A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.
But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.
My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.
Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:
… the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier. As I wrote last year, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence” all looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.
I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half acentury of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.
Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.
The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.
The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”: A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.
Moreover, the term “republic”—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguished it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly-held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).
Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.
This state was essentially an increasingly-imperial business enterprise, in the guise of a government. The expanding conquests, which were basically run as profit centers, undercut the working populations in the city through a growing influx of slave labor, and drove rural residents off their land through collapsing agricultural prices due to burgeoning grain imports—the automation and offshoring of their day.
These developments nonetheless personally benefited the wealthy Senatorial and governing elite that wielded government power increasingly for the sole private benefit of its members. This led to spiraling social tensions that, when they flared into violence, were resolved through grudging concessions rather than fundamental—and democratizing—changes.
The “radical” Warren-esque reforms of the Gracchi, who themselves were highly patrician, arguably aimed to save their own class from themselves as much as saving the Republic, by creating economic safety-valves not unlike the patrician Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at the depths of the Great Depression. The elites were too selfish, or short-sighted, or both, to see the wisdom—resulting in a violent uprising of the dispossessed known as “the Social War.” Conceptions of a greater good shared broadly amongst a frontier people who had thrown off their king, and came together especially in times of external threat, had long since melted away before the pursuit of personal wealth and power. Politics could no longer bridge the divides, because the threat did not come from without: The enemy was the other within.
In this res public largely eviscerated of any sense of the “public,” politics and government increasingly degenerated further into the personal. Wealthy politicians vied for, and alternated in power, with the support of their own personal parties, armed factions, and the communications media of the day (Julius Caesar, with his Commentaries on his subjugation of Gaul, was a master of this). By a half-century after the Gracchi’s reforms were beaten back, extremely different visions of governing structure, social issues, and economics eventually confronted each other for power in the form of essentially personalized states built largely around either Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
And that might be where we find ourselves today. While the political parallels are from perfect, Marius, hardly a blameless figure, personified the cause of the populares—what we might think of as more-or-less progressive, advocating for an expanded democracy and economic redistribution. Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives, prevailed and eventually became dictator.
While Roman politics had long been a nasty affair, Sulla was the first to institutionalize “proscription”—the practice of declaring your opponents “enemies of the state” and thereby licensing open-hunting season on them. He also became the first ever to violate perhaps the most deeply-held norm of the Republic’s unwritten constitution—that no general was ever to lead armed forces across the sacred boundary, the pomerium, of Rome itself—which set the precedent for Julius Caesar’s later, and more famous, crossing of the Rubicon that all but marked the end of the Republic, and Rome’s imperfect democracy, for good.
Now, within the last month, President Trump has sent armed forces into American cities—but not the regular armed forces, as he has mooted in the past. He didn’t call up the National Guard, as presidents normally do when responding to emergencies or civil unrest: With military leaders and some troops themselves publicly expressing discomfort after their use against peaceful protests in Washington, DC, Trump needed to find forces more personally loyal to himself—and he did so in the Customs and Border Patrol—outside any existing branch of the military, responding directly to his agenda, arguably beyond his constitutional authority, and targeting dissent ...
But, as is often the case with Trump, creation of this new praetorian guard can alternatively be understood as essentially a business, rather than an ideological, development—simply a further, if more disturbing, extension of his privatization and personalization of the federal government. The fact that this new model army displays no government agency’s insignia on its personnel or vehicles—relying instead on widely-available camouflage rather than government uniforms—means that private militias and vigilantes can easily join forces with it, or even take actions on their own, indistinguishable from these new-fangled government irregulars. As I predicted when Trump first took office, the distinction between public and private sectors is melting away before our very eyes even as to the deployment of legitimate force that, ever since the great sociologist Max Weber, has been seen as the defining element of the state.
Many have expressed concerns for some time that Trump would attempt to remain in office if he were defeated, and might rally armed militias to his cause (I’ve raised this concern myself since the night Trump was elected) … But even if he does leave, the likely Trump post-presidency that fits best with his personality and history—not to mention that of the Romans—may be even more troubling and dangerous.
Trump, if he were to lose, might well leave the White House—he never liked the building to begin with, and doesn’t like the actual work of the presidency—but never concede that he lost. He might not be the real President anymore … but he could play one on TV. If he continued to insist that he were the actual, legitimate President of the United States, there can be little doubt that tens of millions of Americans would believe him. And unlike your average crank, Trump has the resources and ability to turn this into a 24/7 TV reality program through his own television network, even further to the right and more reliably sycophantic than FOX—which he reportedly was considering launching had he not, unexpectedly, won the 2016 election.
Imagine an alternative President, with at least as much media reach as the one actually in the White House, with an unshakably devoted following of perhaps as much as one-third of the country, and perhaps even his own private armed forces—Sulla with a TV station funded by his fellow reactionary patricians, with his own camo-clad stormtroopers picking up and disappearing populare protestors in unmarked vans—and the present looks even more like the late Republic than when I wrote about this less than a year ago. If this occurs, the country would descend into dueling polities, dueling realities, and dueling war zones.
Of course, there are always alternatives: As dysfunctional as the Republic had become, Rome didn’t necessarily need a Caesar. But it did need a modernization of its pre-imperial governance technology—a standing bureaucracy and a streamlined executive to carry out the legislative will would have improved on the existing multi-headed oligarchy at least as well as the succession of terrible emperors did. And a peaceful mechanism for resolving the increasingly disparate interests of Rome’s increasingly disparate and unwieldy empire—broadened and meaningful democracy, for instance, along with progressive economic policies and perhaps a Plebian Lives Matter movement—might have averted a half-millennium of dictatorship dominated not by orderly succession but factional assassinations and coups until even the Empire eventually conceded it couldn’t manage the job and simply partitioned itself.
We face similar choices today. History isn’t destiny. But it is a warning.
What is the most effective thing an individual can do about climate change? There are lots of possible answers: what you eat, how you vote, where and how you live, how you travel, and so on. All of them matter. For Americans, at this moment, the one that matters most may be how you vote.
But among the steps most immediately within many people’s control, an important one is planting trees. Yes, there are cautions about doing this in the wrong way, or in the wrong places, or in ignoring the legacies of long-standing biases in zoning and city planning. (That is: It’s easy to plant trees in spacious residential neighborhoods; it’s harder when there’s only a narrow strip of ground between the street and a building front.) But overall, step-by-step reforestation can potentially be a significant help, which is why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling a number of local efforts toward that end.
I am chagrined to say that until I looked into it, I had no idea that the second-largest city in the nation—Los Angeles, with its population of nearly 4 million people spread out over roughly 500 square miles—has a very ambitious program to use tree planting as an axis to connect job creation, climate sustainability, urban renewal, and economic equity and inclusion. (Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read at least the headline of a very good Mother Jones story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen last year. The headline was, “Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees.”)
As it happened, I learned about the LA program largely by accident. The smallish Southern California town of Redlands had set an also-ambitious goal, of helping school children there plant more than 12,000 trees, which I wrote about when it was announced last year. The seedlings were purchased; a computerized way to map and track each one’s progress was set; and they were supposed to be passed out to school children on Earth Day this past April. That plan naturally hit a roadblock when California schools were shut down. As an alternative, the backers of the effort, including the University of Redlands and the tech company Esri, managed to give away thousands of trees in June. But still some 4,000 seedling trees went unclaimed.
Mainly through the efforts of our friend Shelli Stockton, of the University of Redlands, those little trees ended up last month in the hands of an organization called City Plants in Los Angeles (as shown in this video). City Plants, a program of the LA city government, is part of a broader LA effort toward radical expansion of the “urban forest” cover in this famously sunbaked part of the world.
I talked this week with Rachel O’Leary, a native Angeleno who now directs City Plants, and with Rachel Malarich, a longtime expert in urban forestry who last year was named LA’s first-ever City Forest Officer. Here is what they told me about what they are doing, and why it might matter elsewhere.
