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: Ideas 2009

  • Welcome, Erik Tarloff; so long, UCB

    The Atlantic's roster of new online Correspondents has become quite formidable; updated list here. I've mentioned (admiringly!) a few of them and their posts previously. Let me say something about the latest arrival, Erik Tarloff, a screenwriter and comic novelist who posted his first essay this week. 

    I mention Erik's debut here for three reasons: as a reminder for anyone who hasn't yet prowled through the Correspondents section; because Erik is a long-time friend, who also happens to join me (and Lawrence Wright and Caleb Carr and the composer Greg Tornquist) in the loyal band of writers/artistes who share a birthday; and because I agree so much with the subject of this first essay.

    It's about the demise of a great, proud public institution: the University of California at Berkeley, accelerated by today's California budget disaster but underway for a long time. Erik, who went to college at UCB and lives nearby, says:

    For decades, legislatures and governors of both parties viewed the University of California as a special jewel in the state's crown, worthy of nurture and protection.  This pride in what the state had wrought paid dividends:  Cal has long been regarded as one of the greatest universities in the country, and in the world.  A remarkable, and unique, achievement for a public institution.
           But it now looks as if those days are over.  It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen completely.  But absent an unlikely, massive injection of private funding, the university is on an inexorable glide path downward....It's not the only tragedy [in California now], nor even necessarily the worst tragedy, but it's a very great tragedy.

    My brother went to Cal; I've taught there and felt an informal part of its community for years; even though I grew up in the USC/UCLA fan zone, I rooted for the Golden Bears as a kid. When arguing about America's strengths and weaknesses in my years overseas, I've often used "Berkeley" as a shorthand reference for the glories of America's and California's commitment to public education and research. And now... read the rest of what Erik says.

    Bonus note: Erik Tarloff is married to the economist and Clinton administration official Laura Tyson. My brief video Q-and-A with her at the Aspen ideas festival is here.

  • Another full Aspen session on line

    Ten days ago, I said that when the full tape of the "Feeding the World's Billions" session of the Aspen Ideas Festival went on line, you should be sure to check it out. This is the one in which (a) Monsanto's CEO, Hugh Grant, answers questions arising from the Robert Kenner movie Food Inc, and (b) more new information, per minute, appears than in other sessions I have seen for a long time.

    Well, it's now up, here, so check it out. 

    Update: The bounty never stops! Another session I wrote about as interesting and worthwhile, "Re-Greening the Emerald Planet," is now on-line, here. Check this out too.

  • Full Aspen session, Fallows v Ferguson, now posted

    In several posts from Aspen (here, here, and here) I mentioned my "full and frank" discussion, as the diplomats would say, with Niall Ferguson over the future of Chinese and American interactions. Main summary of our disagreements is, again, here.

    A streaming video of the whole session is available now, here. My memories of it are clear enough that I don't think I need another immersion. But if you missed it and/or are interested, it's now online.

  • Atlantic interview with Eric Schmidt

    As part of the series of shortish interviews of big shots by Atlantic staffers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, our they-never-sleep web team has posted this Q-and-A between me and Eric Schmidt of Google:

    I'll confess that the most surprising aspect of this brief discussion is all the whitish stuff that is flying around the screen while it goes on. That's not some technical video-quality glitch. The city was just full of fluff, or seeds, or whatever (maybe "cotton") from cottonwood trees in the last week of June. Nonetheless we bravely went ahead. The same stuff had been in the air in Beijing two or three weeks earlier, giving me the rare opportunity to find an environmental similarity between bustling big-city China and pristine Aspen.

    More »

  • Cornucopia of updates #5: Frank Gehry

    In two recent entries, here and here, I mentioned my chagrin at the architect Frank Gehry's haughty dismissal of a persistent questioner at the Aspen Ideas Festival -- and Gehry's subsequent very gracious apology.

    Both were about the manner of the event -- not the substance of the disagreement, which concerned whether "iconic" buildings like many of Gehry's famous buildings also succeeded as attractive, accessible public spaces. The questioner said they didn't; Gehry said they did.

    I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now. I will say that the "fairly insistent" questioner I described as challenging Gehry has been identified on various web sites as Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. (I know that's who he is, but I didn't originally use his name.) I heard him speak at the Aspen festival several years ago; he is a known figure in the field. And for a statement of the argument he was making against Gehry, see two posts, here and here, from David Sucher's City Comforts site. More when I know more.

  • Cornucopia of updates #1: "regreening"

    Last week I mentioned the impressive and even (somewhat) encouraging presentation by Thomas Lovejoy and David Hayes at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on the topic of "regreening." Their argument was that the earth's own natural biological processes could do a lot more to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, if forests, wetlands, agricultural areas, and even deserts were protected and managed in a different way.

