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: Archives

  • 'What Was It Like Before Electricity, Daddy?'

    A report from the dawn of time

    The Processor Technology SOL-20, or the original dream machine (Michael Holley/Wikimedia)

    Back in 1982, The Atlantic published what I believe was the first article in a non-tech magazine about the implications of the then-dawning personal computer age.

    As it happened, the article was by me, and it concerned the way a single machine was changing my life. The machine in question was the one you see above: the Processor Technology SOL-20, by most reckonings the very first personal computer. The walnut siding on my model is still fairly lustrous, thanks to my taking it out of the basement for polishing every few years. If I could find a monitor to connect it to, and five-and-a-quarter-inch disk-drives (or even Radio Shack tape recorders) to load a program, I believe it would still work. Many articles and my book National Defense came out of this machine.

    The article I wrote in 1982, "Living With a Computer," has been online but in a poorly formatted version. My colleagues at The Atlantic, including those not yet born when I bought the machine, have now graciously put the story into better-looking typography. You can read it here.

    An ad that ran 37 years ago (Processor Technology)

    Considering that we've been through 20-plus cycles of Moore's Law since this came out, I think it stands up okay. It contains many howler anachronisms but also some reminders that as technology changes, the human interaction with technology has surprising constants.

    The story begins this way:

    I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?

    The Processor Technology SOL-20 came into my life when Darlene went out. It was a bleak, frigid day in January of 1979, and I was finishing a long article for this magazine. The final draft ran for 100 pages, double-spaced. Interminable as it may have seemed to those who read it, it seemed far longer to me, for through the various stages of composition I had typed the whole thing nine or ten times. My system of writing was to type my way through successive drafts until their ungainliness quotient declined. This consumed much paper and time. In the case of that article, it consumed so much time that, as the deadline day drew near, I knew I had no chance of retyping a legible copy to send to the home office.

    I turned hopefully to the services sector of our economy. I picked a temporary-secretary agency out of the phone book and was greeted the next morning by a gum-chewing young woman named Darlene. I escorted her to my basement office and explained the challenge. The manuscript had to leave my house by 6:30 the following evening. No sweat, I thought, now that a professional is on hand.

    But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her efforts. Stacked in a neat pile next to the typewriter were eight completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate of about six and a half words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total halt on first encountering the word "Brzezinski" and never fully regained her stride. Still, at this pace Darlene and I would both be dead—first I'd kill her, then I'd kill myself—before she came close to finishing the piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in wages in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I trudged downstairs to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later, I handed the bulky parcel to the Federal Express man and said, "Never again."

    The rest is here. Thanks to my colleagues for digging this one out and refurbishing it.

  • From the Archives: 'Countdown to a Meltdown' 2005

    What we knew about the 2010 election (and beyond) back in 2005


    Five years ago, when the housing market and the stock market were still both going strong, the Atlantic ran as a cover story my article "Countdown to a Meltdown." It was an imagined history of the Presidential Election of 2016, and the "MacGuffin" of its plotline was the big (and at the time also imaginary) housing/financial crash of the late 2000s. The idea was that prolonged economic chaos discredited both of the main political parties and cleared the way for a third, "let's cut the crap" party to take the White House six years from now. It's written in the form of a "What do we do now?" memo from the new party's Karl Rove equivalent to the candidate destined to win in 2016.

    Obviously a lot of the details and color in the story are out of date now. I was, after all, writing it early in 2005, soon after George W. Bush had been sworn in for a second term. But some of the patterns will not seem so outdated. I think it's worth a look.

    LookingAtTheSun.jpgAnd while I'm at it, I might as well add an even older item from the archives, "How the World Works," from 1993, about the mismatches between the U.S. economy, as influenced by its political values and prevailing ideology, and the export-related economies of Asia. Japan, which was a main focus of that story, differs in very significant ways from today's emerging China. But there are similarities too. The article then became part of my book Looking at the Sun. FWIW.

