re the most diverse medium-sized city in America,” Mas’ood Cajee, a Stockton dentist who is one of the leaders of the Yes on M movement, told me yesterday.
Many of these children start out with varied disadvantages: of family income, language, unsafe neighborhoods, underfunded schools. Through the past decade, as Stockton was hit like other inland-California cities by the sub-prime real-estate crisis and then by its municipal bankruptcy, funding for almost everything has been cut. That’s why I find it impressive that the city council voted unanimously to fund libraries and rec centers again, and that most local civic groups have supported it. I hope the voters agree today.
Why do I care about this? Partly because civic governance is at the moment more encouraging than national politics. And partly because Deb and I have seen other cities go through a similar process, with positive results.
Consider the example of Dodge City, Kansas. Dodge City and its environs in western Kansas are politically and culturally much more conservative than even inland parts of California. But their ethnic situation is similar—as we’ve discussed before, the meatpacking centers of Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal have become majority-Latino—and they also have faced civic challenges.
Dodge City’s answer, nearly twenty years ago, was something called the “Why Not Dodge” initiative. In 1997 the city’s voters approved a permanent sales-tax increase totaling one percent, with the proceeds to be used for long-term civic improvements. Now nearly everywhere you look in town, there’s another project funded by the ongoing flow of Why Not Dodge revenues. They include: a large public soccer complex; the Cavalier and Legends Park baseball and softball fields; an auto raceway; a new civic center; a large expo site; a brand new aquatics park, the Long Branch Lagoon, which was in very heavy use during our visits last summer; repairs on a historic railroad depot; and more.
In effect, a very conservative community voted itself an open-ended tax to pay for long-term infrastructure improvement. Why was this possible there, when its counterparts at the national level are gridlocked out of consideration?
“We may be ‘conservative.’ but we’re progressive,” Melissa McCoy, who grew up not far from Dodge City and is now the city’s Project Development Coordinator, told me. “There was a time when we had a really negative self-image as a town. But people thought, If we won’t invest in ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to? It was a matter of getting the community behind it and realizing that we needed to back ourselves up to get outside investment and support. Now we’re starting to see it pay off.”
I asked Joyce Warshaw, an elementary school principal who is Dodge City’s mayor, whether there was any mystery or contradiction in a politically conservative community enacting a permanent infrastructure-improvement tax. Warshaw is herself a Republican, who ran (but lost) in the GOP primary for the Kansas state senate this year.
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s been so beneficial for the city. This community is incredible in embracing things that need to happen for the city. I think many people saw how important it was to raise taxes just a minute little bit to raise our quality of life here in Dodge.” And to anticipate a question from those who haven’t been there: cities in this part of Kansas cannot define themselves in narrow ethnic-enclave terms. The railroad and cattle businesses have historically brought a range of people to western Kansas, and Dodge City is now majority Latino. (As Deb and I have discussed here, here, and here.)
We’re nearing poll-closing time here on the East Coast, and I won’t pause now to untangle the ways in which local-area communitarian impulses do and do not convey to the national level. That’s for later, at greater length.
The point for now, on election day, is to note that the work of investment and civic improvement still happens in the country; it just doesn’t seem that way, since national politics have been so discouraging. In this spirit, I hope that San Bernardino’s voters approve Measure L, to put their city on a better course; that the necessary super-majority of two-thirds of Stockton’s voters approve Measure M; that statewide voters defeat Proposition 53, which would hamstring big statewide investments; and that Dodge City’s investments continue to pay off.
As I head back to vote-watching, here is one more photo from Robert Dawson’s extraordinary series “Raising Literacy: A Photographic Survey of Libraries and Literacy in Stockton and San Joaquin County.” Dawson and Ellen Manchester have documented the role of libraries around the country and the world, including in his book The Public Library: An American Commons.
When you are an American living overseas, Thanksgiving is an even more powerful nationally unifying holiday than the Fourth of July. All the Americans know something special is going on; for everyone else, it’s just another Thursday. Even for non-Americans who are aware of the concept, the shifting date means they can’t quite keep it in mind, as they can with July 4. So the overseas bands of Yanks figure out where they can scrounge up our national-cuisine oddities like actual turkeys (usually we made do with great big chickens in Malaysia, and once a duck in China), cranberries, filling for pumpkin and pecan pies, etc. Even the tiny marshmallows to go with sweet potatoes. Then the American expats gather at someone’s home in the evening. Back in the days of VCRs, we would play a tape of some old football game for atmosphere.
This is on my mind because this is the first Thanksgiving that I will technically miss, for dateline reasons. I’ll get on a plane when it’s still Wednesday night in the U.S., and get off on the other side of the Pacific when Thursday is almost done. It’s a brief out-and-back trip and a long story, but “2016: The Year Without Thanksgiving” is an uncomfortably close match for my mood.