    Via Lovejoy, here is a link to the PDF of a new 68-page report from the UN Environment Programme (sic), that goes into the hows, whys, and at-what-costs of "biosequestration" -- that is, improving the natural ecosystem's ability to absorb carbon. Interesting and worth reading, and again at least somewhat encouraging. Its exec-summary begins this way:


    After the jump, a reader's response on the importance of having people like David Hayes inside the federal government. (He is now the #2 official at the Department of Interior.) We take our encouragement where we can find it.

    More »

  • An email from Frank Gehry

    Last week I mentioned my surprise at what I considered a high-handed performance by Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when he dismissively shooed away a questioner whose line of persistent inquiry he didn't like.

    Just now, I was at least as surprised to see in the email inbox a message from Frank Gehry, which with his permission I quote below:

    Dear Mr. Fallows -

    Fair enough - your impression.  I have a few lame excuses.  One is that I'm eighty and I get freaked out with petty annoyances more than I ever did when I was younger.  Two, I didn't really want to be there - I got caught in it by friends.  And three - I do get questions like that and this guy seemed intent on getting himself a pulpit.   I think I gave him an opportunity to be specific about his critique.  Turns out that he followed Tommy Pritzker [the moderator of Gehry's session] around the next day and badgered him about the same issues.  His arguments, according to Tommy, didn't hold much water.  I think what annoyed me most was that he was marketing himself at everyone's expense.  I apologize for offending you.  Thanks for telling me.

    Best Regards,

    Frank Gehry

    To state the obvious, this reply is classy in the extreme and makes me feel better in many ways. As coda to this episode, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, below. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

    WaltDisneyConcertHall Wikipedia.jpg

  • One more viewing tip on the 'Chimerica' tape (updated)

    As a reminder: sooner or later the full video of the "Chimerica" discussion between Niall Ferguson and me, this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, will be posted at the Aspen site. (Previous mentions here and here.) If you see or read the full version, you will note that an absolutely fundamental premise in the argument (Ferguson's) for the inevitable collision of US and Chinese interests is that the Chinese leadership has recently lost all faith in the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar and is determined to move away from the dollar as an international currency.

    You will note too that statements by Chinese officials, taken strictly at face value, are the main pieces of evidence for this contention. In that regard, this latest statement by a senior Chinese official deserves notice: 
    My argument, as you'll see, is that China and the United States will continue to disagree over countless issues but are too thoroughly connected to be pushed by the current world economic crisis toward what Ferguson declares a "divorce." If a real separation occurs, it would probably be over Taiwan or some other non-routine-economic issue.

    Bear this statement from He Yafei (genuine influential official) in mind when you hear "academic discussions" about moves away from the dollar. And, as I've mentioned many times, if you're looking for an "academic" perspective on the Chinese economy and US-Chinese tensions that is based on its actual realities rather than sweeping generalizations, start here.
    :  Thanks to Andy Rothman of CLSA in Shanghai for the reminder that one week ago, Zhou Xiaochuan, the People's Bank of China governor who touched off original speculation about China's move away from dollar holdings, declared that China would be making no sudden moves to change its currency holdings. Why this matters: the "impending breakup" thesis depends crucially on the idea that China is quickly and unstoppably undoing its links to the U.S. economy and U.S. holdings. 


  • More Chimerica, Ferguson, Fallows, Kaiser Wilhelm, etc

    Apparently it will still be a while until full videos of various Aspen Ideas Festival sessions go on line, as opposed to the selected clips now available (see the right side of this page). So because it may not be apparent from the short video of my discussion with Niall Ferguson, or from David Brooks' very fair-minded column about the discussion, or from my previous item on it, here is a little more about what was discussed and where I think the differences lay.

    1. The main part of my "side" of the argument that was necessarily left out of a 750-word summary of a 90-minute discussion, but that I've tried to express in all the articles I've written from China over the past three years, is that anything is possible when it comes to developments inside China and also relations between China and the outside world.
    For instance, when one questioner asked for "scenarios" about China's political evolution, Ferguson replied that "all my Chinese graduate students at Harvard" gave him the same scenario: that there was no huge appetite for a democratic shift in China now, economics came first, etc. I said that I could imagine countless possible scenarios: internal disaster because of environmental or other emergencies; another Tiananmen-like internal crackdown that alienated the outside world but reflected the government's belief that domestic control mattered more than outside approval; a nationalistic backlash triggered by something like last year's foreign protests against the Olympic torch relay; a Taiwan-related emergency; even rising middle-class pressure for democratic openings. Whatever. These are all conceivable. What seems to me most likely, however, is what we've seen since the early Clinton years: continued US-Chinese engagement in a deeply connected but often contentious way.

