James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: American futures audiovideo

  • 6th and I Program on C-SPAN Tonight

    What you learn when you trek around in a little propeller plane.

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    This week the Atlantic's editor in chief, James Bennet, interviewed Deb Fallows and me in an evening program at Washington's historic Sixth and I Street Synagogue. The topic was our "American Futures" trip around the country, and what we've learned and been surprised by so far.

    At least from our perspective, the discussion was a lot of fun, including in hinting at some of the changes wrought even in a long and happy marriage that has seen its share of other odd locales, once you start trekking around the country in a little plane.

    Tonight the hour-long program is scheduled to be shown on C-SPAN at 8pm Eastern. If you're interested, please check it out there. C-SPAN schedules sometimes change at short notice, but that is the plan for now.

    James Bennet at left, Fallowses center and right, at 6th
    and I. Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie.

    The C-SPAN broadcast probably does not include a sequence of en-route snapshots we've taken through the months on the road (and in the air). These were run as B-roll before the program began, and they're available in un-annotated form as a G+ album. And that map at top is explained in this previous post.

    Tomorrow on the road again, headed south.

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  • Your Linguistic Tour of the Okefenokee

    See if you can be Swampwise.

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    Deb Fallows, whose Twitter dispatches you can now follow via @FallowsDeb, has a new road-trip post available. It's on the linguistic aspects of the diction of the Okefenokee Swamp, and it is here.

    In the Vimeo clip below you'll see a  sample of what you'll find. Check it out!


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  • 'Where Do You Go to Church?' The Video and Mapping Versions

    More ways of taking the measure of this vast country.

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    Last month Deb Fallows did several popular posts -- here, here, and here -- about regional variations in the question you ask someone when you've first been introduced. "Where do you work?" "Who are your people?" "How long have you lived here?" and so on.

    I mention it now for two reasons. One is to tout the wonderful video that Katherine Wells, of the Atlantic's video team, has made about answers to just this question. She phoned people from around the country and recorded their responses, building on leads from Deb's items. I find it haunting and will be surprised if you don't think it worth a look. The direct link is here, and it is embedded below.

    This video also ends with a lovely presentation on the opening question that I have used when meeting people for as long as I can remember.

    Reason two is to highlight another Esri map that John Tierney has made to illustrate a linguistic/sociological point. Earlier, Deb reported that a standard opening question in St. Louis was "Where did you go to high school?" John's map showed why the question had such resonance there.

    In Greenville and surrounding upstate South Carolina, a standard opening question is "Where do you go to church?" This new map by John Tierney gives an idea why:  

    You can use the Plus and Minus keys to zoom in and out of the map; you can click on the Legend button to see how the color-coding matches the denomination, and you can click on any specific church to get more information about it. The background colors refer to the socio-economic "Tapestry" segmentation, so if you click on any neighborhood you'll get a popup about its social makeup. Of course there's at best a loose connection between neighborhood character and type/density of churches, since people don't necessarily attend services where they live. But the patterns are surprisingly interesting.  (This is a Greenville-specific church map, as the school one was St. Louis-specific, because of the hand-coding involved on John Tierney's part.)

    Now, a bonus third reason, which connects this to some previous posts. In my article on Greenville I mention that the surrounding county was the last one in the state, which itself was the last one in the union, to observe Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. Over the weekend I posted a note from Knox White, long-serving mayor of Greenville, saying that the city itself had voted for MLK long before the more-conservative county did. It turns out that there is an entire academic study of just this point. It is "Religious Interests in Community Conflict: The Case of Martin Luther King Jr Holiday in Greenville, South Carolina," by four scholars from Furman University in Greenville. It is interesting, especially about the complexities of class-based and race-based politics, and you can read it here. Thanks to John Tierney for recommending it.

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  • My Current Favorite TV Ad

    "For the most part, give or take, today is actually ... pretty great."

