Wings over America: A Conversation with Author James Fallows
Raphael Bostic: Hello, everyone. This is Raphael Bostic, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. I'm here to welcome you to a special podcast that we are doing with James Fallows, who is the author of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. James—I know you go by Jim, so I'm going to call you "Jim" for the rest of today. Welcome—it's really good to have you here.
James Fallows: Raphael, thanks very much. And I will call you "sir." [laughter]
James Fallows (left) and Raphael Bostic. Photo by David Fine
Bostic: Please don't do that, please don't do that. So to start, I thought it would be good to ask, how did you come up with this? This is a really interesting project: you get in a plane and you fly yourselves around, but you don't fly to LA and Chicago. You pick a bunch of small places. What was the impetus for that?
Fallows: So the backstory first, for any listeners who might be thinking, "Oh, Gulfstream or Learjet or something"—this is a little single-engine propeller plane with four seats that my wife and I have been flying for a long, long time. And from crisscrossing the country over the decades, we learned there are all sorts of parts of America you can get to by general aviation you don't normally go to otherwise, from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Red Oak, Iowa, or anyplace else. So we had been living in China for four-plus years reporting for The Atlantic, and when we were in China we went to every little remote hamlet of China on buses and oxcarts and all the rest. So we thought when we returned to the U.S.—as a way of getting out of DC—what about reporting on the places that aren't usually in the news unless there's some disaster?
Bostic: Those would be the flyover places, as they're described by coastal people in this country. And I have to say, I was really intrigued by the whole concept. I actually really like places myself, and I've driven across the country I think five separate times, doing a different route every time to see different places. And it's really an interesting perspective to get a sense of what America is, that isn't just the one large unit that we see on a map.
Fallows: Yes—it's a big, beautiful, varied, surprising country. And I think one reason also that my wife Deb and I wanted to do this is that we are each from flyover type of places. I'm from inland Southern California, which is very different from coastal Southern California—sort of the Oklahoma of California. It's where people came from—
Bostic: Fon-tucky, for example.
Fallows: [laughs] Yes, yes. The Grapes of Wrath, people that sort of...that, and migration from Mexico were the two sources of my town. Deb is from a small Lake Erie village in Ohio where the people used to work in big GM and Ford plants, each of which is now gone. So we felt as if these were places that we resonated with, and by going to them and not asking people, "What do you think about whoever is the national political figure of the moment?"—Barack Obama, when we began, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton recently—but asking them about their town, their schools, their jobs, their downtown, whether people were moving back in or back out. It's a much richer sense of the country than you get if you just turn on cable news and say, "People have one of two entrenched outlooks."
Bostic: That's very interesting. When you'd go to these places and you'd start to have these conversations, how did people respond to you? So you're the new person. Many of these towns are so small, everyone knew you were the new person. Was it difficult to start conversations? Were you viewed with skepticism at first? How did that happen?
Fallows: I think, now that you ask, it is a multistage process. We began this back in 2013, and the way that we started was I did a post on the Atlantic site saying, "Tell me the story of your town and why it is the representative American small town now," and I had a whole set of criteria. We got about a thousand essays from people all around the country—from 49 of the 50 states. Georgia was one of the 49. I think all the states within your region were represented. And so we would do a little bit of advance planning. Usually three or four days before we arrived, we'd write to the mayor or we'd write to the newspaper editor or the librarian saying, "We're coming to your town—we'd like to learn about it." So we just do the normal interview process, and we'd live there. We'd be there usually two weeks. We'd go to minor-league baseball games, we'd go to the Y, we'd go to the brewpubs, etc. So early on we were trying to explain the whole concept. After we'd been doing this for a couple of years we had hundreds of Atlantic posts we'd done, and a couple of Atlantic articles, so people could see the idea of what we were doing—which was not to ridicule or lampoon or say, "This is the sticks, these places," but trying to understand their drama. Then over the past year, we're making a movie with HBO based on this book. That's a whole different thing, where you have this giant film crew you're walking around with and everybody in the town stops trying to be in the casual background shots.
Bostic: [laughter] I can only imagine.
Fallows: It was much easier to do it when we were just there with our pads and tape recorders than with a film crew.
