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: Going to hell

  • If You Were Going to Read Only One Thing About Cyber-Security...

    Well, you should be reading more! But here's a place to start.

    ... well, as the joke goes, you really should be reading more! Or in a variant on the joke, the one thing you read should probably be this, from our own magazine. Ho ho.

    But if you were going to read one other thing today, you could do very well to choose this new essay by Jeffrey Carr, of IntelFusion. It is about the rich, ripe, sitting-duck target of myths and fallacies about security, and it begins:

    Regardless of your position on the over-hyped and under-estimated realm of cyber conflict, crime, and espionage, you probably have a few pet fallacies. I thought it might be fun, and possibly instructive, to start a conversation about them. Here are my top five. Feel free to add yours in the comments section.

    The TSA fallacy

    The TSA approach to airline security has been completely reactive because they focus on the method of attack (e.g., liquids, shoes, underwear) instead of the person. Likewise, Internet security companies focus on the technical characteristics of an attack (e.g., code, malware, exploits) instead of the actors (State and Non-state).  As a side note, Harding was going to move TSA towards a more intelligence-driven model. That's precisely what the Internet security industry needs to do as well.

    Hey, I can't resist one more, which is in keeping with my own view:

    The China fallacy

    This fallacy paints China as the number one adversary in anything having to do with cyber conflict in spite of the fact that there isn't a shred of historical evidence to prove it. The Peoples Republic of China has never engaged in military operations utilizing its IW capabilities against another nation state. The same cannot be said for the U.S., the Russian Federation, Georgia, Israel, and the Palestinian National Authority/Hamas. The PRC leadership are not religious extremists (e.g., Iran) or militaristic wildcards (e.g., DPRK, Myanmar). When you paint the PRC as the world's greatest cyber threat, you miss what China is actually excelling at (cyber espionage) and you overlook and/or underestimate the authentic threats from other nation states that are busy eating your lunch without you knowing it.

    And if you were going to read only one more thing on the "Going to Hell" problem, you could do well to choose this big story by Ezra Klein, in Newsweek, which goes systematically into how dysfunctional the Congress, especially the Senate, has become, and what might be done about it. I know from experience how unusual it is to get articles this thorough and relatively subtle into weekly news magazines. Worth reading. (More to come shortly on the "going to hell" problem; links to past items when our "categories" function is restored.)

  • Going To Hell #999: Maybe We're Not

    The impact of a presidential win today on presidential power tomorrow.

    As soon as I find a video link to President Obama's comments just now on passage of the health-care reform bill, I will put it up and say a little more about his theme and performance. (Hint: I will welcome and thank anyone who can send such a link.) Listening to it in real time, I was struck by the forcefulness of the ending, which was less about the health-care issue itself than about the overall question of how the American political system can deal with largest-scale public challenges. It was as passionate as I have heard this always-"cool" character ever sound on any theme. Update: thanks to reader Jeffrey Schroeder, the link is here, and an embedded player is below. The whole thing is effective, but the part I'm referring to begins just before time 14:00 and runs for the next two minutes. Very last words of the speech are unfortunate, but otherwise...

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

    The question is of interest to me because of the fundamental "Is America going to hell" issue I raised in this article -- and have discussed in a series of reader "going to hell" responses that I was posting last month. Until our "categories" feature is repaired, I can't do a link to the whole series; after the jump, and thanks to reader Joshua Cypess, a list of specific item links.

    I have many more responses in the queue, which I'll rev up again soon.  For the moment, one more reader response. This is part of a note sent by a political veteran, now in private business, to his Democratic Congressmen, who has decided not to run for re-election and was one of the "undecideds" until the very end. The note was written just a day before the vote; a day after the vote, it's worth reflecting on this passage. It alludes to the late professor Richard Neustadt, the great theorist of presidential power. From the letter urging the Representative to vote for the bill:

    What are the consequences for the country if the President and Congressional Democrats fail on tomorrow's vote? Professor Richard Neustadt did a good job teaching generations of students (including me) that the president's power to accomplish things in the future is always driven by his success or failure in getting things done today. It's terribly unfortunate that we find ourselves in the awful and presumably once-avoidable situation that we do today. It's terrible that the mess in Congress has driven out or otherwise cost us thoughtful Members such as you. But, having said all that, I can't see any good for the country coming from losing the vote tomorrow. I can see a whole lot of harm.  I'm sure you can, too.