    If I were choosing a career title-winner for favorite ad, I would have to recognize the annoying-but-non-forgettable "Five-Dollar Foot Lonnnng!" campaign Subway has been running since 2008. It drives people crazy, but apparently it is magic for drawing customers into the stores; on its debut it was so effective that Subway had bread shortages. I find the minor-chord progressions weirdly compelling, and I realize that I always stop to look at the screen when it comes on. 

    (Video at end of this post, plus musicology for those who haven't followed the story.)

    But the ad that is on my mind right now is one that has been running frequently during the NFL playoff bonanza. It's for the Honda Civic, and it usually appears as one of an assortment of 30-second clips. Here is an example:

    I think the extended play, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-scale version -- actually only two and a half minutes long -- is extremely interesting for the world view it presents. Check it out for yourself:

    What I find noteworthy, even brave, about this commercial is that it acknowledges all the reasons to feel downcast about economics, politics, the environment, everything.  That's the first 30 seconds of the long version, and the first five of the short ones. But then it says: a lot of really exciting and positive things are also going on, to the extent of declaring, Today is pretty great! 

    Why is that interesting?

    • It's not simple boosterish/denialist "We're number one!" talk.
    • Nonetheless, it's a bolder "glass is way more than half full" pitch than I recall seeing in any other political or commercial campaign. As the lyrics say at 2:15 of the long version, "For the most part, give or take, today is  actually .... pretty great." 
    • It mainly features people in their late teens through early 30s, who -- like their counterparts at every other stage of history -- are tired of hearing that everything is terrible. Because they know how much actually is terrible, in their own situations and generally -- but also know that everything is still starting for them. Families, careers, possibilities, lives.
      And, the real reason why this totally got my attention:
    • It's a video-advertisement version of what my wife and I keep running into as we go from one of our smallish cities to another.

      They all have serious problems -- as every place does. Inequality and environmental run-down and drug use and violence and parts of the community frozen out or left behind. 

      But also each of them we've seen so far has had ambitious, exciting, economic and environmental and educational and scientific projects underway. (As reeled off at roughly 1:45-1:55 of the long clip.) The emotional and "argumentative" arc in these ads, especially the long version, very much matches the emotional and intelligence cycle we've been through in these reporting trips.     

    You can read an ad-world perspective on the campaign here. I loved the Eminem/Chrysler "Imported From Detroit" Superbowl ad three years ago. That was a marker of a shift in business realities and attitudes. This new ad could be too.  

    Back in 2008 Seth Stevenson wrote about the "Five Dollar" ad, a nice version of which is shown below, in Slate.    

    He found the man who had come up with this earworm-eligible music and asked him to explain its secret power:

    I called the composer, Jimmy Harned (of the boutique music outfit Tonefarmer), to see whether he might confirm my notion that there's something ominous going on in his work.

    "The chord structure does imply something dark," he agreed, getting out his guitar to demonstrate over the phone. "On the word long, [the guitar part] goes down from a C to an A-flat," he said, strumming, "which is kind of a weird place. It's definitely not a poppy, happy place. It's more of a metaly place. But at the same time, the singing stays almost saccharine." (The vocals shift to form an F minor over the guitar's A-flat.)

  • A 4th-Generation Orange Farmer, on Why He Sticks With It

    "I was born in the grove. I was raised in the grove. I developed an intense dislike of farming in the grove." Yet after 20 years around the world he has come back.

    This afternoon Marketplace will have an American Futures report on Redlands, California. This smallish town still styles much of its identity around its orange-growing industry, even though its remaining groves are a tiny fraction of those that made this area the center of world navel-orange production through the mid-1900s.

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    I expect that the report will include some comments from Bob Knight, who now actively farms some of Redlands's groves and has been leading efforts to develop better business models for the industry and prepare for the seemingly unstoppable spread of an insect-borne disease that has ravaged much of Florida's citrus groves. At top you see one of Knight's groves, with small younger trees, in the Crafton district on the east side of Redlands. At the end of this post you'll see him -- on the left, in brown shirt -- leading the visiting Marketplace and Atlantic team through an old-growth grove in San Timoteo Canyon, on the south side of town. 

    Next week we'll hear more from Knight and others about the pest problem. For now, courtesy of Marketplace, here are some clips from his original interview that give a flavor of how he thinks about the role of this old industry in a growing town.