Bostic: Are you doing the movie about different places?
Fallows: Yes. We went back to six places we'd been before, and did the whole different kind of reporting you do with a movie crew where it wasn't PBS documentary-type interviews, but rather people doing things: people launching blimps, or doing precision agriculture, or working in a steel smelter, or whatever. And we went to six places. We went to West Virginia, at great length; San Bernardino, California, near where I'm from; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Columbus, Mississippi; central Oregon; and rural Maine. They will be part of a two-hour film sometime next year.
Bostic: That sounds very interesting, and exciting. And so you call out those places, and they're in the corners and the middle, and I think an initial impulse might be to say that they're totally different places—they've got nothing in common. And so how are you going to weave all this together? It's got to be virtually impossible. Can you talk about some of the commonalities? I think you have—what? Ten and a half signs of civic success? What were those common themes that you saw across places?
Fallows: The common question we had initially—again, back in 2013, when we were starting—was, "What's happening in these places? What is happening in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for example?" And the answer is: an incredible amount is happening in Sioux Falls. They have all these refugees coming in from Somalia and Cameroon. All of the digital imagery of the world's surface is stored in Sioux Falls, etc. So the first stage was, "Good Lord, there's all this stuff happening in these places we hadn't paid attention to." The next stage was trying to understand the spectrum between places that were recovering from the terrible shocks of 10 to 12 years ago, and finding ways to rebuild their economic base and deal with their schools, etc., and ones that weren't able to do that.
So we found some common trends—some of them sociological, like: Was there a strong public-private partnership enterprise? Was there experimentation with the schools? Were there people who thought of themselves as civic patriots—you know, they really cared? Some of them were more structural, like: Was there a downtown that could be rehabbed, and that hadn't been just entirely gutted? Were the community colleges involved with employers? And some of them were a matter of luck and circumstance. Every city is similar, and every one is really different—the uniqueness of understanding why rural Maine is like southern Arizona, the ways they're similar and they're different, too. So appreciating both of those is what we tried to do.
Bostic: Well, that local context—I think when most people, or when I, initially think about places, that's the overarching, dominant perspective—that this is a local place, it has its own unique history, and because of that I've got to think of it as an isolated case of whatever. And I have to say, I've been doing a lot of traveling around in the Sixth District, and one of the themes that we have at our Bank is that there are ways to categorize experiences, and that—particularly outside of the big metro areas—there are some common concerns and challenges that they all face, that they've got to figure out how to deal with and overcome. So of the things in the commonality, what things do you see as particularly important? You have those ten and a half. Are there a couple that—I like the half, by the way.
Fallows: Yes. We can save the half to entice people to go read the book.
Bostic: Exactly. We'll get to that, right? But are there some that stood out, that you saw less frequently?
Fallows: So I think there are a macro trend and a specific local trend, both of which involve the work of your institution and the work of this District, which we found impressive. The macro trend is that, at just the time where—as we all know over the last generation—people have been concentrating in the biggest cities. You go to LA or San Francisco or Seattle and you could hardly move, and you certainly can't pay for anything there. Just as this concentration continues, there's a really interesting reverse migration, reverse osmosis, of people who think, "Yes, I could try to do my startup in San Francisco, but if I were in Fresno in California's central valley, I could do it for one-tenth the real estate costs, and I could be near my family and not have to commute, etc., etc." So we found a really interesting—again, different in each case but a common pattern of people who had some reason to think that southern Georgia, whether it's Savannah or St. Mary's—which we wrote about—was a place they wanted to be. Whether Birmingham, Alabama, was an attractive place to be. Whether southern Virginia, in Danville, was a place to go, etc. So there was a really interesting kind of reverse percolation.
The other thing related to it is people figuring out how their region can be part of the economic growth that is occurring and finding ways—whether it's in tourism or advanced manufacturing or remote work or healthcare or whatever—that there is a niche for this area to make it. And I ended up thinking, just to filibuster for a minute more, that high schools and community colleges were really crucial ingredients of this mix because the jobs that are going begging now are these skilled technical jobs, and the people to match people who need opportunity with those opportunities. I think that career technical high schools and community colleges are really the institutions of this moment.