How City Plants started: Last year, in presenting his “Green New Deal” vision for the city (which you can download in full PDF version here), Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set out a tree-planting campaign as one element of a larger sustainability-and-jobs strategy. The plan set a target to “plant and maintain” at least 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year. This was largely initially based on the “Million Trees” initiative under Garcetti’s predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but has evolved over the past decade to focus on planting the "right tree in the right place." Garcetti's Green New Deal also was explicitly focused on “canopy equity”—that is, of extending more of the benefits of large-tree cover to neighborhoods that are now typified by asphalt and concrete rather than greenery.
What it does: The City Plants program, as part of the larger urban-forestry program, offers trees to residents of Los Angeles at no cost. Angelenos can get up to seven free “yard trees” for their own property, which they are expected to plant and care for themselves (with instructions like those shown in this picture). They can also request free “street trees,” which a City Plants team will plant for them. (Residents must agree to water the trees for five years.)
For the labor involved in planting and handling the trees, City Plants coordinates with a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups —of which its major partner is the LA Conservation Corps. This LACorps is designed to give young people workplace skills, while they work on projects of larger community value.
How is it financed? From a variety of public and private sources (info here), but mainly by LA’s main public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Long-standing policy in California requires utility companies to underwrite energy-efficiency programs, including tree planting. LADWP has supported tree planting and innovations in urban forestry in Los Angeles for over a decade. The rationale for including trees as energy-savers, which you can find in longer and more detailed form here, is not just that tree growth stores carbon directly, as the trees mature. It is also that leafed-out tree cover reduces electricity and water use, especially the demand for air-conditioning. With support from LADWP, City Plants has an online calculator in which residents enter their street address, and get estimates of energy-bill savings from planting trees, in real time.
“Trees are one of the least expensive, and most powerful, tools we have for improving our environment,” Rachel Malarich told me. “More and more research is showing how important a good, healthy tree canopy cover is for our communities as a whole—and how important it will be not just for our health right now but for our resilience in the face of a changing climate.” (Malarich went into more detail on these features in the Mother Jones interview.)
The program’s other ambitions: The 90,000-tree program concentrates on the parts of LA that are now the least forested and most parched. These are of course generally the lowest-income areas, and the most likely to become broiling “heat islands” because of climate change. The official goal, set out in the Green New Deal document, is to “Increase tree canopy in areas of greatest need by at least 50% by 2028 to grow a more equitable urban forest that provides cooling, public health, habitat, energy savings, and other benefits.”
I asked Rachel Malarich how that would be possible, considering that many areas now short on trees are also short on space to plant them. The extensive suburban-style portions of Los Angeles were designed to include leafy glades; others have barely an unpaved square inch to support plant growth.
“Trees need space to grow, and much of our infrastructure was set up not to allow that space,” Malarich said. “Frequently in these high-need areas you’ll only have a four-foot-wide parkway, where you can only plant a small tree. Or there are overhead power lines.” I asked, given these realities, how the city could realistically expect to equalize tree coverage across the city. It would be complex, and hard, and would involve short- and long-term creativity and planning, she said. But that was the deadline the city’s plan set out, “putting our feet to the fire.”
Does it matter outside LA? The scale of Los Angeles makes anything that happens there consequential in its own right. But Rachel O’Leary argued that the partnership model—connecting different parts of the city and state government, and linking job-training and community-justice initiatives to climate sustainability—would be “replicable and scalable in other places.”
“Trees are a powerful tool of climate resilience,” she said. “This is definitely one of the most powerful actions a resident can take, to take climate change into their own hands. That it is how we view it here in this city. And we would encourage other cities to develop partnerships like these.”
“We’re not the only city that is dealing with this,” Rachel Malarich said. “If we can figure out this way of dealing with this issue of tree canopy inequity, we will have figured out something for other people to look at and learn from.”
Is any of this “the” answer, for neighborhood justice, civic engagement, and climate sustainability. Obviously not. But it could well be part of an answer, in this large city and elsewhere.
Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago, he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed.
Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.
The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.
Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.”
Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.”
As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.
Earlier this week I mentioned the surprisingly important role that craft brewing had played in downtown renewal across the country over the past decade. And I talked with one of the pioneers of that movement, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, about how this part of America’s startup economy was likely to fare.
Here are reports from two companies of a similar spirit but entirely different scale from Koch’s nationally distributed Samuel Adams brand. One is in northern Minnesota; the other, on the edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each illustrates a path small, locally conscious firms are taking to survive the current economic and public health disaster.
Duluth, Minnesota: Over the past four years, I’ve visited and written about the small Bent Paddle Brewing Company of Duluth—and have retained interest because the saga of this startup has involved a lot more than its (very good) craft beer.
The two young couples who founded the company ten years ago—Karen and Bryon Tonnis, and Laura and Colin Mullen—wanted to see if their new little business could be part of a larger revival in the tattered, ex-industrial Lincoln Park district of Duluth. As Deb Fallows and I saw in repeat visits and reported here and here, they had begun succeeding in that neighborhood-revival role—plus others, like being part of a Duluth’s emergence as an outdoors and tourist destination, and helping protect the waters of deep, cold Lake Superior, on whose western tip Duluth sits.
Each time we’ve visited their part of town, we’ve seen a few more visitors, another restaurant or food truck, another little office or store. Meanwhile, Bent Paddle’s main business, as a taproom and brewery, continued to grow. Every time we talked, the four founders stressed that they’d grown mainly thanks to community supports (including advice from local business people and loans from local banks), so they felt an obligation to be part of the community’s long-term development.
But what now? This spring, Bent Paddle’s own taproom was of course closed, as were the restaurants and bars through which it sold most of its output. Could a little business like this survive, and could its surrounding neighborhood? This week I spoke with Laura Mullen in Duluth to ask how Bent Paddle had fared.
“During March and April our business was down about 50 percent,” she said. “No events at our site,” which had been an ever-busier civic gathering center. (We once saw a local-writer’s club holding a meeting in a side room.) “No sales to bars or restaurants,” which were about half of its total volume. “Draft beer was not happening anywhere.” Bent Paddle had to buy back some of the kegs it had shipped to bars and restaurants. Other kegs, already in warehouses, went past their shelf life and could no longer be sold.
Fortunately from the brewers’ point of view, Minnesota classified liquor stores as some of the “essential” businesses that could stay open despite a general lockdown. “That made us ‘essential workers,’” Mullen said, “because we were supplying products to liquor stores.”
Among the customers they could still reach in Duluth and elsewhere, Bent Paddle saw the same pattern that Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, recently described to me: People who would otherwise have gone out to a restaurant or bar were in many cases “trading up” to buy nicer food or drink to have at home, still for a lower overall cost. (A fascinating report in Nielsen.com shows exactly how much at-home drinking would have to increase to offset the near-elimination of bar and restaurant revenues. Medical experts are on the alert for evidence that increased home drinking is creating medical or behavioral risks—beyond those of the pandemic itself.)
Laura Mullen said that she expected this year’s sales, overall, to be about 20 percent lower than last year’s. Of the company’s 44 staff members before the shutdowns, it laid off 10. All but one has now returned. The company received a PPP loan to help cover the salaries. For the moment, Minnesota has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen for distanced outside service, and at 50 percent previous capacity indoor.
What were the lessons of this company’s survival, so far? Laura Mullen suggested these:
An immediate pivot: “When the taproom closed, we could still do to-go beer,” she said. “The minute [the state order] hit, after we shut the taproom we created all these signs and online videos,” promoting the idea that Bent Paddle was still open and explaining how to buy very safely canned beer to take home.
Going all-in on masks and distancing: None of the signs and videos that Bent Paddle put up were about resisting or working around the shutdown or distancing order. All were about how to work with the rules. On March 20, they posted a three-minute Facebook video in which Laura Mullen walked potential customers all through the stages of picking up beer safely from their brewery. “We get a few Yelp comments complaining about our procedures,” she told me. “But we got many more complimenting us and saying that our safety protocols were top-notch, and they could feel comfortable coming here.”