    1) Two kinds of oranges. Knight explains the difference to Kai Ryssdal.


    2) How the orange industry shaped the culture of this area. Why it relies less on migrant workers than other crops.


    3) The economics of orange-growing. Why fruits costs more than ever, and farmers get less than ever -- and what they can do about it.


    4) Why he came back. After 20 years in New York and around the world.


    5) How people in this small town think of themselves.

    Below you see Knight making these comments and showing off his trees. Listen in this afternoon for more from him and others. (Both photos by Deborah Fallows.)


  • Eastport on Marketplace

    Hearing voices you won't forget, from a small group of inventive and determined people.

    On Monday and Tuesday of this week, my wife and I were meeting people and asking questions in Eastport, Maine, along with Kai Ryssdal and his colleagues from Marketplace, Bridget Bodnar and Brendan Willard. What you see above is the view from the back seat of a Cirrus SR-22, where Brendan Willard was sitting, toward the front seat with me on the left and former naval aviator Kai Ryssdal on the right, Kai doing the radio work as we neared the little airport in Eastport.

    Last evening, as mentioned hereMarketplace had a very nice short feature on one of the surprising, surviving industries of a very small and economically battered town: a century-old family-run mustard works. In just a minute it will have a longer feature about the ways in which the city is making major bets on connections to the global economy as its source of long-term economic hope. You can read about it on the show's site, here.

    Much of this strategy -- as you'll hear on the show, and as we'll elaborate in days to come -- involves making use of natural feature shown on the map below. (This map is a static screen shot -- as soon as I post this item, I'll do a live version in which you can scroll and zoom on our Esri geoblog site.)

    The map indicates water depths at major sites along the U.S. coast. Eastport, in the far northeastern corner, is the deepest of all ports in the lower 48 states, with a mean low water depth of more than 60 feet. (Valdez, in Alaska, is also very deep.) Moreover the seabed here is rock, rather than sand as in many sites in the Gulf Coast, so the depth is constant -- rather than changeable or in need of frequent dredging.

    As you'll hear, a group of ambitious people in the city are trying to use the port's unique capacity -- and its proximity to Europe, and its potential proximity to Asia as northwest passages through a warming Canadian arctic become more frequent (they are already happening) -- as one foundation of its hoped-for economic revival.

    It's just one of several foundations, whose stories we'll be telling here -- and in an article for our print magazine very soon. For the moment I will sign off with a reminder to tune into Marketplace. Among other things, you won't want to miss hearing the actual voices we heard in town. 

    [Photo by Brendan Willard.]

  • American Futures: The Video

    "In a world...."

    The Atlantic's excellent video team, led by Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, was out at Montgomery Country Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, two weeks ago as we headed off on our journey. Here's how it looked then.


    How it looks now is that we have two weeks of road-wear on us, as my wife described yesterday. But spirits are high. Because, honestly, there is so much to see and describe.

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    Note to the aviation-conscious: I said in an earlier post, and say in this video, that our religious principle on this journey is no difficult flying. Not at night, not "having" to be anywhere, not all-day long-hauls, not small or tricky airports, not in bad weather, not anything of the sort. The day of the filming, in the DC area, ceilings were low throughout the morning. We'd planned to leave early but waited until early afternoon, when the ceiling went above 1,000 feet (and was improving quickly) before we took off.

    As you will guess from the condition of the skies in this video, it began as an Instrument Flight Rules trip, because we went into the clouds 1000 feet up and stayed there for the first hour, through Maryland, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio. The weather improved as we went and we landed in the famed Holland, Michigan, in the clear.

    Also for the aviation-conscious: yes, the door of the plane is open while we're taxiing, at around time 1:30. It was hot. Doors-closed is one of the final pre-take-off check items. And yes, just after that in the video the taxiing seems to be off the center line. That was the track of the film-crew car, not the plane! Just for the record.

    Thanks to Kasia and her team for his video. More about Michigan, South Dakota, and Wyoming immediately in store. 


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