Bostic: And it's been so interesting for me because I've had the chance to visit a number of them. Macon has a career technical high school. You go to Augusta, Georgia, for example—they've got a nice public-private partnership with the school district. Meridian, Mississippi, has a community college structure that is trying to grapple with these things. And for us at the Bank here, we have really tried to speak to this on two levels. One is: Do people even know what the jobs that are going wanting are? So we've created a new tool called the Opportunity Occupations Monitor that is really designed to give people an opportunity to say, in your county, "Where are the jobs that don't require you to have four or six years of schooling, but then will also pay you a decent wage so you don't have to have multiple jobs?"
And so that's online. I'm very excited about it because it's really, I think, arming regular people with the information that they need to start to think about, "Well, if I'm being disrupted out or industry X has just left, do I just throw my hands up and say it's all over and hopeless or is there an opportunity for me to have a strategy moving forward?" And having these institutions in place that really allow for those pathways to get those new skills so you're competitive in tomorrow's economy is really important. So for this "people excitement" to be economically viable, I think, is really important, because one thing I've been very concerned about is these smaller places descending into hopelessness and not really aspiring to be something, because then that leads to isolation, which is going to be a problem.
Fallows: Yes, and I'll confess that I had not known about this job search tool that you have, and to me that is exactly the tool that is crucial for the next stage in economic and civic life. And a way to think about it is, in the olden days if you wanted to look for a job you looked for where the giant factory was. "Where is Ford or US Steel or whatever, employing 10,000 people at a crack?" There are some of those places, but there aren't many anymore. Instead it's a whole bunch of little opportunities that people may not notice with the naked eye. Across the Midwest, there's this whole industry of wind power, of wind power technicians. As you mentioned in Augusta, there is an aviation and aerospace industry that is very important there, and I've talked with the head of that company about how they're working with the schools to try to match people with the good jobs that are around in aerospace. So finding ways so that people whose parents might have trudged into the 10,000-person factory because they knew it was there—but that's not going to happen anymore—with the sites of 20 jobs and 50 jobs, but with career possibilities, I think that's a wonderful tool.
Bostic: I'm very excited about it, and I'm hopeful that we can get more traction on this. So please, go tell as many people as you can.
Fallows: Yes, I will study up about it and tell it to my audience via The Atlantic.
Bostic: Well, I really appreciate that. Now one thing, as I read through the book, that struck me repeatedly was individuals: the notion that in every place there were specific people who were moving things. You talked about the civic champion—who is that "go to" person, or those "go to" people? And I have to say, I met a lot of the people in this book. You talked about San Bernardino and Riverside, so there's Ron Loveridge, John Husing, and then Kevin Starr, the poet laureate for the state of California.
Fallows: And my history professor in college, long ago.
Bostic: Which is so uncanny. I was reading, I was like, "I know all these people." Or Ashley Swearengin in Fresno—and even here, with Jimmy Carter and his role in the brewpub. It's very interesting. I tell people this all the time—I think it's quite interesting. Then all of those small business people in each of these towns, who, for their own particular circumstance, decided, "I'm going to plant my flag here and try to do amazing things." That was super interesting to me and it made me think, where does that initiative come from? Because when I go around I see a lot of folks who are in these cities, these smaller places. They are worried and they care, but they don't know how to galvanize that critical mass of people. Do you have any advice for folks in that situation?
Fallows: So first, I really appreciate your reading this, and I'm glad we have so many common connections with the people we've seen around the country. There's an interesting kind of frontier or membrane between our respective realms of knowledge, as we think about this. Because I am a reporter, that's all I've ever done through my life—although I studied history and economics—and you are an academic and the leader of a major financial institution. And so for a reporter, my instinct is usually to say, "My God, I just met this person in Columbus, Mississippi, or in Duluth, or in Dodge City—you won't believe what these people did." And the policymaking and scholarly natural desire is to say, "How can we systematize this?" And I think you can systematize some of the conditions that make it possible for people who care enough about a place to want to do something, to make it easier for them. Unfortunately, you can't force-feed or laboratory-grow the people themselves, just as we can't laboratory-grow Madison, Hamilton, or Jefferson for this era. And I'll just give you one other illustration. My little hometown of Redlands, California, is entirely different now because of one stroke of luck, which is somebody who grew up there—a man named Jack Dangermond—
Bostic: Who I also know.
