Reporter's Notebook

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.

Show 15 Newer Notes

Happy New Year: See You in June

Over SoCal on a recent trip. We're headed there again soon. Deborah Fallows

For me this is the third post of the day, and probably the last in this space for quite a while.

Effective today, I’m beginning a five-month book-writing leave from online and print activities for The Atlantic. At the start of June I plan to be back, recharged for the fray, and by then my wife Deb and I should—will!—have finished a book on the America we’ve seen in our travels across the country these past four years, and what that means for the years ahead.

Some practical notes:

  • A major satisfaction in writing in this space and its precursors since the mid-1990s has been engagement with readers. But by the final few chaotic months of this year’s campaign, I had given up even pretending to answer reader emails (or any emails), or sorting them for reader-comment posts. There are still hundreds I would like to have quoted but have not managed to use. I will soon forward some of those, and anything that arrives in coming weeks, to the impresario of our Notes section, Chris Bodenner, who has skillfully curated reader discussions. And not for the first time I’ll be considering the “email bankruptcy” option.
  • The last time I took a blogging leave was five years ago, when Deb and I moved back to China for me to finish my book China Airborne. (Her wonderful Dreaming in Chinese had just come out.) Back then, the concept of “blogging” still existed—that is, of frequent, incremental, voicey dispatches on a range of personalized topics—and I had the joy of assembling a stellar cast of guest bloggers to fill in. Really, it was an incredible group: check them out here. Times have changed, and there is no longer a set personal-blog space here for guests to fill. Our site keeps evolving, and I’m not sure what it will offer by the middle of this year. But for now you will just have to make do with the dozens of other items The Atlantic serves up each day.
  • Why a cold-turkey break? For an external reason, and an internal one.
    The external reason involves the new reality of the Donald Trump era. During the final six months of his campaign, I tried to keep up with the “norm-breaking,” unprecedented things the candidate kept doing and saying. That became a nearly full-time activity, and the number of entries ultimately reached 152. Since the election, the pace of Trump’s transgressions and aberrations has only increased. As a reporter you can keep up with this, in the full intensity it deserves, or you can do anything else. I am 100% on board in supporting the reporters, editors, and analysts at The Atlantic and elsewhere who are girding for daily engagement with the implications of Trump. But I think that the greatest journalistic value I can add is not by spending all my time as one more voice in the fact-check/ norm-defense patrol but instead in reporting on how the rest of the country can and should respond. And I know that the latter is the story I am more excited to tell.
  • This leads to the other, internal reason, which involves my personal journalistic metronome. Through my long career with The Atlantic I’ve had a sequence of shifts in topic and location. Through the early 1980s, I was heavily involved in debates about the military and budgetary policies of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, including with my book National Defense. After five years of this, my family moved to Asia, to spend the late Reagan and early GHW Bush years viewing the U.S. from outside (and for me to do my books More Like Us and Looking at the Sun). I’ll skip ahead several topics and moves to the early 2000s, when I was back in Washington and heavily involved in debates about responding to the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq (don’t do it!). After four-plus years of that, and reporting on the aftermath, in 2006 my wife and I moved to China, to spend the late GW Bush and early Obama eras seeing that country and viewing the U.S. from its perspective.

    This time, I’ve done what I can through the past year to lay out the consequences of this year’s presidential choice. Those consequences are now upon us. As with every other major shift in national direction, the resulting story needs to be told at many levels. The version of the story I’m most passionate about telling, and that I believe is least likely to tell itself otherwise, involves the implications of what we’ve seen in dozens of places like San Bernardino and Sioux Falls and Erie and Allentown and Ajo and Greenville and Columbus and Charleston and Dodge City and Duluth.             
  • The good and the bad of being in Washington is that what happens in national politics is right in front of you, unavoidably in your face all day long. The good part is why we’ve lived here for half of the past 40 years. The bad part is why we’ve lived elsewhere during the other half, in several-year installments.
    These next few months will be an “other half” period. We’ll be based in inland Southern California, in Redlands, for the writing-camp period. And I’m undertaking a variety of additional “mind in the right place”/attention-protective moves, from reading more things on paper to being less exposed to cable TV. Related: The more time passes, the more I find myself agreeing with Andrew Sullivan’s famed essay on this topic. The public’s attention really has been treated as a free good in the tech-distraction era. We need to fight to protect it. Or at least I do.
  • Might there be an exception to the online sabbatical? Anything is possible. Suppose Xi Jinping were to announce that he’s personally taking up small-plane aviation, in a speech that begins “I often think of the example of the boiling frog” and ends “may God Bless the United States of America!” (which would be quite a speech), all while holding a leafblower in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I’d probably have to say something.  

Online life changes and moves on, even more quickly than life in general. There are inevitable costs to stepping away. But in this case I believe there are greater benefits. See you in June.  

Barn at the Deerwood Ranch wild horse refugee, outside Laramie, Wyoming this past November. James Fallows

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 Sun reported 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 Globe had 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 Monitor adds 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.

How different would this have been if it were a giant chicken? Or a duck? Norman Rockwell, 'Freedom From Want,' US National Archives

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.

Citizens of Stockton at city council meeting considering library expansion "Raising Literacy," Robert Dawson

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.

Another gigantic turbine blade is delivered in Spearville, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

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.


Wind turbine display in western Kansas (Nic Pollock / The Atlantic)

This is the set-up for the next video in The Atlantic’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.

A view of Eastport, with the old sardine cannery, the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, a former bank, a new restaurant, and more. (Courtesy of Tides Institute and Museum of Art)

The Boston Globe had 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.

Sisters originally from Darfur, resettled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The young lady on the left was a proud member of public high school ROTC. Deborah Fallows / the Atlantic

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:

Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2016

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:

Pew Research Center, August 2016

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.

The interior of America was exciting for Albert Bierstadt and the imaginative landscape painters of the 19th century. It's newly exciting, in a different way, now. ('Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains,' Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Smithsonian Institute, via Wikimedia)

1) Meet the Press podcast. Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Chuck Todd for his podcast; the segment has gone up today, and you can find it here on Soundcloud or here from the MTP site.

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.

RJ Messenger (left), successful Erie entrepreneur, at the Radius CoWork space in downtown Erie. Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

I hope you'll check out the second in the series of short films that The Atlantic’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 The Atlantic’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.

Entrepreneur Alicia De La Torre, of Dodge City, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

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.

Part of the old manufacturing corridor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Manufacturing is still underway in many of these buildings, and the city is in the middle of considering a sweeping plan for economic and civic revitalization. James Fallows

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.

This afternoon I will be in Erie, Pennsylvania—which I mean to compliment by thinking of it as a Fresno of the east—for the “Metro 100” conference on the city’s future, co-hosted by Erie’s Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (which I’ve covered in a previous post). That conference is followed by an evening public session from the Jefferson on actually implementing Erie’s new civic-revival plan. If you’re in the area, come on by!

A collaboration of libraries and communities around the country Outside The Lines

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 between passionate 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.