    It may be galling for you to "reward" the Leadership, the White House, the bill's proponents with your vote. But I hope you'd find it abhorrent to reward the other side.

    This Representative finally voted "Aye."

    More »

  • Two Notes on Infrastructure and Going to Hell

    Thoughts on roads and rails, from inside a Chinese bus and an American train.

    In response to this item, two comments arriving within 30 seconds of each other. To be honest, this sort of thing is the main payoff of having a web site.

    From a reader in China:

    I live in Zhengzhou, Henan Province and when I travel around the city I have the privilege of using the buses.  Today, in the rain, through the steamy window of my jam-packed bus, I saw a women just sit down in the middle of the road and take her shoes off.  My God, do I know how she felt! In true Chinese fashion, the other drivers just drove around her through all the potholes.

    From a reader on a visit to the US:

    Like yourself, this week I am being subjected to  experiencing the "pleasure" of riding Acela from Washington, DC to New York and back.  However, unlike you, I am having a hard time finding anything to be even remotely optimistic about. 

    Let's start with their much touted, free Wifi.  I was in the business section on my journey up to New York and found the Wifi so painfully slow,  I was pining for the days of dial-up.  Trying to load the Atlantic's web page? I gave up after it took nearly 5 minutes for the just the Atlantic masthead to appear on the page (luckily, I had a hard copy with me .  Google news managed to load after about two minutes, but when I clicked on a story from PC World, I was redirected to another page which informed me the site was being blocked because it may contain content deemed offensive to other passengers.  My two theories:  

    More »

  • Going to Hell #8: Maybe It's Later Than We Think?

    A researcher responds to "America going to hell?" and says ... maybe we are.

    Last month I had a series of responses (latest one here; links to all the rest when our previous "category" feature is restored) on the question of whether America was really going to hell -- and if so, what might be done about it. Original "going to hell" article here.

    The previous entries, plus many more still in the queue, were mainly about alternative prescriptions -- ways to deal with the filibuster, the role of money in politics, the calcification of the Senate, and so on. The one I'm about to quote concerns my diagnosis: that the United States remained strong in its resilient and creative powers, and is troubled mainly by an obsolete governing system.

    Below and after the jump, a long dispatch from a reader who is a university-based research scientist and department chair, questioning whether America's two, related commanding-heights advantages -- its dominant research-university system, and its role as magnet for high-end talent from around the world -- are as durable as I suggested:

    I enjoyed reading your article on the historic American sense of fear of decline and rejuvenation. However, I wanted to comment on your discussion with regards US science in comparison with rapidly developing countries like China.
    First, a bit of background about myself. I am a plant molecular biologist involved in crop biotechnology and grew up in the US from Canadian parents who later moved back to Canada. I worked in the past for two of the largest agricultural biotechnology companies in the US... and currently have a large research collaboration with XXX. Further, people who I have trained or worked with are in the research organizations of all of the large agricultural biotechnology companies. Finally, over the last few years we have set up research collaborations with many researchers in China including developing a large collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and my Canadian university, XXX. s such, I have travelled to China 3 times in the last 2 years and hosted many researchers from there. That is enough about me.

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  • Going to hell #7: a different way to choose the Congress

    Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Many correspondents have argued, as I did in my original article, that something basic in the structure of government has made it hard or impossible for national officials to concentrate on real national problems. (As opposed to score-settling, posturing, fund-raising, and so on.)

    Sol Erdman, of the non-partisan Center for Collaborate Democracy, and his colleague Lawrence Susskind of MIT, wrote in with a proposal to change the nature of Congress by changing the way Congressmen are elected. Before you ask: they argue that the changes they propose would not require a Constitutional Amendment, and therefore are in the realm of "things that could actually be done."

    Their whole paper is now online as a PDF here. It is long but worth reading. A few representative quotes:

    What's wrong with Congress now (may sound familiar, but stay tuned...)