Fallows: His immigrant parents ran a nursery. My dad was their family doctor.
Bostic: Oh, my goodness.
Fallows: Yes, after he went off to graduate school at Harvard in computer technology, he asked himself, "Do I start my company in Cambridge, where I am; in Palo Alto, where the money is; or in Redlands, where I'm from?" And he decided to bring it back to Redlands, and now there are 10,000 plus international engineers at his company, ESRI, a mapping company. So you can't engineer that, but it's made a huge difference in the town.
Bostic: Well, Jack's story is really interesting. I met him when I was at HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and we were trying to introduce more geospatial mapping into how cities conceive of themselves and how we use data to describe what's happening in cities. And he was incredibly generous with his time and also his resources, particularly because it was about places. He loves places—and he particularly loves smaller places and trying to help them be better. It was really, really interesting, and he's helped Redlands be a really strong place. It's quite interesting.
Fallows: And the adjoining San Bernardino, which you know very well, has suffered from a lack of those champions traditionally. In the last eight or ten years, it suddenly has attracted them. The superintendent of schools there, Dale Marsden, is a really transformative figure and has taken their public schools from arguably the most troubled in the state to arguably the best public high schools in the state.
Bostic: So it's interesting that it doesn't take 100,000 people to make these changes, but some real leadership and vision I think can be quite helpful. So you talked about institutions, to set sort of a stage for these things. We've talked about community colleges, we've also talked about universities and other colleges, high schools—these are baseline institutions that sometimes emerge because the public sector has a view, but sometimes they emerge and become successful and interesting because others start to contribute. Can you talk a little bit about what that mix of participation can mean for these things?
Fallows: I'll give an example that I've learned about since I wrote this book that I'll be writing about soon in The Atlantic, which is the town of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton is where the Wright brothers first did all their aviation. It has a great industrial history. It advertises itself as the Silicon Valley of a hundred years ago, and the problem is the "a hundred years ago" part because they've had a number of big industries close down. But now they're having a really interesting collaboration among the University of Dayton, a private Catholic school that had traditionally made itself separate from the downtown, and Sinclair Community College, one of the longest continuously operating community colleges in the U.S.—it started in the 1880s. And some of the businesses there, the city government, and some NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] said, "We're all going to put our energy downtown, and we're going to have ways to work with the libraries and work to rehab some of the old abandoned buildings." So there's this sense in Dayton—which was tragically punctuated by the shootings, in the summer of 2019, where they felt that happened in one of the parts that was most coming back there. But you have a research university, community college, state government, city government of different parties—the Ohio state government is Republican, Nan Whaley of city government is Democratic—they're working together, they're getting some federal grants. But Dayton, I think, has this sense of being a happening place, because they're putting things together.
Bostic: That's very interesting. We talked a lot about economics, and the economic connection, but in the book you talk a lot about other things like biking, walking trails, parks, public art, social gathering places. Can you talk about how that adds to the mix of these places, to help them be more successful?
Fallows: This is something where Deb and I feel as if we had a conversion experience during the course of these travels, because we weren't particularly public arts type of people. I liked sports and all that, but I wasn't really an urban design guy. But it became apparent to us that cities attract people and life in ways more than just a tax abatement or some other tangible thing. It's where people who have a choice about where to live choose to live. And there's something about public gathering spaces and schools and libraries. Central Oregon 35 years ago had the highest unemployment rate in the country, when the timber industry imploded for environmental and other reasons. Now it's remade itself as a sports place. Bend and the areas around there have half the Olympic teams training there.
West Virginia is thinking of doing something like that, but public arts are ways both to engage different parts of the community—different ages, different races, different sensibilities—and make people feel as if the place is theirs. And also ways to deal with history. That's a whole other thing I can tell you about, but that has really impressed us, essentially—especially—the racial history of America. We know the difficult ways in which public art has come onto the horizon. We're impressed by the places trying to do the "other" of having public artistic renderings that are convening places about what is the racial history of our place, and what do we need to reckon with?