  • Bob Edwards Show

    Recent interview on Sirius/XM

    During Bob Edwards's many years as host of NPR's Morning Edition, I was often doing commentaries for the program and sometimes had the chance to talk with him on air. In his current incarnation as host of an interview show on Sirius/XM, I had an extended discussion with him recently. It was broadcast this weekend and is available on podcast here

    We talked China, future of journalism, politics, the role of blog-versus-print, and so on. At least from my point of view, it was interesting to have the chance for back-and-forth on these topics and exploration of angles I hadn't expected. FYI.

  • Elsewhere on The Atlantic's Site: Mosques, College, China

    Five items worth checking out; four of them neither family-related nor involving Oprah

    1) 'Mosque' speech. Last year I mentioned that, off the top of his head, Barack Obama gave an answer about "American exceptionalism" that would be very hard to improve on even if you had weeks to edit and refine.

    Obama's successive answers about the New York Cordoba House/"mosque" controversy, by contrast, could very easily be improved on. Proof is here, from Clive Crook, who writes the perfect paragraph that should have come out of the President's mouth. Too late to correct the earlier answers, but let this be a guide for the future.

    2) US News Rankings. This is too snarled a topic for me to do more than mention at the moment. I speak as a one-time editor of US News who wrestled with "improving" those rankings through two annual cycles. (Locus classicus on this topic, by Amy Graham and Nicholas Thompson, here.) I always was impressed by Reed College's idiosyncratic and brave refusal to participate in the process. If more schools had done that early on, the ranking system could never have taken off. Now it's way too late for that strategy, and the only alternative is to encourage so many varied rankings that no one list has disproportionate effect.

    Here on our site, Reed's current president, Colin Diver, explains how the process has gone from Reed's point of view. This is a reprise from a college-special issue of the magazine a few years ago, but the themes are evergreen. Bonus note: fans of J. Anthony Lukas's may-it-be-read-forever book Common Ground will recognize the name of Reed's president. In an entirely different life, Diver and his family were central figures in that book, which describes the political, racial, cultural, and class politics of the Boston school-desegregation battles of the 1970s.

    3) Back to the "mosque." Out of nowhere, the controversy over Cordoba House near the World Trade Center site has become a defining, which-side-are-you-on matter. As I said from the start: I am on Mayor Bloomberg's side. People are taking sides now that will, and should, be remembered for a long time. I am impressed, among other entries on this site, by the clarity of Michael Kinsley's view on the topic, and the various voices recently at the Daily Dish (eg this), and Jeffrey Goldberg (!), here and here and many other times. As he mentions in that first linked item, this is a moment that cries out for George W. Bush's voice. (Not a sentence I imagined myself ever writing.) Seriously, and by surprise, people's values are really being clarified by this issue. Keep track of where they are lining up, or declining to be counted.

    4) We Are Number Two. Many people, including me, have mulled over the question of what it means that China has now overtaken Japan as the second-largest economy in the world. Just now on our site, Damien Ma advances the analysis considerably.


    5) Dreaming in Chinese. Today Jennie Rothenberg Gritz of our staff has put up a short video interview with one Deborah Fallows, author of the forthcoming Dreaming in Chinese. I am a biased source on this topic so I'll just say, if it's good enough for Oprah and Nat Geo Traveler it's .... probably the ideal book. At left, opening "B roll" shot from the interview, on the Bund in Shanghai.

  • 'Virtually Speaking' Discussion with Bruce Schneier

    Here's the ideal candidate to run the TSA.

    On Thursday night, Jay Ackroyd interviewed Bruce "Mr. Sanity about Security" Schneier and me in an hour-long discussion session on Second Life. Web cast available here. Gentle hint to other radio and TV producers: Ackroyd has really figured out a nice way to promo his guests' books and other writing! You'll see what I mean.

    In this discussion, Schneier from his expert standpoint and I from my journalistic perspective are both pretty down on the one-way ratchet* of modern "security theater." It is easy to throw on new measures that seem as if they will make us "safe." For instance, the [moronic and indefensible] "current security level is Orange" announcements we have all heard so many times that they no longer even register on our eardrums. But it is practically impossible for an elected official to discuss the balance between security and liberty in a mature way, because the political risk of being blamed for some future attack, large or small, vastly outweighs the political risk of accepting the mounting costs in efficiency, freedoms, and general public IQ of security theater. See Schneier for more, or the webcast. Or this. (Past items from this site will be linked when our "categories" function returns.)