    "U.S. elections are organized in such a way that each lawmaker gets powerful incentives to act against the public interest. To begin with, a typical member of Congress can win reelection just by convincing a majority of his or her district's voters that the other party is more untrustworthy, incompetent or corrupt than his own. And any politician knows how to make that case in graphic terms that voters can easily grasp.

    "Voters today have equally perverse incentives. That is, in each congressional district, every voter -- every young single, middle- aged parent, senior citizen, truck driver, teacher, salesperson, lawyer, business owner, conservative, liberal and moderate -- has to share the same representative. These diverse groups of district residents have distinct -- often opposing -- needs, values and political beliefs.... So, if a member of Congress advocates a detailed solution to a controversial issue, several large blocs of voters in his or her district are likely to oppose his stand, perhaps even enough to want to throw him out of office. The typical lawmaker therefore avoids proposing real solutions to the most controversial issues.

    The behavior current incentives reward:

    "The members of Congress have found that there are far safer ways to stay in office [than dealing with the nation's real problems]. The safest tactics include:

    "1) Reducing hard issues to simple slogans.
    "2) Passing measures that seem to address major problems but which put off the hard decisions into the future.
    "3) Blaming the country's direst problems on the other political party.

    "These strategies succeed so often because of how congressional elections are organized today. Typically, one Republican competes against one Democrat for each district's House seat. Any lawmaker can therefore stay in office just by convincing most voters that the other party is more incompetent than his own."

    Could a change in Congressional election procedure be Constitutional?

    "Fortunately, the Constitution doesn't require that members of the House represent districts. The Constitution doesn't even mention districts. It lets each state decide how to elect its own Representatives, with Congress having the right to supersede the states' decisions."

    More in their paper, including an elaboration of a new election system they have in mind. Worth checking out.

  • Going to hell #6: revenge of the Boomers

    Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Part of my original pitch was that America's economic, cultural, and intellectual resilience was strong, but that our basic governing institutions were proving to be worse and worse matched to the challenges of these times. Thus:

    "When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed "a government as good as its people." Knowing Carter's sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb--and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can't fix what's broken [in our system of government], we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away."

    A number of correspondents wrote in to say that this was pandering -- indeed, of the sort I thought Carter was indulging when suggesting to audiences that problems all originate somewhere else, and certainly not with the good, fine American folk. A really honest jeremiad, some of these messages suggest, wouldn't blame some abstract American "system" for our failings; it would tell Americans that they were being so spoiled, ill-informed, short-sighted, and in other ways non-civic that they deserved just the government they/we now have. Here is a sample, which argues that one generation (my own) is the place where the trouble really starts:

    "I've been reading the proposed structural fixes to our political system posted in the blog and have been getting exasperated because I know that any proposed structural fix must pass through the same broken political system. That's not going to happen, no matter what the fix is.

    "The reason it's not going to happen, imho, is because only the smaller part of our political problems is the gridlock-enabling senate and other governmental institutions. The senate and other institutions have their problems, but other generations have made them work, across a spectrum of political opinion as wide as the current one. The bigger part of our current problems is us, by whom I mean baby boomers like myself--currently (I believe) the largest demographic group of voters and office holders.

    More »

  • Going to hell #5

    Whole series here; original article here. Reader Malcolm McPhee of Washington state writes to suggest a single Constitutional amendment to solve several problems at once:

    "I agree with you that our old, broken and dysfunctional governing system is an alarming problem. I want to suggest another possibility for reform that requires neither a constitutional convention nor a coup. I also want to suggest that there is a better way than continuing to work within our system's flaws and limits to secure our nation's future.

    "I maintain that a single constitutional amendment that cuts to the core of American government's dysfunction would work vastly better than a coup, a constitutional convention or continuing to muddle through within the present system.