Bostic: Well, you had some good stories about how some places are grappling with that and trying to face those challenges. I think it was in...Kansas?
Fallows: Kansas and Duluth, Minnesota, which was the site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, which was 99 years ago. This was just a part of the history that Duluth, with only a small African American population, didn't really deal with. But about 10 years ago, they made this really wonderful public art. It was like a combination of the Vietnam wall and the Martin Luther King statue—both of those things are in DC. They have this big city block in downtown Duluth with very large statues of the three men who were lynched and stories about their lives, and just about the Midwest's role in the teens and the 1920s—the rise of the Klan, etc. And Duluth is a place where you wouldn't necessarily expect that. Mississippi, there's been—we write a lot about the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which, contrary to its name, is mainly a historical place, and how they are grappling with it.
Bostic: So it's really, really interesting. Being here in the South, where we are grappling with, "How do we think about history?" as well, I have to say, I was really struck that art has become a mode for articulating what a place is and making a place interesting in a way that might draw people. And I did not have a sensitivity that it was going on in so many different places, in so many different ways. I think about Eastport, Maine, and the artists—basically they have an artist-in-residence and fellows that come through, and you just don't think of that place as, you know, "arts central."
Fallows: And similarly, Tulsa, Oklahoma—which we didn't write about, we visited recently—has I believe the largest artist-in-residence program in the U.S., something like 60 or 70 people per year who go to downtown Tulsa. They do painting, they do poetry, they do all kinds of public sculptures. They have to put on public shows, so go figure.
Bostic: I didn't know that. I've got to add Tulsa to my list. It's not in my district, though.
Fallows: You can annex Oklahoma. [laughter]
Bostic: I'll have to talk with Mr. Kaplan and Ms. George about that, see how that goes. So I wanted to switch gears a little bit. Here at the Bank, one of our strategic priorities for the year is to increase economic mobility and resilience. And if you look at the Southeast, if you look at Atlanta as a metro area, we don't do very well in any metrics where you ask, "If you're born poor, what's the probability that you will not be poor as an adult?" And so this is definitely true in urban places. It is very much true in smaller places, where the range of possibilities in many instances is narrow if you're going to stay there. How do you think about how civic resurgence in these places can contribute to performance improvements, in terms of mobility and resilience?
Fallows: We think about this a lot, and of course we don't have answers to this any more than we have answers for all the other great, eternal problems of American life. Something that has struck me as time has gone on is that there are two opposite-seeming, but both necessary, kinds of resilience and mobility that are worth communities and policymakers and all the rest bearing in mind. One is individual mobility, which has been part of the American story. Over almost any family story in America, if you go back three or four or five generations, people have moved. The center of population has moved from Baltimore to Missouri, over the time. And so even though those rates are going down. On the one hand, it's been an individually mobile country, and part of the formula for opportunity is giving people a chance someplace if there's not a chance where they are. So there's individual mobility—that was, in brief, my own family story. They came from working-class Philadelphia. The Navy sent my dad to medical school and then sent him to California.
But there also is a kind of place-based mobility or opportunity. Not everybody's going to leave. And while some really small settlements may go away, places of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 people are not going to disappear. So you have to do something to make better opportunities in Macon, where I've spent time, or in Augusta, or in Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus, Mississippi, or anyplace else. And so the mental balance of making it easier for people to leave, but also making it better for people who stay—that's the balance. And I think that place-based resilience and opportunity is—obviously, it's not a sufficient condition to have more opportunity there in the town, but it's a necessary condition. You have to have the boat rising, to give people a chance to have more—or the tide rising to have...maybe not the analogy you want to use in this era anymore, "the tide rising," right? [laughter] I'll say that the boat is rising.
Bostic: And I have a lot of coastline in this District, so I don't want it to rise too much. You wouldn't know this, but listening to you I had a flashback to the time I was working at HUD, where we were trying to think about, do you invest in people or do you invest in place? And where we settled was, it's not an "or" question. It's "How do you do both?" How do you give people who see opportunities that they'd like to have that aren't local to them—a way to get to those opportunities—while at the same time trying to work to make sure no matter where you live, you will have access to some opportunities? And we've got to do better on both of those dimensions if we want America to really be a true land of opportunity. And it's really interesting that you came to this in a...