Reliance on the local: When I first met them, the four Bent Paddle founders told me how important local-bank support had been when they started the company. Laura Mullen said the same was true for surviving the current emergency. “A lot of people who had bigger-bank relationships had trouble getting their PPP loans,” she said. “We have a small local bank,” whose officers the company had worked with for years, “and we were able to get things arranged very quickly. We’ve heard that across the board, that people dealing with smaller banks are in better shape.”
Concern for the neighborhood: Bend Paddle’s success has been an important part of the Lincoln Park area’s revitalization. Now people are still coming to pick up beer, but not staying to shop in the little boutiques and smaller businesses. Their margins are thinner, and their products are less recession-proof than beer. Mullen said that she was even more concerned about longer-term effects on the neighborhood than on her own company.
Redlands, California: More than a dozen years ago, when I was living in China, I visited my original hometown of Redlands several times (for family-illness reasons) and noted the emergence of a craft-brew industry there. The pioneering local company was sited right at a small airport and was named, with an aviation theme, Hangar 24.
On recent visits to Redlands I’ve noted the emergence of a new company, called Escape Craft Brewery. It’s located in an unglamorous commercial complex not far from Interstate 10, but its vibe and style are of the tropical carefree getaway. “We designed the name Escape for that idea,” Melissa Fisher, who cofounded the brewery with her husband Josh six years ago, told me last week. “You can’t always get away. But you can always escape. You can sit outside, open a beer, and be someplace else for a few minutes.”
Before opening the company, Josh Fisher was an avid home brewer, with a day job as a firefighter. Melissa worked as an aesthetician in a salon. They spent two years scouting the area for an appropriate site—with parking, brewing space and facilities, affordable rent, appropriate zoning, outdoor patio space for the usually warm Southern California weather, and so on.
They found it in a modest storefront close to the I-10 freeway, amid discount stores and carpet-cleaning shops. Based mainly on the quality of their products, Escape’s beers and ambience grew in popularity. It expanded into a next-door property and had 10,000 square feet of space, about half of it for a tasting-room and taproom, and half for a game room where, according to Melissa Fisher, they also had live music, private parties, “dog adoptions” and other civic events. This August they had been planning to open a second site in Redlands, with renovation of an an abandoned warehouse building much closer to downtown. They were also preparing for an expansion to the resort-coastal city of Laguna Niguel.
In March, most of their business went away, all at once. No taproom traffic, which had been almost 80 percent of their total revenue. No private events, no live music, no community gatherings—and on top of that, no sales to the bars and restaurants that had been carrying Escape’s beers. “A couple of places even asked if they could send their kegs back,” Melissa Fisher said. “Usually that’s illegal, but the rules were lifted this time”—and they were legally able to re-package some of the product as “beer to go.”
How would they survive? “I think that if this had been in our first year or two, it would have been monumentally bad for us,” Melissa Fisher said. “We probably could not have made it.” But in Escape’s six years of operation, it had built a local following, and the Fishers had saved their profits to invest in their planned expansions (and instead are using them to cushion losses now).
Like Bent Paddle, Escape quickly shifted, mainly to take-out sales. Instead of draft beer poured into glasses in the tap rooms, they would sell beer in cans for customers to pick up. (Side note: a decade ago, I was surprised by the shift among craft brewers from glass bottles to aluminum cans. Now the shift is all but complete. I can barely remember the last time I bought beer that came in a bottle.) It quickly put up a website for online orders of to-go beer and saw many of its longtime customers make that change.
This kept the doors open, but with an unpleasant real-world surprise. In the previous post I mentioned the all-important role of something most beer customers are barely aware of: the beer-wholesalers business. In the case of Escape, the challenging practicality was how hard and expensive it could be for a small operation like theirs to try to switch to canned-beer sales.
Start with the cans themselves. “A big brewer might pay 8 or 10 cents per can,” Fisher said. Because they’re buying in small volume, “We’re paying somewhere between 34 and 74 cents per can, and that’s before we put the label on it”—or the beer into it. “Then you run into the shortages because there’s a rush on everything”—of cans, of labels, of glass growler bottles, of aluminum “crowler” cans. Before the pandemic, state regulators had to pre-approve the labels for canned beer. Now they have waived some of the rules, and Fisher and her team have been filling in part of the label information with Sharpies.
At the taproom, a pint of beer might have sold for six or seven dollars, so a round of four pints would bring in more than $25. Those same four pints, as a take-out order, go for $10 or $12, of which three dollars or more would be just for the labels and cans.
So the Fishers are selling beer but at a tiny margin, which barely covers their costs. Before, with full service, they would typically have six or seven employees on a Friday night. Now, to manage take-out, they have one or two. (Several of the employees have voluntarily reduced their hours, so others can have them.) Escape has expanded outdoor seating, in the parking areas and loading dock outside their tap room. “We’re lucky to have that space,” Melissa Fisher said. “But when it’s 98 to 102 degrees—even when we have cooling machines, even with a beer—not everyone can handle being outside.” Like many other brewers and distillers, they’ve also been selling a line of hand sanitizer.
“What we’re making now, is keeping the lights on,” she said. “And we’ve had a huge amount of support from people who’ve become our friends.” Because of their savings, and adaptability, they expect to keep going, and ultimately to expand. But what they’re doing now isn’t sustainable, she said. “Something has to change.”
Something does. Stories like these deserve notice, in my view, because little businesses like Bent Paddle and Escape have played such an outsize role in bringing vitality and local-connectedness to so many American towns.
Coming next, two other stories, with other implications, from northern Florida and the Bay Area of California. And after the jump, reactions from two brewers.
In response to the item earlier this week, Jim Koch, of Boston Beer Company adds this point. He is discussing the recent change in Massachusetts beer-distributor laws, which his company support even though it will help all local beer companies except his:
I realized there was one major thing I missed in our discussion that makes what happened in MA surprising in a business context. That is the craft beer ethos that we are as much colleagues as competitors and that if we all act for the good of each other, we will all, in the long term, benefit even if there is short term sacrifice.
I think that attitude, which often means sharing “trade secrets” and ideas and helping each other out with ingredients or equipment, has been an important part of our success and is rare in US business. It also makes for a happier professional life if you can look at your competitors as colleagues and friends. It is exemplified in the craft brewer practice that when you’re having beers with each other, each of you orders the other’s beer rather than your own.
And, a note from someone on the other end of the craft-brewing spectrum from Koch. This person writes from Florida, and from a small, newish company, but he shares Koch’s concern about arcane distribution laws. He writes:
As a small craft brewer in Florida … we will survive due to the support of our community and our location. Some of my good friends in this industry may not make it. [One reason is …] beer distributors and their death grip on the craft beer industry - it’s important to our overall survival.
We have a very good relationship with our distributor. They are good people and our goals are aligned. But Florida franchise law, as it is, makes me pray these goals remain aligned because should they diverge, just like any Florida brewer - I will most certainly be on the losing side of any dispute. I’d like to see this inequity balanced for the good of the industry.”
A few decades ago, “American beer” had the same connotation in the world of brewing as Velveeta-style “American cheese” had for connoisseurs of Stilton or Brie. Mid-20th-century American beer culture was known for its handful of giant breweries, and for the unadventurous, bland lagers they pumped out.
In those days, brewers in England or Belgium or Germany would roll their eyes at what Yanks considered “good beer.” It was like French or German bakers talking about American white bread.
Now, of course, the tables have turned. I’ve seen little brewpubs from Beijing to Bogota, and Athens to Amsterdam, that feature “American-style craft beer.” It’s easy to make fun of the recent era of micro-brews and macro-hops. But the modern rise of American craft brewing has been a genuine success story of entrepreneurship, localism, small-business creativity, and in many places, of civic renewal.
Before everything changed because of the pandemic, America’s craft-brew industry was still growing—though more slowly and unevenly than in the true boom era a few years earlier. (There are fascinating details in this BrewBound industry analysis from a few months ago.) The number of breweries in the country had fallen below 100 by the early 1980s, in the depths of mega-brewer concentration. In 2018, it passed 7,000 and was still rising.
