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: Budget

  • The GOP Position on Taxes Gets Worse

    Is there anything more destructive than zealotry? Yes: pure cynicism.

    Please focus on the boundless cynicism here.

    Through the artificial debt-ceiling "crisis," through the Moonie-like spectacle in Iowa of candidates (including Mr. Sanity, Jon Huntsman) raising hands to promise never to accept any tax increase, the Republican field has been absolutist and inflexible about not letting any revenue increase, in any form, be part of dealing with debts and deficits.

    Hensarling.jpeg

    Except, it now turns out, when the taxes are those that (a) weigh most heavily on the people who are already struggling, and (b) would have the most obvious "job-killing" effect if they went up.

    When it comes to those taxes -- hell, we're easy! According to the AP and Business Insider, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas (at right), the Republican co-chair of the all-powerful budget Super Committee, is dead set against letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for anyone, including millionaires. But he sees no problem in letting the current cut in payroll-tax rates -- you know, the main tax burden for most Americans -- run out.  As the AP story puts it:

    >>Many of the same Republicans who fought hammer-and-tong to keep the George W. Bush-era income tax cuts from expiring on schedule are now saying a different "temporary" tax cut should end as planned. By their own definition, that amounts to a tax increase.

    The tax break extension they oppose is sought by President Barack Obama. Unlike proposed changes in the income tax, this policy helps the 46 percent of all Americans who owe no federal income taxes but who pay a "payroll tax" on practically every dime they earn...

    "It's always a net positive to let taxpayers keep more of what they earn," says Rep. Jeb Hensarling, "but not all tax relief is created equal for the purposes of helping to get the economy moving again."<<

    "Not created equal" is exactly right. In fact, payroll-tax cuts are the sort of tax break most likely to "get the economy moving again" during a recession. (Because they put money in the hands of people most likely to spend it and therefore boost other businesses. And on balance they lower the cost of adding new workers.) Income-tax breaks at the top end are least likely to create new demand or jobs. (Because they go to people who have a lower "marginal propensity to spend" and are more likely to park the money in the bank.)

    I had thought that Republican absolutism about taxes, while harmful to the country and out of sync with even the party's own Reaganesque past, at least had the zealot's virtue of consistency. Now we see that it can be set aside when it applies to poorer people, and when setting it aside would put maximum drag on the economy as a whole. So this means that its real guiding principle is... ??? You tell me.

    ____
    The fine print. Yes, I know that there is a critique of these tax cuts from the left: That by reducing the self-funding nature of Social Security, they could in the long run undermine its legitimacy and support. I am confident that this is not the reason for Rep. Hensarling's position.

    And, yes, there is a further level to the critique from the right. The problem with this tax cut, according to Republican majority leader Eric Cantor, is precisely that it's temporary, so businesses can't base plans on it. Eg, according the AP quote from Cantor's spokesman, he "has never believed that this type of temporary tax relief is the best way to grow the economy."

    But as an anti-recession measure, the temporary nature of the cut is its advantage. It gets money into people's hands when they need it, without building in another permanent revenue hole -- like the tax cuts Cantor fights so hard to preserve.

    More »

  • Yet More Charts That Should Go With Debt Discussions

    The unbearable lightness of taxing

    The Globe and Mail in Toronto weighs in with these "infographics," showing the total tax burden that Americans bear in both international and historical perspective.

    The chart on the top shows how the share of American income that goes to taxes compares with that in other developed countries. The chart on the bottom shows how the U.S. share has changed since 1965.

    TaxChart1.jpg


    Now, this comes from a Canadian publication, and it's based on international data, so naturally we have to watch out. For more see the original OECD reports. But I repeat the point that came from two previous sets of charts:

    Any discussion of the causes of America's public-debt problems, or any discussion of the solutions to it, that is "spending only," and excludes the role of revenues -- for instance, the discussion that raged through Congress last week -- is a pointless and unrealistic discussion. It is historically ignorant and economically fanciful. You'll note, for instance, that the last time the federal budget was in surplus, 11 years ago, total taxes were higher than they are now. That doesn't prove anything about future policy but is a crucial fact to grasp.

    Like any charts, these leave a lot out -- for instance, the exact relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. Also, they have the dreaded "truncated vertical scale," which makes the difference between 24% and 36% look bigger than it is. And nothing in them would suggest that taxes should go up (or that public spending should go down) during a recession. Still, they convey a basic reality that would come as news to most Americans. If you are worried about debt, you must be worried about both taxes and spending. Otherwise, you're not "serious" but just sloganeering.

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