Fallows: In my stumbling, journalistic way. [laughs]
Bostic: Flying around in a one-engine plane, going to a bunch of places that no one really talks about. It's really interesting.
Fallows: And again, to my chagrin, I didn't know that all of you in the policy land were thinking about this—the people-based and place-based opportunity—but now I realize this is what everybody needs to do. And I'll ask you: Why do you think political candidates don't make that point more often? Because it seems like they seem to talk about only one—you know, "more free college for people"—or only the other: "let's keep the factory open." And why do you think that is?
Bostic: So that's a good question. For me, I think that in part it's because we've not for a while talked big story—what's the total picture of what we're trying to accomplish?—to get people behind something that has multiple components to it. And if we really want everyone to have access to opportunity, then we should talk about it exactly the way you did. Some people are going to want to move there, some people don't want to move. But if you don't want to move, that doesn't mean that you should be shut out from these things. And too often our discourse is on discrete things—the factory comes up, so we talk about the factory—and it's really become more difficult, I think, to step back and say, "Where does the factory sit in the context of our bigger notion of what access to opportunity looks like?" And we've got to get more of that.
I think another issue, which is a challenge, is that the locus of decision making varies depending on the issue. Sometimes it's the city council, sometimes it's the governor, sometimes it's the county commissioner, and sometimes it's the Congress—right? And they all need to see that they're a piece of a larger puzzle and start to think of their policies as having to integrate that way. But that requires all these personalities, all these competing interests, to be managed. So when you're talking about Dayton, you've got a Republican governor, Democratic city government. In many instances, that doesn't work because there's not been an agreement on a shared goal or a shared philosophy of how to get to a goal. And so working through all that I think is really the challenge.
Fallows: So my next stage, journalistically, is going to be to come back to you to actually interview you about all these things, because the next thing that Deb and I want to explore and write about is how does the country take the next step, and how do you build in all these local resilient examples to make them something bigger?
Bostic: Well, I'd be happy to talk to you more on this. I have to say, I was struck by your closing chapters, and I'd wanted to make sure we spent some time talking about each of the last three chapters. So in the book, Jim talks about what he saw and what he learned—what they saw, what they learned...I should say, this isn't just Jim's journey. His wife, Deborah Fallows, also was there. And I actually wanted to ask you about this. So the way that the book is written, at the beginning of each chapter or subsection there's either a quill pen or a plane. And so each of you wrote your own separate sections, and then they are kind of stitched together. How did that work? That seems very difficult. There's a risk of different voices and different emphases.
Fallows: So, Deb—who unfortunately is not with us right now, but she will be back on our future visits, future reporting visits—is a linguist by background, and when we were living in China she wrote a celebrated book called Dreaming in Chinese, praised by the New Yorker and Oprah. That's the combo that every writer wants.
Bostic: That's the holy grail right there.
Fallows: So we've been together for a long time—since a blind date at age 18—and we are complementary but very different people. So we thought the way we could write this was—I think neither of us would have survived trying to have a cowritten book. Instead we just did, "I'm going to tell you about the meatpacking plant, and Deb's going to tell you about this Somali refugee she met. I'm going to tell you about this or that, she's going to tell you about swimming." So I think that was the way we could have each of our authentic voices. We recorded it each in our own voice too, when we did the audio book, which I think you can then hear Deb's charming, young-sounding voice. So that's how it works. It was the only way to pull this off.
Bostic: It seems super difficult to me. Most of my career, I've coauthored articles with folks, and there's one byline that all our names are on—which means that every sentence, every paragraph, all of us have to sign off on. That is an extremely difficult way to write a paper. It's a good way, I think, because then you use your diversity to squeeze out any kind of biases that anyone might have, but it takes a long time.
Fallows: Yes. And it's something...I have done that in my life, including when I was a speechwriter, which is a variant of that. And it's something I choose not to do—that I figure I have my voice and my way of saying things. I'll say things my way, and Deb will say them her way, and so I respect people who can do joint-authored things, but I am not of them.