    "That constitutional amendment would deal with election, election finance and the use of money in the public sphere. Obviously, actual wording warrants considerable thought and effort. However, I can suggest some example content:

    "1. Prohibit the contribution of anything of value to candidates for federal office or to federal officials.
    "2. Establish federal government funding and procedures for federal elections.
    "3. Provide for direct election of the president.
    "4. Prohibit the use of super majorities in any public election and in the rules of legislative bodies except in amending the US or state and local constitutions/charters.
    "5. Other
    "This amendment would be designed to return the right of government "by the people" to America and to reduce the influence of money in American elections and governance.
    This recommendation rests on several arguments: 1. That this amendment does cut to the core of the American government's dysfunction 2. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, is still worth dying for and preserving. 3. That money has corrupted our system so gradually, so insidiously and so thoroughly that we do not even recognize it as a serious problem per se and often view it as a given.

    More »

  • Going to hell #2A

    Last week, as #2 in the "Is America going to hell?" series, reader Joseph Britt offered an action plan that included "centralizing space and science functions in a new department." Reader Steve Corneliussen, who emphasizes that he is speaking for himself rather than for the federal Jefferson Lab where he works, begs to differ:

    "As you likely know already, that's an old, much-discussed idea. I'm with those who say it'd be terrible because it would cut off the avenues by which novel ideas and techno-audacity can circumvent bureaucratic stodginess.

    "My favorite example of such circumvention:

    "One of my wordsmith jobs in science is at Jefferson Lab, the national particle accelerator laboratory where you kindly visited and spoke one day in the summer of 2001. The scientists here were the first to apply a form of superconducting accelerating technology on a large scale. The success of their particle accelerator made obvious an enormously attractive opportunity: you could take that same new superconducting technology and make it serve not only particle physics, but photon science and technology -- that is, the use of light having special characteristics. You could make the world's first high-average-power, wavelength-tunable free-electron laser, or FEL. That tunability matters because Mother Nature can be very picky about which precise colors of light can do which tasks.

    "But Jefferson Lab is a Department of Energy facility, and back in the early 90s, DOE didn't have or even imagine FELs as part of its mission. What to do? Well, enterprising scientists found other ways to proceed within the federal research establishment. Jefferson Lab's FEL became a noted success, one thing led to another, and now there are prospects for further such progress within DOE.

    "The anecdote leads to this obvious question: How could I be telling this story if there had been only one monolithic science agency back in the early 90s?"
  • Going to hell #4

    Whole series here; original article here. A reader writes:

    "The filibuster is not the problem, it is the Senate, itself. Its function throughout the history of the republic has been suspect. The Senate was created only because small states were afraid the populations of the large states would overwhelm the small. That difference never really materialized. Oh, there have been many disputes that pit large against small states, but none of these disputes were large enough to warrant creating an upper legislative house to lord over the republic. Had the states at the time of the writing of the Constitution been roughly equal in population, we may never have been saddled with a Senate. Our Senate was not based on the House of Lords; that body is based on class and heredity. Heredity never played a part in the Senate (Lodges, Gores and Kennedys were more about name recognition) and class was never as strong here as in Britain (ok, theoretically never as strong). Our upper house became something else entirely: the main arena for pro-slavery interests then for segregationists.

    "Pro-slave interests fought for the creation of new slave states from the territories in the decades preceding the Civil War. They needed parity in the Senate to block anti-slave legislation. Then, after the Civil War, the Senate filibuster rule was the main legislative obstacle to ending segregation and passing civil rights laws and other anti-progressive legislation, as well. Filibustering civil rights lasted into LBJ's presidency (and beyond?). The Senate has been a lot of things in  its over two centuries of existence, but this racial stain is its main claim to fame, until now.

    "Senators are by neither birth nor education more capable of legislating than House members. Their contributions to the legislative process are not on some higher level than the House (note Sen. Susan Collins' ideas about the Constitution). The House once had the filibuster, and if it were the only legislative body, it might bring it back, but maintaining party discipline over a larger group would be more difficult than in a 50 member Senate. It is habit and magical thinking that keeps us clinging to the idea of two legislative bodies.  Of course I know we will not eliminate the Senate. But it is not unfair to describe it as a legislative body that has outlived its original function and that holds sway over the republic with a rule it keeps alive to throttle itself."
  • Going to hell #3

    Background here. Original article here, including my off-hand dismissal of the idea of a whole new Constitutional Convention. ("That would be my cue to move back to China for good--pollution, Great Firewall, and all.") A reader writes to disagree:

    "Had to spend an extra hour in the library last night reading your most recent article in The Atlanticit. Victim of the economy. I live in fear that the Populists will someday come to realize how much of their property tax goes toward supporting the library. There would be a 'For Sale' sign up in a heartbeat.