But what will happen now? I’ve been following up with breweries large and small around the country, and I’ll begin with the views of Jim Koch (pronounced cook), well known from TV commercials for Sam Adams beer and as the face of the company he co-founded with Rhonda Kallman in 1984.
I called Koch partly because of his role as one of the pioneers of American craft brewing, which I described in an Atlantic article about him on the 30th anniversary of the company’s founding. (Among the other significant pioneers were Ken Grossman, of Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Jack McAuliffe, of the New Albion brewery in Sonoma; Fritz Maytag, of Anchor Steam in San Francisco; and Jimmy Carter, of the White House. It’s a story for another time, but Carter helped make the modern craft movement possible by deregulating home brewing in the late 1970s.)
I also wanted to talk with Koch because he’s been in the news. Many things about American brewing still operate in the shadow of 1920s-era Prohibition. During its nearly 14-year run, from the start of 1920 to near the end of 1933, Prohibition’s ban on legal drinking killed off most of what had been a thriving local brewery industry across the country. (Before widespread refrigeration, beer was mainly a locally made-and-consumed product, since it was hard to ship.) Even after the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, states were freer to regulate business involving alcohol than most other forms of commerce, and many burdensome regulations remained. These included the home-brewing ban that Jimmy Carter finally overturned, and onerous “distributor” laws that distort the industry now.
“You don’t hear about lumber wholesalers who are fabulously rich,” Jim Koch told me last week. His point was: You do hear about beer wholesalers and distributors. For instance, John McCain became rich when he married his second wife, Cindy Hensley, who had inherited control of her family’s hugely lucrative Hensley distributorship in Arizona. Lumber mills, and most other businesses in the United States, are allowed to adjust their business plans and sell online or directly to customers if they choose, without going through wholesalers. By contrast, in most states brewers large or small may not legally sell directly to customers (outside their own taprooms, allowed in many states). Instead they must go through distributors—who can end up making as much from each case of beer as the brewer does.
In the Sam Adams home territory of Massachusetts, the relevant law was one that, in effect, permanently bound a brewery to whatever distributor it had initially done business with. “In Boston, I can only sell my beer to a single distributor,” Koch told me. “And retailers can’t get it from anyone but that distributor. This might have made sense 50 or 80 years ago, when the wholesalers were quite small and the brewers were all-powerful.” But now, he said, the dynamic has flipped. The brewers are small and proliferating new businesses. The distributors—only two main ones in the Boston area—had much more power, and if they decided not to feature a new brewery or line of beer, there was very little the brewer could do.
As the craft brew industry has grown, complaints about this relationship have as well. For instance, five years ago, in an online Beer Advocate forum about possible changes in the Massachusetts law, one person wrote:
Imagine you're a growing local brand (Night Shift, Newburyport, Notch, etc) that is suddenly railroaded by Not Your Fathers Root Beer and beers of its ilk flooding the market and you end up relegated to the back-end of your distributor’s priority list. Maybe you'll get their attention again when the current fad dies down, but maybe not. But hey, you signed a contract 6 months ago and are stuck for life as an also ran in your distributors portfolio.
Over the past decade, Koch and other Massachusetts brewers have waged a campaign to change the Massachusetts laws that in essence permanently bind brewers to their distributors. This month, there was a breakthrough, and one in which Koch and Sam Adams played a crucial part.
Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams (and has now merged with Dogfish Head, originally from Delaware), is by far the biggest “small” brewer in Massachusetts. Thus it is also the most lucrative for its wholesaler. This summer, the brewers’ alliance pushing for reform agreed with wholesalers, after years of haggling, on a compromise. The wholesalers were willing to give up on the lock-in provision, but only for breweries producing less than 250,000 barrels a year. As everyone involved was aware, that exclusion applied to a category-of-one. The compromise would mean that all craft breweries in Massachusetts would be freed from the existing restriction—except the Boston Beer Company, which produces more than 4 million barrels of Sam Adams each year.
Jim Koch’s willingness to support a reform that would help everyone but him was reportedly the key in moving the reform legislation forward. As Matt Murphy of State House News Service wrote,
Koch ... agreed in this latest round of talks to support a compromise that would exclude his company.
“That was a big point in breaking the iceberg. Clearly this was much more difficult to resolve if Jim Koch and Sam Adams was still in the mix. Again, good faith in an effort to help the smaller craft brewers,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.
In a statement, Koch said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some brewers particularly vulnerable to wholesalers who might prioritize other products, and predicted that without reform some might not survive. He said that despite some concessions by wholesalers to include larger brewers, it was clear that the distributors would not support a bill that included Boston Beer.
“From Lawrence to the Berkshires, craft brewers serve as economic engines, employers and draw tourism to their communities. If brewers have to wait another two years for a bill to be considered, some will not survive,” Koch said in a statement provided to the News Service by the company. “Boston Beer had to make a decision. At the end of the day, that decision was to sacrifice ourselves by being excluded from Franchise Law reform in order to protect the hundreds of our fellow craft brewers in the state.”
“We’d been working on this for a long time,” Koch told me. “And then COVID hit. A lot of small breweries had tap rooms they relied on”—but those were ordered closed. “The wholesaler became life-or-death for a number of our members. It became clear that if we didn’t make a change, some of our members [small brewers] were not going to make it.”
Koch said that when the wholesalers accepted a deal that would liberate all companies except his, he had to make a decision. But, “I didn’t have to think very long about what was the right thing to do,” he said. “We had to take the deal, even though it did not include me.” Koch, who is not quite the good-old-boy he portrays in TV ads, elaborated that “from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls” he couldn’t find a rationale for declining to support the agreement. (A dozen years earlier, as described in this article, he had taken a similar hit for the team. During the world hop shortage of 2008, he had shared some of Sam Adams’s strategic stockpile of hops with smaller brewers—as many of the smaller brewers have attested.)
And what is the prospect for brewers in general, through the pandemic and shutdown? “So far, it has not been quite as devastating as we all thought,” Koch told me. Why? “Because people are actually drinking the same amount of alcohol, and seem to be trading up to more premium forms.” The bars and restaurants are suffering, because fewer people can go there. The brewers are not suffering as badly, because people are buying as much or more of their product to drink at home.
“I am assuming tap rooms won’t be closed forever,” he said. “Suppose it’s two years until things are ‘Back to normal,’ so that people are not freaked out about going out in public.” The question, he said, is how many of the small companies can survive in the meanwhile.
Even before this crisis, Koch said, craft brewing had been a volatile though growing industry. Even in “normal” times, the turnover rate for restaurants or brewpubs might be 10 percent per year, he said. “Suppose 10 percent of craft brewers will not be able to reopen. But those that have a sound, solid business model, and are creative with new products, I believe will survive.” He pointed out that no sane person had started up a microbrewery primarily in hopes of ROI. “They loved beer. They wanted to be part of the community. Those motivations will be part of all of our getting through this adversity. And maybe your taproom will be a little more important to the community than it was before.”
Next up: Reports from some of these much smaller brewers, and from another major player.
This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.
The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.
In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.
I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.
Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.
To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.
I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)
The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.
For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:
RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.
There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.
Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.
Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!
And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.
2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:
Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.
The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.
Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.
At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:
America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….
America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...
There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.
Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.
Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.
3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:
Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.
That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.
This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.
The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.
In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)
This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.
“Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.
“A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.
Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.
The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.
Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.
* Let me make an additional news-sensitive point about the Supreme Court reform proposal, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
There was a time when selecting nominees as Justices was not a tontine-style longevity-guessing contest. In 1965, while still in his mid-50s, Arthur Goldberg stepped down from the Court to become Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. For Goldberg it turned out to be a very poor career choice, but it illustrated an era when Justices didn’t think they had to hold onto a seat as long as they breathed. Similarly, David Souter stepped down in 2009, before he turned age 70. And he is still going strong.