    On the other hand, once again there's a high-level job opening at the TSA. I am in a General Sherman mode regarding my own future public service. But I'll testify for Schneier as the new head of TSA when he is nominated.
    * Pedant alert: yes, I do realize that "one-way ratchet" is redundant, the salient feature of a ratchet being that it moves in only one direction. There are times when an addition that might literally be redundant can be helpful in clarification, in an "of course everyone already knows this, but just to speed the discussion I'll supply this extra clue" sense. Just trying to forestall those "gotcha" notes before they arrive!

  • FDL / JF

    For the record, this afternoon I was on a live 90-minute Book Salon session on Firedoglake.com.  Transcript of 100-odd comments is here. Topics included Ralph Nader, Senate reform, my "going to hell" article, the desirability of a new American revolution, and the fact that many FDL denizens were not sold on my premises or conclusion in that article.

  • For the record: two radio interviews

    From the airport hotel in SF, two phone interviews today, on the "going to hell" article:

         - With Marty Moss-Coane of "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia, this discussion, with MP3 file here

         - With Doug Fabrizio of RadioWest on KUER in Salt Lake City, this discussion, with embedded audio file.

     A point I think I made in passing on both shows: how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR.

  • Media update: BBC, On Point, Diane Rehm

    For the record:

    - Discussing China-v-Google on Tom Ashbrook's On Point show today, with an array of Chinese and American tech and politics reporters;

    - Discussing the State of the Union after Obama' first year, plus American capacity for renewal, with Kevin Connolly on the BBC's Americana program today, here. (On line for next seven days.)

    - Discussing "America in decline" - infrastructure, renewal, security -- etc along with Stephen Flynn of the Center for National Policy on the Diane Rehm show, WAMU/NPR, tomorrow 11am EST.  

  • In case you were really curious about my views on different topics...

    For the record:
    - Last night's panel discussion with Jim Lehrer on the News Hour about China, Obama, et cetera, here;

    - Also last night on BBC America with Matt Frei, also about Obama and China, here;

    - This morning on CSPAN Washington Journal, with Bill Scanlan, also about Obama and China, not on line at the moment but I will find it at some point (here);
    - Interview last week on The Kindle Chronicles, with Len Edgerly, about e-reading devices, here;

    - Radio interview two weeks ago, when I was in Australia, with Margaret Throsby of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation -- closest U.S. counterpart would be Terry Gross -- here. Her interviews are Fresh Air-like in combining policy and personal info. Also discussing my upcoming collaboration with the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney on future-of-media issues, a topic for another day.

    - Just to round this out, plan to be on KQED "Forum" with Michael Krasny at 9:30am PST / 12:30pm EST today. (Audio here.)

    - Charlie Rose this evening, with Elizabeth Economy and Nicholas Burns.

  • Discussion with John Podesta at Gov 2.0 conference

    Last week Tim O'Reilly held his debut "Gov 2.0" conference in Washington. All the parts I saw were interesting and provocative. For a list of clips, podcasts, and so on, go here. For the record, here is a clip of a session I did with John Podesta, former Clinton White House chief of staff and now head of the Center for American Progress. We decided to do it as a split-shift Q-and-A: first, improbably, he asked me questions, and then I asked him some. We ran out of time before I could get many details on something I really wanted to know about: what it was like to spend time with Kim Jong Il, when Podesta accompanied Bill Clinton to North Korea this summer.


    Seriously, the conference was a valuable series of presentations, worth perusing especially if you're feeling blue about the general tone of American political "discussion" these days and the fecklessness of many public efforts.

    A nice place to start is with this presentation by Carl Malamud, whose efforts to open public data to (gasp) the public I've often noted over the years. I return to the theme: we take our encouragement where we can find it.

  • From the magazine: Field of dreams in China

    The new issue of the Atlantic is worth reading cover to cover -- and IMHO better read on paper than on line. For sometime soon: talking systematically about what kind of material is best read, scanned, absorbed, enjoyed in what kinds of media - handheld, computer screen, "real" print, Kindle-style reader, and so on.