Nonetheless! As time allows in the coming days and weeks, I’ll put up some brief Thanksgiving-toned items about regrowth, recovery, resistance, reform, renovation, renaissance, and overall re-themed efforts at the local level. Let me start with this one now, which involves one of the towns that epitomized the mainly white, economically beset, distressed-manufacturing zones that were Donald Trump’s mainstay. This is our frequent haunt of Erie, Pennsylvania, long a Democratic stronghold that this time went narrowly for Trump. But even as the votes were being counted, the city had some good news.
The Erie area’s most important employer is no longer GE, which for years has been shedding jobs from its huge locomotive factory. Instead, it is Erie Insurance, a Fortune 500 company that was founded in the city in the 1920s and is still run with a very strong local-patriot sense. During election week it announced a $135 million new building project in the heart of Erie’s downtown, where its main campus is already located. This complements other downtown efforts, like the one I described earlier this fall.
In October, before this news came out, I asked Erie Insurance’s longtime chairman, Thomas Hagen, and its current CEO, Timothy NeCastro, why they had kept their growing business in this relatively remote location. “Our goal has been to do good things for our customers, and also for this community,” NeCastro said. Yes, sure, anyone could and would say that. But both Hagen and NeCastro went on to argue, as NeCastro put it, “we make plenty of money doing things according to our values. By setting out to do what we think is right for the customers, and this community, we find that we generate enough profits.”
I’ll have more to say about this very interesting company, which is run on the “reciprocal exchange” model that also applies to USAA and Farmers; Erie is No. 3 in size after those two. (In crude terms, you could think of this as an insurance-world counterpart to the Vanguard model of brokerage.) For me, what’s interesting about the company involves the way it has managed to run its national-scale operations and international talent-searches from its northwest Pennsylvania outpost, and how it imagines its long-term fortunes being connected to the town’s. That’s later; for our pre-Thanksgiving purposes, here is news of the expansion and background on the company’s evolution.
Also in local good news, I’ve mentioned the stark axis of generational differences in outlook in Erie. People in their 50s and 60s and above expected to work at the big factories, and bitterly feel the loss of those jobs. People in their 20s and 30s came of age when the factories were already on the way out, and they’re very prominent in the startup, advanced-manufacturing, and civic-engagement scene in Erie.
Last week one of the people we talked with several times in Erie announced his candidacy for mayor: That is Jay Breneman, a 34-year-old combat veteran of Iraq who is now on the county council. Obviously the choice about future leadership is one for Erie’s own people to make. My point is that the generational shift already evident in educational, technological, and non-profit parts of the community is extending to public life too. (And as Breneman and others are well aware, perhaps the most urgent task the city faces doesn’t involve crumbling factories at all. Instead it is the unjust state funding system that penalizes Erie’s schools. Pat Howard, opinion editor of the Erie Times-News, made the case very bluntly this past weekend. We’ll have more on this too, “soon.” )
Want a few more teaser items on a pre-Thanksgiving list? Well, here is the latest report from the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, on the dispersal of startups around the country, and an accompanying video. And here’s Steve Case to similar effect. And here’s something related from AutoDesk. And this from our friends in Fresno.
But that’s enough for now. I’ll squeeze my thankfulness into the few hours of Thursday remaining when I get off the plane.
This is the first of three posts on this New Year’s Day, building toward a change in (my part of) this space for the next few months.
First installment: quick updates on a few places and projects that my wife Deb and I have learned about in our American Futures travels these past few years.
Pittsburgh, Pa. The wonderful City of Asylum community, which Deb wrote about online here and which I described briefly in my cover story in March, has just won a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Congratulations! It’s an important and much-deserved recognition.
San Bernardino, Ca. Long before it was featured in global news because of the terror-related mass shooting a year ago, San Bernardino had struggled with one economic and political blow after another, as we reported here and here. The most dramatic downward step happened in the 1990s, when the enormous Norton Air Force Base, dominant employer when I was growing up in the area and long a bulwark of the regional economy, was closed for good.
This past month the San Bernardino Sunreported on a study showing that all the job loss from that closure has finally been recovered, and that the shift — largely to logistics operations for the likes of Amazon, the Stater Brothers grocery chain, and Kohl’s — has on a spending-power basis offset the loss of the base. The former Norton property is now San Bernardino International airport, SBD, which has itself become a major employer. I wrote about SBD several times, for instance here, when our propeller airplane was based at its Luxivair facility during our 2015 California travels; we’re headed there again soon. Through this past shopping-and-shipping season the San Bernardino airport won a major new UPS contract. The city of San Bernardino is now looking toward its post-civic-bankruptcy future, as Ryan Hagen of the Sun describes here. Good luck to a town that deserves much more of it.