Now nominees are sought as young as possible, to hang on as long as plausible—adding a random hand-of-fate factor to what is supposed to be democratic governance. Fixed 18-year-terms, with each president expecting a nomination every two years, would reduce the gruesome medical-report aspect of today’s jurisprudence.
Here is the news angle: If a Supreme Court vacancy should occur between now and next January 20, Mitch McConnell has said that he might attempt to ram through a new appointment and confirmation in that time, even after stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination during Barack Obama’s final year. If this happens, and he does so, under current rules the Democrats would not be able to stop him. But they should make their planned response clear: Do this, and when we’re next in control, we’ll expand the size of the Court and confirm several new appointees—which might not have been justified when FDR attempted it, but would be now. More on this as news dictates.
Most artists were working at the edge. They seemed somehow different from the rest of us who color inside the lines. That is part of why I wanted to return during the pandemic to artists I have met and known, to see how they are taking in this terrible new life and how they are responding through their craft and work. What were they saying and what were they doing?
I talked first by phone with Richelle Gribble, whom I had first met during her artist-in-residency in Eastport, Maine. Richelle is a serial artist-in-residence, having traveled for weeks or months at a time to places from the Arctic Circle to Wyoming to Berkeley. She is at home near LA now, working out of her kitchen. Her workspace, the counter and a pullout table next to it, competes with normal kitchen activities, and the result, Richelle described, is a mixture of paint tubes and tomatoes.
Richelle works on both big pieces and little pieces, which is convenient now. In Eastport, she had a two-room storefront studio, where she could lay out collections of local flora and fauna, and compose really big pieces. Townspeople strolling the sidewalks would regularly stop by the studio to see what she was up to, which was a feature of her residency. Now the only person who drops into her workspace is her partner, who, she says, spends his days on calls and zooms.
When I first met Richelle, her muse was everything around Eastport: the shoreline, the wildlife, and the nature around her. Now, she says, she is attuned to life closer in. In a project she calls Quarantine Life, she posts online a daily drawing of something she has just noticed, or experienced, or heard about, or felt. You’ll see shopping receipts, a discarded face mask on the sidewalk, sweet potatoes that are growing sprouts, a coronavirus rendering, and the well-organized, color-coded inside of her closet. Her goal is to track the days, she said, and her stack of drawings is growing taller and taller.
She is also participating in a global crowd-sourced project that includes not only artists, but others who are journalists, physicians, ecologists, songwriters, CEOs, astronauts, and more. It’s called Great Pause Project.
The plan is ambitious: Anyone in the world is invited to share written responses and photos on an online platform, to document and archive the pandemic experience. The hope is to learn lessons and gain insights that might otherwise be lost, and to create a tangible, collaborative record to craft the story of this time.
Richelle describes one of the crowd-sourced initiatives, the Window Effect, where people contribute photographs taken from their windows. The impressions evoke everything from weather checks to glimpses through prison bars to effective shields against the virus to daydreaming. And another, the COVID-19 Photo Diary, is a photograph collection a bit farther beyond the glass windows, out into the neighborhoods.
Great Pause Project also includes a crowd-sourced written survey, called the echo-location survey, which will build a record about life during the pandemic: People answer questions about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what they notice about their environment, how they see the future, and what lessons they take from living this experience.
Richelle has long explored the idea of interconnectedness in the world through her art. She sees the pandemic era as a chance to have a broader reach by working very collaboratively with others. “If I share art just within my own circle” she says, “my art reaches a few people.” But if it becomes part of something bigger, she explains, “Others will say: Oh yeah, that’s what a global pause felt like or that’s what the COVID experience was.”
I talked with Barbara Liotta, who is an artist in Washington, DC and for the record, a longtime friend. For decades now, she and I have talked about everything: children, husbands, families, her art, my writing, travel, swimming, books, and lots of other things. I’ve traipsed around rock quarries with her to source stones for her sculptures, watched her suspend a 57-foot net panel over the side of an 11-story building, and celebrated her openings. She has visited us on our faraway journeys, flown in our little plane, gone to my author events and had parties for them. We prop each other up. So naturally, I turned to Barbara to help me see her artist’s sense of life during this time.
Barbara has a studio behind her house; it used to be a garage, with a concrete floor and high enough ceiling to hang her work. At the beginning, she told me, the lockdown made her feel like a character in a 1940s British movie. We should “buck up and take care of each other and confront this thing by being good community members,” she said. While most of us were cleaning out attics or basements, she was sorting and arranging her enormous collection of formidable, heavy shards, chunks, and slabs. Serendipitously, she came across what she described as “beautiful, gold, sun-drenched granites” and she created a series of warm sun pieces to will in a different mood.
Weeks passed, and as the pandemic with its tragic and awful state came to dominate everything, her work reflected the change. She told me. “As an artist, I can’t not address it, but the immensity of the shift requires that I let it sink in and allow my vision to mature.” The result? “I’ve been drawing and proposing a very dark, dark piece of exploded columns and shattered rock.”
Like for the rest of us, who seek some lightness or humor anywhere these days, one bright moment came on a video call with her son, an emergency room doctor in San Diego, and his new wife, as she was directing them how to install a small hanging sculpture she had shipped them. “A little farther back, off to the right, now left a bit,” she narrated the smartphone-enabled installation process. I saw this as a simple, lighthearted moment. Barbara saw an interpretation: “Art means civilization means hope,” she wrote me, “like an equation.”
Like many other artists and many of the rest of us, her work has been sidelined from the public. An exhibit at the Gallery at MASS MoCA hangs inside for no one to see it. A symposium was canceled. Future events are falling by the wayside. While many artists have shifted online—musicians, singers, actors, performing artists—Barbara says that option doesn’t work for her. Her art is three-dimensional, and being present helps experience it. “The trouble with my work now is that it needs a venue,” she concluded, with the pain of the sculptor’s version of If a tree falls in the forest …. “It is my work, but my work is not going anywhere. It doesn’t count if no one sees it.”
I also talked with Andrew Simonet, who cofounded and directed Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years. He left that role seven years ago and pivoted to write young adult novels. He also founded an incubator called Artists U to help artists take practical steps to create a sustainable life as an artist. When I talked to him, Andrew was in Vermont, where he decamped from Philadelphia with his family.
We talked about the work ethic of artists and how it syncs with this moment of pandemic. He explained something I hadn’t thought about before, but it made perfect sense when I heard him say it. Artists, he said, are “very comfortable with uncertainty. We push away from what we know.” And this way of living and working, Andrew Simonet argued, should be encouraging to artists who may need encouragement right now for how to meet the pandemic and push on to make their art.
As artists, he declared, “This is what we train for.”
Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.
For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.
For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.
But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.
Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.
Starting two weeks ago, we have:
May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy:I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.
Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.
On May 14, TheFinancial Timespublished a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:
Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.
On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:
“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”
These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.
And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.
Even before librarians closed their doors against the pandemic, they started moving fast to keep their work going. They began shifting regular programming online; distributing stockpiles of mobile technology to the digitally needy; strengthening partnerships with schools and food donation sites; activating their maker-technology to produce PPE; helping prepare the homeless population with alternatives for shelter; and more. I wrote about libraries’ novel response to the novel coronavirus here.
The ideas keep coming. Pick-up and drop-off services are emerging. The Alexandria, Ohio, public library offers curbside pick-ups. The Hillsborough County library in Florida opened a drive-through pickup for reemployment-assistance applications. People can also drop them off when completed, and the library will mail them.
In Arlington, Virginia, the public library has already published several online issues of Quaranzine, a community-sourced collection of artwork, poetry, photos, and stories about life during the pandemic.
The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut has moved their immigrant services online, including providing legal help to complete citizenship applications and prepare for citizenship interviews.