Bostic: So I wanted to go to a couple more things before we run out of time here, and one is—I'm just going to read some of what you wrote in the "What We Saw and What We Learned" chapter, because I love this chapter. I actually loved all three of the last chapters, in terms of how you brought it all together. I think that's a hard thing to do—you went to a lot of places over four years. But let me just read this for a bit. "What is true of the country as a whole at any given time is misleading about many of its people...to seize the opportunities, and cope with the failures, of this moment in American history, national efforts of the kind that more recently underlay the creation of the Internet, the GPS network, and DNA decoding might again be best. But for now, even if most parts of the complex American ‘system' work better than their counterparts in the rest of the world, America's national political system works worse. Thus the United States has a harder time taking the steps that would make adjusting to this era less painful and more productive." That's pretty biting, and it's pretty tough. Do you think that the national system is doomed to be stuck in this space for a long time? How do we get out of the cycle that we're in?
Fallows: So as an observation of the moment, I think almost nobody can think this is a good period in U.S. national-level politics and history. And the way I would define that...I was thinking when we were living in China, I would define "successful" as—a successful national system is something that matches the resources of a country—which are enormous for the U.S.—with that country's problems. And we are just not doing that at all on the national level now. I've been alive through enough of American history, including the 1960s—which were a bad time and, I would argue, worse than this time—and I've read about enough of it, including from Kevin Starr, to know that the country's always been in trouble. If you read the history of the late 1800s, it's pretty much one nightmare after another, and so the tendency of the U.S. to get into trouble has been slightly outweighed by its ability to get out of trouble. And whether that balance has changed, I don't know. I have an article in the last issue of The Atlantic about, what if we are a fallen Roman empire? How would that change our way of thinking about things? So I hope that the system is in a bad period, as opposed to a bad trend.
Bostic: Well, I hope you're right, too. One thing that has often been the case that I've seen is crisis does tend to bring people together, and it reduces the likelihood that small things become big distractions. And so I'm hopeful we can get back into that space. Now, you wrote an afterword in 2018 to the book that was relatively new. If you were going to write another one today, how would that look? Would it be the same? Would you focus on the challenges of the press and folks getting up and trying things? How would you think about it today?
Fallows: So I think that afterword I wrote...the book as a whole, we wrote in early first half of 2017. Then for the paperback, I was doing something about a year after that with more things we had learned about the positive and negative trends. I think if I were writing something right now, it would be more distinctly positive in the sense that we've seen that many more places where these positive reinvention possibilities were spreading, and so I would be more positive and I would be beginning to be more systematic—say, how can we devise playbooks? What are the institutions that can be connected? How can we shore up some of the really crucial elements of a local system now, including local journalism? And there are a lot of experiments on trying to improve that, but I think I would have even more urgency and somewhat more positivity.
Bostic: Well, that's a good thing. I was worried we were going down a foxhole of bleakness and depression, which wouldn't have been so good. So let me close our conversation with two more things. One is, I'd like to just again read a little more—with both of these I'm going to do some reading, so I apologize for you listeners. I hope I'm a good reader. But the first really speaks to, what has changed through these journeys that you've had about what really matters in communities? And in the afterword to the Vintage edition, you said there were three things: the first is improving connections, both conceptual and operational—and this is bringing together people and organizations, and all that kind of stuff. The second is emphasizing engagement of almost any kind—so you don't have to be too picky. If people are willing to get up and do something on behalf of the broader civic, we should be okay with that. And then the third is "correcting perceptions and dealing with what is already recognized as a national emergency: the distorted picture of events beyond our immediate experience that comes through the media, professional and informal alike." I was really struck by...the whole premise of this book was that I'm going to go to places that nobody actually experiences, or that most Americans don't experience. I'm going to tell a story, and I think it's going to sell because Americans have all these other notions of it that need to be debunked. Did it work?