Fresno and Clovis, Ca. I’ve talked about Fresno’s economic, cultural, technological, and downtown renovations in an endless series of posts; Deb has described schools there and in neighboring Clovis. Here’s a report on a big new environmental victory for Clovis; here’s a time-lapse video cam of the ambitious reconstruction work underway on Fresno’s downtown Fulton Street Mall; here are a few of the ever-expanding civic and tech activities of the training and incubator company Bitwise (including, topically for now, a seminar on how to avoid conflict and actually persuade in an era of polarized views); and here is the latest brewpub to announce its opening in Fresno’s reviving downtown. Happy New Year to all.
Eastport, Me. This fall the Boston Globehad a report on some of the plans, achievements, and frustrations we’ve been describing over the years in the little Down East city of Eastport, Maine. Now the Christian Science Monitoradds to the discussion of how climate shifts are affecting life in this part of the world.
Louisville, Ky. Back in June I reported on the exciting FirstBuild maker / prototyping / incubator facility in Louisville. Had the campaign (and China) not consumed so much of my life in the following months, I would have already said more about the stream of new products continuing to come onto the market from FirstBuild. During my visit I was intrigued by its Prisma cold-brew coffee maker, then still in early prototyping. The whole idea of the FirstBuild operation is to enable more Americans to make (and then sell) technically innovative, commercially viable, manufactured products. You can read about a range of the offerings, most based on crowdsourced pre-orders and funding, on FirstBuild’s blog and their Facebook page.
I’ve got a dozen more items on the update list, but these will have to do for now. There’s a lot happening inside the country. Happy New Year to everyone busily making America greater.
The Nest is a brilliantly cast thriller and one of the year’s best films.
In The Nest,a family moves into an English mansion in the countryside filled with opulent rooms, creaky staircases, and secret passages. The setup is familiar for a horror film: A happy couple buys a mysterious property and discovers, upon arrival, that something is terribly wrong with the house. The movie, directed by Sean Durkin, opens with appropriate portentousness, a discordant piano score clanging over the title card. But in this case, it’s not the house that’s the problem—it’s the family, and the greedy quest for status that first led them to this gargantuan manor.
The Nest is a long-awaited and brilliant follow-up from Durkin, who emerged in 2011 with his filmmaking debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but hadn’t directed a movie since. His first work also had the overtones of a horror film and the narrative meat of a serious family drama, exploring the fraught relationship between two sisters after one of them is freed from a Manson-family-like collective. Nothing in The Nest is quite as dramatic as a murderous cult, but the same sense of dread pervades the thriller, as Rory (played by Jude Law) and Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coon) see their relationship crumble under the financial burden of the colossal home they’ve bought.
A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.
Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.
But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.
Photographs by Julia Sellmann
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
These films, each unforgettable in its own way, are essential viewing.
The word unique has to be one of the most overused descriptors in show business; if every movie that got touted as one-of-a-kind by its marketing team actually was, there’d be no further complaints about Hollywood creativity. But every once in a while, I’ll have a cinematic experience that feels genuinely unprecedented, when a work plays with the medium and its modes of storytelling in ways I didn’t think possible. The 30 movies I’ve gathered below—all of which are available to watch online—are singular, whether they’re experimental documentaries, visionary works of animation, or labyrinthine epics. Each is unforgettable, and a reminder of cinema’s potential to flout narrative convention, subvert visual traditions, and find new ways to express timeless themes.
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.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
Anxious? Here are some of the best and most rewatch-friendly movies to soothe your mind.
Over the course of 2020, I’ve compiled several movie-recommendation lists for viewers who are at once in desperate need of distraction and yet never able to fully escape the year’s pressing realities. A global pandemic. Economic turmoil. An impending election showdown. Natural disasters. Police killings and unrelenting national protests. With movie theaters shut down around the world, I curated collections of films to watch at home—works that were unheralded upon release, took singular approaches to storytelling, or told stories about horror, government mistrust, and the end of the world.
But I think this fall season calls for lighter fare—movies that don’t make serious emotional or mental demands of you, that entice you to sink deeper into the couch and give yourself over to the screen. These films lend themselves best to multiple viewings (and eventual line-memorization). Everyone has their own personal list of “comfort movies,” but the films I rewatch the most have no particular theme or genre. Some of the movies that relax me the most are intense action epics, while others are quiet conversational comedies. Comfort movies don’t have to be low energy or low stakes to be soothing; they simply have to evoke a certain mood or atmosphere, or transport viewers to a world they’ll want to revisit. Below are 25 of my own favorite feel-good watches, films I cue up again and again whenever I need a brief break from the world.
The U.S. entered the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages. Its success may not last for long.
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.
This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate here is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.