    This is in contrast to Ferguson's argument that the "Chimerica" bloc had been the indispensable basis of the world economy until recently, but now was headed for inevitable breakup because of economic troubles inside the US and political developments inside China.

    2. The specific part of Ferguson's view I most strongly resist is his assertion of close, cautionary parallels between Germany's rise in the years leading up to World War I and China's rise now.


    Historical patterns and analogies are obviously essential and instructive. But just as obviously, it's crucial to recognize the differences as well as the similarities in different stages of history. This was the central argument of the wonderful "Lessons" of the Past: Uses and Misuses of History in American Foreign Policy, by Ernest May, a favorite professor of mine in college and afterwards who sadly died this year. Another valuable work by another Harvard professor is Richard Neustadt's Thinking in Time: The Use of History by Decision-Makers. As May pointed out in his book, when LBJ and his confidants thought only of Munich, Chamberlain, and Hitler when hearing about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, they mis-assessed their adversaries and badly hurt themselves. We've seen the same mistake more recently in the pre-Iraq war assertions that because it was a mistake to delay a military confrontation with Hitler's Germany, the same principle applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

    A systematic examination of the similarities and differences between the Kaiser's Germany and Hu Jintao's China would be an interesting exercise. As I run through them informally, it strikes me that for every similarity (relatively rising economy, naval-force expansion) you can think of at least ten differences (scale, overall stage of economic development, geographical points of tension with existing powers, religion and ideology, recent military history, environmental and other possible constraints on growth, etc).

    The real point is: The fact that Germany's rise was followed by a disastrous-for-all-parties world war is worth remembering. But to assert that this means that China and America are necessarily or even probably headed for a showdown is just assertion.

    3. More than assertion, it is dangerous assertion. Even historians -- or especially historians -- recognize that world events are shaped in part by deep economic, demographic, and technical trends, but only in part. Real human beings make real decisions that have real effects. (Cf: LBJ in 1964, Bush-Cheney in 2001, JFK-Khrushchev in 1962, etc.) If we recognize that a collision with China is possible, but only one of several possibilities, then we act so as to reduce that possibility and increase the probability of better outcomes. If we think breakup is inevitable, as Ferguson is arguing, then the odds of a collision in fact occurring become higher than they would otherwise be. (Because each side interprets the other's moves in the darkest way and responds in kind.)

    4. As will be seen when the tape goes up, Ferguson's opening remarks included repeated references to what "the Chinese think" and "the Chinese want" and "the Chinese will demand." My opening comment was how treacherous it was to say that "the Chinese" do or think or want anything, since in practice the place often behaves like 20 separate countries and countless regional factions and many self-interested businesses and a billion-strong individuals. This is related to the previous point, in that any analysis that starts with the idea of one big, coherent Chinese entity is both more alarming than other understandings -- and, in my view, less realistic.

    5. Although I didn't address this part of Ferguson's analysis directly, he pointed out -- correctly -- that China's export machine has been profoundly affected by the collapse in surplus US demand. But Ferguson's conclusion, that this means the end of "Chimerica," seems to me far less convincing or nuanced than, say, the running analysis by Michael Pettis of Peking University. His web site is here; he was among the analysts I quoted in this article about what the economic downturn will mean for "Chimerica."

    There's more, but this will do till the tape appears!

  • Fifty-nine and a half minutes of brilliance, thirty seconds of hauteur

    This evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry talked about his life and works under the questioning of Thomas Pritzker.

    Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming. Over the years I've highly valued chances to hear people at the absolute top of their fields, to compare the experiences of hearing them speak about what they do. Some of them are as good to listen to as they had been to admire from afar. Others (often actors, athletes, visual artists) have no way of conveying in conversation what makes them so impressive in their own metier. Gehry is in the "good talker" category.


    (Photo of Frank Gehry by Trent Nelson of the Salt Lake Tribune)

    Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too.

    Gehry didn't like the question and said that the indictment didn't apply to his own buildings. He said that the facts would back him up --  and as the questioner repeated the challenge, Gehry said that he found the question "insulting."

    Fair enough. The guy did keep pushing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever appeared in public has encountered questions a hundred times as personally challenging as this.

    But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said -- and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior -- again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.

    I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.

  • Be sure to see this when it's posted: 'Feeding the World's Billions' panel

    Whenever the Aspen Ideas Festival posts full videos or transcripts of its panel events, be sure not to miss the session on global food supply that took place this morning. As measured by the ever-popular "how much more did I know at the end of the session, compared with what I knew at the start" metric, for me this was the most informative 75 minutes I've spent here so far.

    The panelists were: Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto -- whose company was, of course, a central villain of the Food Inc movie screened here earlier this week; Henrietta Fore, former administrator of USAID; Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, with experience in market-based and supply-chain efforts at conservation; and David Tilman, a biology/ecology expert from the University of Minnesota.