    "I felt vindicated to see reflected there some points I have long considered salient: a sclerotic political system; the inane Electoral College; and the asymmetric advantage of small populous states in the U.S. Senate. The irony of Libertarian know-nothings disproportionally representing debtor-states has long since ceased to be amusing.

    "I was disheartened, though, by your dismissal of a Constitutional Convention, a concept that I am not yet prepared to vitiate. ,>

    More »

  • Going to hell #2

    Previously in the series, here. Original "are we going to hell?" magazine article here. Reader Joseph Britt of Wisconsin writes:

    "I'm not a fan of apocalyptic thinking, and if America really were on the road to hell, tinkering with the structure of institutions that have been around for over two centuries probably wouldn't help very much.

    "I would, however, offer a few random suggestions as to how to improve the functioning of institutions important to American democracy.  I don't promise that they would redeem American democracy or anything so grandiose; in at least one case (the first one, below), all I can really promise is that they might help keep things from getting worse.  But you asked, so...

    "1.  Stop electing judges.  As in, any judges for any court of law in the United States.  If the Citizens United ruling does result in a surge of money from corporate and union treasuries into electoral politics, judicial races will be the most easily influenced.  This is because they are ordinarily low-turnout elections, held separately from November elections, and low-turnout elections are more easily swung by getting small numbers of zealous people to the polls.  Electing judges is probably not a good idea anyway, seeing as how a competent judge must have a specialized legal background most citizens aren't in any position to evaluate.

    "2.  Stop televising the Senate.  The Senate operates on comity and precedent more than it does on rules.  Its norms, as with the norms of any institution, are more easily sustained if its exposure to the norms of the broader society is limited.  A significant number of Senators now are basically back bench Congressmen, and they act like it; every appearance on the floor is designed to appeal to people likely to vote for them or send their campaigns money.  Visual aids abound.  Serious debate is avoided (it could be embarrassing if a Senator was asked questions he couldn't answer), and the temptation for Senators to address issues for which the committees on which they sit are not responsible is irresistible.  So, remove the temptation.  Turn the cameras off.

    More »

  • Are we going to hell? Kicking off a series

    In response to my long article in the January "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, on whether America was finally, now, really going straight to hell, I received more mail than in have in a very long time. More than I've been able to answer; much more than I've been able to take note of on this site; and way more than we'll eventually be able to use in the print-magazine "Letters" section.

    So I'm kicking off a "Going to Hell" series of interesting correspondence -- some with ideas about how to deal with structural problems in American governance, some with signs of hope -- or doom -- that my article missed, some with support for or challenges to the views I set out.

    "Going to hell" policy: This is a supplement to rather than a replacement for the "real" letters section in the magazine. In most cases, I'll just quote the message, saving replies for the magazine's letters section -- except, of course, when I decide otherwise. If someone writes directly to me, using the "Email JF" button to the right,  and says "You may use my name," I'll use the name. The same is true for letters that went originally to the magazine's Letters section, which requires real names and addresses. Otherwise I will not use names.

    To start us off, a message from Joseph Bracewell, a contemporary and long-time friend, who was raised in Texas in a political family. He writes:

    "My father was a politician (State Senator) for 10 years when I was a kid, then a lawyer/lobbyist the rest of his career. The State Legislature in Texas used to meet for 120 days (January-April) every other year. My Dad said his principal regret in politics was voting to air condition the State Capitol (thereby enabling the Legislature to meet longer and/or more often and accomplish more mischief). The point I take from this is that small changes could make a difference, and that there ought to be an action plan somewhere between a constitutional convention and "muddling through."

    "With that in mind, here are a few random ideas that could be on the list:

    "1. I think some kind of national service requirement makes sense. Maybe some private non-profit work could be made to count also.  I had a job one summer working for Coca-Cola, and now I never order Pepsi.

    More »


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