Serendipitous moments spur other ideas. When researching the Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library’s history for the upcoming annual report, Blane Dessy, the new director of the Erie, Pennsylvania, library, came across the annual report from 1918, documenting that the library had shuttered before—during the influenza pandemic. It inspired Dessy to begin working on an Erie County COVID-19 print and digital archive for future reference. “Here we are again,” he wrote me in an email, “and it strikes me that this pandemic will be an interesting story in the history of libraries in the United States.”
Looking back to the present and future: The old-school telephone is back. Realizing that many seniors who showed up in person at the libraries aren’t comfortable moving online, Anythink Libraries, a district of seven libraries in Adams County, Colorado, have staffed up their midday hours to man a telephone call center. Users can call to “just say hi” or talk about what’s on their minds. The message the library wants to convey even during the pandemic, according to the director Pam Smith: “We are here for you.”
Many school systems and the libraries that work with them have identified the gaps in how schools deliver their distance learning to their students. Many families lack the hardware or internet access or familiarity with technology to help their children do their schoolwork. Marcellus Turner, the executive director and chief librarian of the public library in the tech mecca of Seattle, talked about starting to fill in all those pieces to put more hardware in the hands of more students, offer more connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots, and more tech help to guide newbie households through the processes. And in the meantime—there is always a meantime—they are filling the space with actual telephone calls to students who used to show up at the library for homework help to ask how they can help over the phone.
And remember scrapbooks? The Anythink Libraries are moving their summer reading program, called mySummer, out of the libraries and into the houses, treehouses, tents, homemade forts and backyards of its readers. “It is all about inventing your summer which includes reading, thinking and doing,” Director Pam Smith wrote me in an email. The library is distributing notebooks and kits of crayons, chalk, and other items to anyone—young or old—who signs up for the program. They’re encouraging the “authors” to list the books they are reading and describe their summer adventures, to make artwork, take an imaginary trip, write about critters they find in nature, and lots of other ideas to spark creativity and imagination.
Ramping up the virtual: Despite everything horrible about it, the pandemic presents a crisis-driven opportunity for libraries to push their online capabilities farther and faster than ever before. Libraries turned quickly to familiarizing their users with their vast holdings of online content, purchasing and sharing even more content, assembling collections of COVID-19 related links and information, shifting regular events like real-life concerts and group picnics to virtual performances with backyard family-only events.
Kelvin Watson, the director of the Broward County, Florida, libraries, commented in the PLA’s webinar that use of social media on their website has skyrocketed. “Instagram,” he said, “logged 1,000 extra engagements.” The lesson? Watson said they are already purchasing more film equipment. so they’ll have a more professional-looking presence online.
The Anythink Libraries offer online tech help, poetry readings, print-and-mail services, and cooking classes. As Pam Smith put it, they are presenting themselves as “Anythink Everywhere.”
The online explosion is heady, but it comes with cautions. As Dessy of the Blasco Library emailed me: There is “a little backstory,” which is cost. “Each time a library user accesses our streaming services at no cost (to the user), there is actually a charge to the library. Nothing is free. Our streaming services usage has gone up dramatically, which impacts our materials budget, which impacts how much we spend on actual books.” He’s currently conducting a survey about how the users feel about the trade-off.
Librarians are wondering what kind of expectations their users will have once they are up and running again. Will people want all the virtual offerings and the extra help, hardware, and services to continue? Will they want more? How will libraries support all expansions?
Shoring up and expanding collaborations: Libraries have always been great collaborators. For example, the community librarians at the Deschutes County libraries in Bend, Oregon, who are master collaborators, work with dozens of organizations around town to augment each others’ work, from resume writing to tax counseling to small-business advice.
Libraries are shoring up some of their traditional partnerships, like with schools. They are also expanding into some new and surprising partnerships.
In Erie, a number of Dessy’s staff have been reassigned to the county Health Department as part of the COVID-19 response team for public communications, public-health research, and health equity.
In Colorado, the Poudre River business librarians have been helping the State Office of Economic Development and International Trade answer calls from small-business owners about a myriad of issues around the pandemic.
In San Francisco, some public librarians have become part of the city’s response team for contact tracing.
The American Libraries magazine documents an extensive list of where and how librarians are being deployed to other tasks within the library and in collaborations with outside organizations.
Reopening: In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education is working on a framework to help local libraries plan their re-openings. There will be mandatory health and safety guidelines, recommendations on how to secure COVID-19-related supplies, and lists of resources for federal and state guidelines from the CDC for community organizations and businesses. In Erie, Dessy is already working on a 60-day reopening plan. “COVID-19 is not an existential question for libraries,” he wrote me, “ but it will cause us to look at our vision, mission, and plans. That, in turn, will cause us to alter our methods.”
Anticipating what the public will expect, Marcellus Turner, of the Seattle library, described how his pandemic-era trips to Target and grocery stores have become research trips. He notes the plexiglass, and he observes the processes and standards for health and safety for what that means for the future of the Seattle libraries. What can they model?
And all librarians have to worry through other logistics: How will they clean the books? How will they open—phasing in with shorter hours, fewer locations, more contact-free drive-throughs?
Kelvin Watson of Broward County expects that they’ll include a virtual aspect to every program they do in the future. And he thinks about the future needs of his community in a cascade of considerations that involves: More people will be looking for jobs, meaning there’s a need for more computers and workstations where people can conduct those searches. And how to rearrange the seating?
For high-altitude planning, the Urban Libraries Council executive council announced that it is launching members’ working groups to address pandemic-related crises, and among those is one to look ahead and redefine the library’s role with the public, schools, businesses, and government.
Pam Smith—director of Anythink Libraries—summed it up, and I bet she speaks for many: “I’ve never been prouder to be a librarian.”
As the past week began, the Unites States was crossing 50,000 reported deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. As the new week arrives, the U.S. death total is 70,000.
Of the countless extraordinary events in these seven days, a few that are worth noting:
1) “Empathy and Simple Kindness.” This past Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a brief video whose subtweeted message was unmistakable. It recognized the suffering of those who had lost family members, or economic prospects, or hope itself; it emphasized the all of us rather than the us and them response to national crisis; and it appealed to the generous rather than the resentful in human nature.
In short, it was the kind of message that leaders of any nation have been expected to transmit, as part of their duty, in time of national hardship. And it highlighted by contrast the signals of “empathy and simple kindness” that Donald Trump himself had never managed to convey or even feign.
I have been as harsh as anyone on George W. Bush’s responsibility, in his time in office, for America’s foreign-policy and economic travails. (For more, see this, this, this, and this.) But it would be wrong not to recognize the way he was trying, 11 years after leaving office, to express the thoughts a nation expects from its leaders.
The video raised a further possibility and question for this former president: What will he say as the next election draws near? The three other living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—are all Democrats. So for them, there will be no conflict between policy goals and party loyalty. All will, of course, try to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.
In the 2016 election, the extended Bush family made no secret of its distaste for Donald Trump, who had after all ridiculed “Low Energy Jeb” Bush in the primaries. This new video suggests that George W. Bush’s estimation of Trump has not gone up. (For the record, two years ago, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Bush did his best to persuade Republican senators to stick with Kavanaugh—who had been a White House staffer for Bush.)
But would a former Republican president dare go public with a plea to save the country, and what he thinks of as his party’s principles, by voting for the opposition? The logic of this video suggests that Bush should. Could he actually do so? I’m not holding my breath, but Bush loyalists should be raising the question with him.
2) “A great success story.” This past Wednesday, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, went on the First Family’s favorite TV program, Fox and Friends. He told the hosts that the federal government “rose to the challenge” and “this is a great success story.” You can listen to him yourself, starting 9:00 minutes into this clip.
The day before Kushner spoke, the confirmed U.S. death toll from the pandemic exceeded the 58,000-plus U.S. fatalities inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the famous black granite wall in Washington. Since then, they have increased by about 2,000 per day.
It is conceivable that selected parts of the federal response will eventually be seen as successes, though overall they appear to be catastrophic now.
It is inconceivable that a favored in-law’s cheery declaration of a “great success story,” as tens of millions of people are losing their jobs and tens of thousands have lost their lives, will stand up well.