    For the moment, a mention of my own very short article in this issue: a profile of an American family that has ended up in one of the most beautiful parts of China, trying -- against considerable odds -- to put together a coalition of local residents, Communist party officials, businesses, and NGOs to preserve traditional Chinese culture against the onslaught of kitsch-style development otherwise transforming the country's look. Their adopted home town is Xizhou, in the lush, southerly Yunnan province, and this is one view of their "Linden Centre," with local kids biking by.


    More on Brian and Jeanee Linden and their ambitions here, and a four-minute narrated slideshow of the town, the center, the family, and the challenge is below (or here). That is Brian Linden, who first became known in China 25 years ago when cast in a movie about a famous and tragic US-Chinese interaction, in blue jeans and white shirt in the opening shot below.

    If you can make your way to Yunnan, this is very much worth a visit. Below a look at "downtown" Xizhou this spring, with the bean harvest being threshed.


    From a terrace in the Linden Centre.


  • My visit to the Motley Fool

    A week ago, when for unrelated house-reconstruction reasons I was comatose from no sleep, I had a very enjoyable hour-long visit with the staff of the Motley Fool, at their stylish HQ in Alexandria, Va. This was part of their Motley Fool Conversation series. A podcast of the result is available here. I realize that I may have been snarkier-sounding about the future of Twitter than reasoned analysis would support. But, hey, I was only half awake! And it was at the Motley Fool. Most of the talk was about China, with side notes about Microsoft, speechwriting, the Future of the Atlantic, and so on.

    Seriously, most TV and radio talk shows could take useful interviewing tips from these guys. A very enjoyable exchange, at least from my point of view.

  • Even more on GDP, economics, and "rational insanity"

    A number of China and technology issues in the queue (plus frogs), but for the moment, a few extra references on the "does GDP really matter anyway?" front. Previously here and here.

    1) A group in Nova Scotia called GPIAtlantic has applied a "Genuine Progress Indicator" to social and economic developments in its region. The idea of GPI rather than GDP has a long history; for further information, see here, here, and here. (Yes, there are a variety of other "sustainability indexes" or measures of overall welfare; more info at sites above, plus here for another "can money buy happiness?" study.) Below, a sample GDP/GPI comparative graph from the Redefining Progress site.


    2) Another in the ever-expanding cadre of first-rate Atlantic online Correspondents is Ben Heineman Jr., who has this very valuable post on the perils of paying attention to statistical indicators of any sort. Part of living in the modern world is accepting that opposite-sounding principles can both be true. (Hey, living in China makes such acceptance easy! The country is rich -- and it is poor. It is open - and it is closed. It is one ancient culture -- and it is a thousand little baronies. But I digress.)

    In the area we're talking about now, the contradictory principles are: a) "big data" can reveal truths that would escape normal human reasoning power. Easiest illustration: hundreds of millions of people, all creating links among web pages, can together produce a vast and nuanced guide to what is where on the web, which Google put to use through its "PageRank" system.  b) numerical data can lead to incredibly stupid mistakes, if users forget that numbers and models inevitably oversimplify real, messy reality. Easiest illustration: the apologia from Robert McNamara in Errol Morris's The Fog of War.

    In his post Heineman talks about how the "idolatry of numbers" -- worship of the spurious precision of mathematical models -- can lead to terrible real-world misjudgments. This was a powerful lesson I took from my time in graduate school studying economics: the formulas were so neat and powerful, yet their connection to the real world was so hit-and-miss. In a way this is also a theme of Liaquat Ahamed's outstanding book Lords of Finance, about the way financial "experts" helped bring on the Great Depression. They had great faith in their models; unfortunately, the models and principles didn't match reality.

    3)  While I'm at it, here is my article "How the World Works" from the early 1990s, which was an attempt to explain the mismatch between the nice, clean models of Anglo-American economic textbooks and the brand of economics believed in by many governments in East Asia. Mainly Japan in those days and China now. Japanese and Chinese economic strategies differ from each other in very important ways, but in both countries governments have often applied a "strategic development" model of economics, not just the "consumer welfare" approach that arises from textbooks in Ec 101. More explanation in that article -- and for a bonus, this one from 2005, "Countdown to a Meltdown," about the imbalanced economic growth that the financial models of the "derivatives / subprime" era were creating and why it would end in tears.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



From This Author

Just In