Fallows: It worked for Deb and me. We feel we were genuinely tabula rasa when we began this back in 2013 because we'd been out of the country for a long time in China. We thought, "Gee, there's been this economic collapse. Maybe things have been entirely hollowed out." And we hadn't done systematic traveling of this kind for a long time in the U.S., and so I now have the kind of—not convert zeal, but the eyewitness zeal—to say, "Yes, you can tell me there's an anti-immigrant policy at the national level, but I can tell you about all the places I've seen where the saga of American immigration is continuing." You can tell me that the middle of the country is all hollowing out, and I say, "Yes, there are these problems, but I can tell you all these places where people are working really hard."
And so I think that what I want to do is try to convey that. And people don't know that because they know about where they live themselves, and they know about what's on the national news—which, for various reasons, makes things look even worse than they actually are. And that's a whole separate field, but just trying to have people realize that there's hope in many places where Americans live—and it's not just your own community, it's other people who are having some of the same thoughts. And so if you thought you were a part of a chorus or a movement, you might feel a little more like the people in the early 1900s who thought, "We're going to get ourselves out of the Gilded Age, we're going to put things together." So trying to have that collected—not collective—but collected movement.
Bostic: I like how you put that, and I actually like also the notion that when you go to these places, it's not so extremist—right? Most people just care about their place. They want it to be better, and they're willing to do things in many instances to try to make those things better. There was a passage you had in the book about you'd come to town, someone would figure out your bio, they'd see you worked for a Democratic administration and you're in some red-state place, and it didn't matter, and it didn't cause them to attack you with vitriol or any of those sorts of things. And I have to say from my experience, I assume when I go someplace, people know the bio. And I share your experience as well: that if people feel like you're there to be true to a place—and in our instance, to be helpful, to try to help folks overcome their challenges—they're going to embrace you and work with you and move forward. Not to say there aren't difficult contexts or conversations you've got to have, but I've been very pleasantly impressed by the capacity of people in places to be welcoming, open, and transparent, where the national narrative would have suggested that wasn't going to happen.
Fallows: That's really interesting, and heartening. And can I add one other complementary view, which is that most of the places we ended up writing about voted Republican in the 2016 election. These were cities and states that voted for Donald Trump and his ticket. This didn't come up when we were talking with people because we didn't ask them about national politics. We were asking about the nature of the towns, and one feature of—if you don't ask people about national politics, they sound smarter. If you ask people about national politics, pretty much it's just like turning on cable news. There's nothing new you will ever hear, no matter what side it is. You've heard every single argument or bias or whatever. But if you ask them, "How is this farm in Kansas dealing with the changing climate? How is water supply, or water levels, affecting people in central California?"—they are sophisticated. People are smart, and so somehow we have a view we're seeing the rest of the country usually at its worst rather than at its best. And city by city, we felt as if we saw a better version of people.
Bostic: And that's a nice segue to the last quote I wanted to read, which I really felt resonated with me and also with what we're trying to do here at the Bank. So the passage goes like this: " ‘Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot more positive narratives out there—but they're lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.' That is the American song we have heard." It's a great passage, a great characterization of what you did.
Fallows: You're very nice to say that. I should, in authorial scrupulousness, say that the first part of that is from Philip Zelikow—
Bostic: That's exactly right.
Fallows: —from the University of Virginia, and then I was having this one sentence wrap-up, but I thought that was really a resonant historical point he made about how if people think it's not just them, there's more momentum and possibility.
Bostic: And for us at the Atlanta Fed, we're trying to be out there to figure out what's worked, what's been interesting, and then let as many people know about it as possible so that it becomes one total narrative, one total song of what America can be—so that people actually have opportunity and hope to thrive and be successful. Jim, it's been great to have you here—I've really enjoyed this conversation.
Fallows: Raphael, thank you so much. These are excellent questions—you've made me actually think about things, and as part of the process of thinking, I'll come back to learn more.
Bostic: Well, I look forward to that conversation—I think it'll be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to making progress, helping you be more effective and successful, and I look forward to you doing the same for us. So it's been great to have you here. I look forward to more conversations. And for those of you who have been listening, I hope you've enjoyed this conversation. Stay tuned to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's podcast series. We'll be back with another one, in not too long. So I hope you all have a great day, and until next time, be well.