3) “I will never lie to you.” I noted last month that the new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, differed from her immediate predecessor in planning to hold press briefings at all. But she differed from past administrations’ press secretaries in that her history as a public figure was entirely in the role of cable-news partisan advocate.
At her first press briefing, this past week, she told the assembled reporters:
“I will never lie to you. You have my pledge on that.”
My earlier argument was: The best press secretaries have recognized the fundamental torment of the job. The good ones are torn day-by-day between their assignment to put the best face on the administration’s policies, and their desire to stick as close as possible to the truth.
Like Trump himself, Kayleigh McEnany seemed in her debut to be unconflicted. Her duty is only to the administration.
4) “The plague should never have happened.” Back in March I noted Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”: that is, attacking others for the failings that seem most evident in himself.
Bear that in mind, in considering Trump’s comments at a White House event this past week—and comparing them with the verdict likely to be rendered upon his administration. Trump said (as shown in this C-SPAN video):
This plague should have never happened.
It could have been stopped, but people chose not to stop it, and it's a very sad thing for the world
The tech-training and incubator company Bitwise, based in Fresno in California’s agricultural Central Valley, has been an important test case for the proposition that new, valuable, job-creating, and wealth-expanding businesses can arise anywhere, not just in the few familiar “superstar” cities.
Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about Bitwise since first visiting its (then-tiny) headquarters five years ago. For instance, two reports from 2015 (here and here) explain why it’s worth taking “left behind” places like Fresno seriously as future economic hubs. This one, from 2019, covers how dramatically Bitwise’s operations have expanded in its brief history.
Last week I spoke with the two co-founders of Bitwise, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal (whom you see in the photo above), about what their company was doing to deal with the pandemic’s effects in their home site of Fresno, in other parts of the Central Valley, and in similar cities across the country.
The Central Valley is within the same state borders as Los Angeles and Malibu, San Francisco and Palo Alto. But its situation, at this moment, has more in common with the crop-growing and meat-packing centers of Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas that have recently been in the news. It is “rich,” in the sense that its agricultural output feeds much of the country and the world. But it is “poor,” in the economic status and public-health vulnerability of many of its residents—notably including those who harvest the crops and process the meats.
“We started with the awareness that we are a cash-rich company”—because of its rapid growth and businesses successes—“sitting in a poor town,” Jake Soberal told me. “So we felt a sense of obligation to use those resources for the betterment of our community.” I have seen enough of what Olguin and Soberal and their colleagues have done, over a long enough period, to view these as more than just empty words. (For instance: their role in the memorable “Unapologetically Fresno” campaign from a few years ago.)
Their first step was to have Bitwise itself put out an offer to buy and deliver groceries to local people who needed help getting food. “The response was too overwhelming,” Soberal said. “We realized there was a deep need.”
Their next step was to use their own tech tools, and work with the San Francisco-based tech giant Salesforce, to automate a system through which people could place requests for food, and the food could be purchased and delivered.
The Bitwise team identified a local nonprofit thrift store whose normal business had evaporated, and hired its logistics staff to begin delivering food. “We soon saw one of the gaps in local and national food delivery systems,” Soberal told me. “That was the ability to deliver to individuals.” Food banks have dramatically expanded. But, he said, “the people most in need of food support are commonly without transportation, are sick or elderly, and don’t really have a way to get where the food might be.”
Within days, they talked with the tech eminences Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who had been investors in Bitwise and who co-founded the Kapor Center, which has a stated mission of “leveling the playing field in tech.” With backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise produced a software system and web site called OnwardCA.org, whose purpose is to help match people who have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood with the few opportunities the pandemic disruption is opening up.
Restaurant workers, retail staffers, employees in the hotel and tourism industry—all at once, they were out of work. “The way to reduce the truly catastrophic effects of these changes, is to minimize the time people are completely displaced,” Irma Olguin told me. “If there is a chance to match Person A with Job B, that can make a difference.”
But what, conceivably, are these new “Job Bs”—at a time when the national unemployment rate is nearing rates not seen since the 1930s?
“Our first thought was to start identifying industries with surge-hiring needs,” Jake Soberal said. Everyone has heard about Amazon’s hiring 100,000 additional logistics-and-delivery staffers. Olguin and Soberal said the pattern applied at some small enterprises as well. “The general categories are health care, agriculture, grocery, and logistics,” Soberal said. “Where we can make a difference is the openings that wouldn’t get much attention otherwise—the logistics company in San Bernardino that has 12 job openings, the trucking company in Fort Bragg that has 5.” With its backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise set up a large data-collection effort—looking through phone listings, making calls to the companies in places like San Bernardino or Fort Bragg—and assembling a job-opening data system for the state.
“Restaurants may not be opening soon,” Soberal said. “But someone from a restaurant might be well matched for a grocery or food-supply job, or someone from a closed gym to a logistics center.”
Last week, when I spoke with Olguin and Soberal, they were working with Gavin Newsom and his administration in California on the job-matching OnwardCA program available broadly through the state. Soon they expanded to Colorado. Then this week, on Tuesday, they announced the expansion of the program to states that together make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. (In addition to California and Colorado, they are New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.)
You can read details on the expanded OnwardUS program in the Bitwise announcement here. Is this “the” answer to today’s economic and public-health catastrophes? As I say about each new initiative, of course it is not—on its own. But it is another partial answer, emerging at the local and state level, in the absence of federal response. (And, as upcoming reports will note, the Bitwise job-matching approach parallels efforts that vastly larger tech companies, notably Google and Microsoft, have intensified during the pandemic.)
“The world has been ignoring talent from communities where people are not used to looking,” Soberal told me, of Bitwise’s enterprises in general and the Onward programs in specific.
“We’ve been tapping into that for six and a half years now. The software is being built by people in the Central Valley, black and brown people, from field-worker families. They were not ‘supposed’ to be part of the tech economy. What you’re seeing right now is the ability to tap into an emergency response in a matter of days—because that talent was invested in, and ready.”
The national-level response to the coronavirus pandemic descends from tragedy into catastrophe. The black granite slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington display the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war. Those deaths occurred over more than 15 years of conflict. At current rates, a larger number of Americans will have died from this pandemic within less than two months. Unemployment rates are already reaching levels that no American born after the Great Depression of the 1930s had witnessed or experienced.
Today’s report is the first of two on relatively new tech companies, each based in a non-coastal, “left behind” part of the country, that have been bringing economic, educational, and life-prospect opportunities to their regions, and how they are now trying to cope with the current disaster. Today’s concerns the Innovation Collective, based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Later we’ll revisit Bitwise Industries, based in Fresno, California, which we have followed over the years.
Innovation Collective: Nick Smoot, who is now in his late 30s, grew up in Coeur d’Alene. He moved away after high school and spent the next dozen years as a tech entrepreneur. He founded, built, and sold three internet-based companies (mainly involving test-prep and marketing—details here), and he became a speaker and commentator in the tech world.
Then at around age 30 he returned to Idaho. He told me that he came back to his home town for a reason that is related to fundamental debates about the American economy in recent years. Namely: how to share the opportunities and benefits of a tech-based economy more broadly—across regions, among races, for people of different backgrounds and economic groups—so that they create a broader-based, inclusive, fairer economy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and as an uneven recovery spread across the country in the next few years, the challenge of “inclusive growth” was discussed in countless reports and conferences, in political speeches and in newspaper articles. Like most of the other people we have been chronicling, Smoot believed that he could help these ideals and action plans into effect, back in his smallish (population 50,000) home town.
“I think capitalism is great,” he told me, when we spoke on the phone last month. “But my goal is to reframe the word ‘capitalism,’ because a system that drives the production of too much, for the consumption of too few, has reached its limits.” He said that his goal was to use market incentives to create a tech-based business system “that is more stable and equitable—and to repair gashes in communities, rather than deepen them. We want to unlock potential in all people and especially those who feel they have been left behind.”
The taming and repair of capitalism is, to put it mildly, a long-standing and complex issue. (Here are two big Atlantic stories I have done on just this topic, from 2015, based on a new project by Al Gore, and from 1993, about an obscure German economist named Friedrich List.)
In practice, what this has meant in Smoot’s case is trying to foster, assemble, and connect the ingredients of a business-startup ecosystem in parts of the country that have felt cut off from the Bay Area-Seattle-New York technology boom. A few years ago he made a Vimeo statement summing up the ambitions, which you can see here. His “Innovation Collective” offers training sessions, mentor relationships, public and private events, supply-chain relationships, studies of regional economic possibilities, training in work-preparedness and other “life skills,” and other forms of “soft” infrastructure. Measures like these could seem airy or trivial—until you remember how central a role such informal ties have played in the rise of tech-economic centers in San Francisco, Boston, or Seattle, and how the absence of this soft infrastructure has hindered much of smaller-town, inland America.
“I look on every citizen in town as a frustrated creator,” Smoot told me last month. “Because they are not creating, they are not happy—and the ones who are happiest are the ones who are able to create. We build communities around this idea of human potential.” Talent, ambition, and creative potential are very widely dispersed, he said. Opportunity has not been. That is the gap he has hoped his Innovation Collective could help close.
In Coeur d’Alene, his organization developed a partnership that restored a long-vacant Elks building in the center of downtown. It became the “Innovation Den”—and now the site of over 60 offices, a barber shop, a coffee shop, a robotics and computer-science program, and a civic site, for events like the one you see in the photo above. The Innovation Collective has launched a low-cost tech-training program called Inspire. The IC offers different tiers of membership, from free to about $800 per year. It has started a venture fund, directed at new businesses in Coeur d’Alene and similar communities across the country.
Smoot described to me some of its operations in Utica, New York; Brooksville, Florida; and Spokane, Washington. In each of the cities, the emphasis has been on economic niches that match the geographical, cultural, and business-history particularities of that town. Coeur d’Alene, for instance, has a strong robotics sector. Utica, like many other cities in the Northeast (for instance, Erie), has a long manufacturing heritage, in recent decline, and a diverse population including many immigrants and refugees. You can read about those and other projects here.
All that was in the seven years before the crisis. And now? Last month, as the lockdowns were beginning, Smoot produced a six-minute LinkedIn video addressed to small companies like those he had been working with, in small communities across the country. “You need this, we need this, I need this,” he said, about trying to connect small firms with others facing similar problems. (You will see this about three and a half minutes into the LinkedIn clip.)
We all have more to give …. When a good chunk of our country is isolated in their homes, more isolated than they were before, we have a choice. We can become worse, or we can become better. We can become less, or we can become greater.
Choose to become greater. Choose to become more.
Again, in isolation it could sound just like a motivational speech, but it’s connected to the “left behind America” work that Smoot and his organization have been doing for years.
When I asked Smoot how his emphasis had shifted, he said it was primarily on the physical, mental, and emotional health of people in his extended community, and the creation of locally based, self-sustaining networks, rather than sending online “content” from headquarters. As he put it in an email:
It’s very important to note, we are creating “Local Digital Interactive Communities,” not streaming pre recorded content or creating communities of non local people. VERY important.
These types of communities are made up of 100’s of local experiences per month that feature local faces facilitating experiences that add value to three crucial areas for stability and recovery; economic, mental, and physical health. Through community, these focuses help you become the kind of person who can go get the future you want.
He went on to explain how this approach differed from simple Zoom-meeting connectedness, including “large and small group experiences to avoid hiding online” and a series of regular accountability and goal-setting stages.
“Stand tall today,” Smoot says in the introduction to his LinkedIn video. “Shoulders back, chin up … Together, as a big community, we choose to build a tomorrow we want, through community today.”
As I ask at the end of each of these updates: Is an approach like this “the” answer to the current public health and economic crisis? Of course not. And I am sure that the IC model has limitations and weak points as well as strengths.
But is it part of “an” answer? Yes, I believe it can be, as well as an example of the creativity with which Americans across the country are responding to our emergency. The history of these times should include the people and organizations that are trying to solve the moment’s problems, as well as the institutions that have failed.
Georgia had an early surge of the virus, and now cases are spiking again. Brian Kemp has refused to learn a thing.
America has botched its coronavirus response in so, so many ways since the pandemic began. Even in a country that stands apart from the world for its horrific failures, there have been as many leadership bungles as there are states: Some failed to heed early warnings. Others refused to learn the lessons of outbreaks that came before theirs. Still others played politics instead of following science. And then there’s Georgia.
Georgia’s response to the pandemic has not been going well. It was bad from the beginning: Back in early April, weeks after other states took initial precautions, Georgia dawdled toward a shutdown while its coronavirus cases surged. Still, less than a month later, the state chose to be among the first in the nation to reopen, bringing back businesses known to accelerate the virus’s spread, such as restaurants and gyms, even though new infections had never made a significant or sustained decline. In June, the state welcomed back bars. What happened next was predictable, and was predicted: Case counts came roaring back. More people got sick and died. Many of these deaths were preventable. The state now has the sixth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, behind five states with significantly larger populations.
The Biden vice-presidential-nominee finalist discusses Trump’s pandemic response, Benghazi, and her family’s politics.
A few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice held a press briefing in her office to talk about the threats she saw on the horizon as Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close. “What keeps you up at night? one reporter asked toward the end of the meeting. Her answer: a pandemic that spirals out of control.
Yesterday afternoon, I asked Rice how the past five months have compared to what she’d been worried about in the early days of 2017. “This is about in the realm of my worst nightmare,” she told me. That’s why, Rice said, she worked to put together plans, and why she oversaw the creation of the pandemic-preparedness office that Trump famously closed. “We knew it was going to happen. We just couldn’t know when.”
A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million.
Three predictions for what the future might look like
In March, tens of millions of American workers—mostly in white-collar industries such as tech, finance, and media—were thrust into a sudden, chaotic experiment in working from home. Four months later, the experiment isn’t close to ending. For many, the test run is looking more like the long run.
Google announced in July that its roughly 200,000 employees will continue to work from home until at least next summer. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to be remote within the decade. Twitter has told staff they can stay home permanently.
With corporate giants welcoming far-flung workforces, real-estate markets in the superstar cities that combine high-paid work and high-cost housing are in turmoil. In the San Francisco Bay Area, rents are tumbling. In New York City, offices are still empty; so many well-heeled families with second homes have abandoned Manhattan that it’s causing headaches for the census.
How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else
From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.
I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. One very cold morning just after Thanksgiving in 2006, I was on the way to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being bait-and-switched when their employee-ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.
The comedian’s employees say that fame has enabled callousness and abuse on her show. The warm testimonies of her superstar friends highlight their point.
Famous people want the world to know that Ellen DeGeneres is nice to famous people. Addressing media reports alleging a culture of harassment and bullying at DeGeneres’s talk show, the singer Katy Perry tweeted Tuesday that she’s “only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen.” Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton, and the superstar agent Scooter Braun have all recently made similar declarations about DeGeneres’s kindness, so as to push back against claims painting her as callous toward staffers, fans, and other entertainment-industry figures. “Looking forward to the future where we get back to loving one another,” Hart wrote, blasting those who have criticized DeGeneres and called for her to step down. “This hate shit has to stop.”
I don’t know that I would ever be able to forgive him for taking this away from me.
My husband and I have been together for nearly four years and are struggling to decide whether to have another baby. When we met, he had a 3-year-old son, and after a messy custody battle, he got primary custody of his son, my stepson.
I found out I was pregnant shortly after we started dating. When we decided to live together, I made sure to have a talk with him in which I was completely open about my wishes to eventually have another baby. I did this in large part because he is 14 years older than me. I have always wanted three children, and despite my early unexpected pregnancy, I was not willing to enter into a deeper relationship where having more children was not an option. Not only did he enthusiastically agree at the time, but he jokingly said he wouldn't mind having another 10 children.
Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.
The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”
“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.
We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.