    The benefit of the panel was the combination of alarming facts and specific solution-possibilities. Sample alarming fact: if the world population eventually tops out at 9.5 billion, 50% more than now, total food production will probably have to grow by 200%, as people eat higher up the food chain and demand more and more meat. The challenge, as several panelists put it, was to produce three times as much food on no more than the current amount of agricultural land. (About why it won't just work to cut down all remaining forests to grow food, see here.)

    Sample specific solution-possibilities, or at least interesting facts: Average yields in U.S. farms are roughly three times as high as the overall average for Mexico, India, and Brazil. If those countries got to even two-thirds of the US level, it would make a huge difference in closing the "grain gap." Also: a huge share of the world's food output is wasted -- in the developing world because it rots and spoils before it can get to market, and in the US to a significant degree because of restaurant waste. Thus easy opportunities for gain. Surprising facts about animal efficiency: if it takes 2.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of chicken, and 5 pounds to produce a pound of pork, and up to 10 pounds to produce a pound of grain-fed beef, it can take less than a pound of grain feed to produce a pound of tilapia fish. "It's all about buoyancy," one of the panelists said.  I may be hazy on a few of the details here, but the general points are right.

    There was a whole lot more -- I was taking notes the whole time, while I was supposed to be moderating. Also, Hugh Grant on Monsanto manfully answered questions about the Food. Inc. movie at the start of the session. Really, an exceptional discussion: check it out when available.

  • Fallows v Ferguson at Aspen (updated)

    David Brooks' column in the NYT this morning describes a discussion I had with Niall Ferguson, of "Chimerica," two days ago at Aspen. In its brief space the column gives a fair sampling of the terms of argument and tone of the discussion. A video of the thing itself is here, as part of the Ideas Festival's video archive. Right at the moment, the video doesn't load for me, but I assume that's a temporary glitch.

    For now, I'll say that the discussion speaks for itself -- and perhaps that it may also illustrate two different ways of approaching and assessing evidence, and two different styles of presentation and argument. My experience in graduate school in England makes me think that among other things we might be seeing here a comparison of two national styles of discourse, Oxford-style debate versus Yank-style. But probably it's just the difference between two individuals.

    UPDATE: At the moment I am not at a computer that will load the video of the session. But I hear from my trusty correspondents that, rather than being the whole hour-plus discussion, it's actually a 3:41 clip. The contentious part, as described in David Brooks' column, begins at about 2:30. FWIW.

  • Another somewhat-good-news session

    The leitmotif in many Aspen Ideas Festival sessions has involved various systems and institutions under big, fundamental stress. The world financial system. The world climate/environmental system. The modern media economy/ecology. And lots more.

    Yesterday, as part of the Atlantic's role in the Ideas Festival, I got to moderate a discussion among some 30 people who were big shots from public and private realms. The presidents of two of the leading research universities in the world. A sitting governor. The CEO of a major (non-US based) technology firm. Scholars and public officials and financiers and economists and corporate executives and writers. Unlike most of the sessions here (see videos etc at this main page), these mealtime discussions are not on-the-record so I'm not supposed to give a blow-by-blow.

    But I can say that at the end of the discussion I asked for a show of hands on a simple good news / bad news question. The question was whether the current economic/political/environmental emergency around the world would be a "successful crisis" or a "failed crisis." That, is would today's sense of emergency lead the United States, in particular, to address some of its fundamental fiscal, political, social, environmental, educational, etc problems, so that it came out of the crisis stronger than it went in? Or would it be a missed opportunity, a "wasted crisis," in which the U.S. system would avoid dealing with any fundamental issues and therefore would come out of the immediate travails in worse shape than when it went in?

    The results were three- or four- to one positive. Nearly twenty people voted for the "successful crisis" interpretation; only five or six expected a "failed crisis." This is not proof, and it may be simple wish fulfillment. But I was surprised by the results -- and, how could I help but be? encouraged by them.

  • Semi-encouraging climate-change session

    On Wednesday morning, before a chaos of other obligations, I heard yet another panel on impending climate-change disasters, but this one left me strangely less despondent than some of the others. The speakers were Thomas Lovejoy, a long-time biodiversity expert, and David Hayes, who has recently become the #2 official in the Department of Interior.

    Lovejoy's presentation began with a reminder of all the bad things that are happening to wildlife, to biodiversity, to life in the ocean, etc as CO2 levels in the atmosphere go up, taking temperatures with them. But then, in the pivot to the "you don't have to jump out the window just yet" part of the presentation, he emphasized how huge a role the Earth's own natural processes and vegetations -- its forests, grasslands, wetlands, even deserts -- can play in absorbing much larger quantities of carbon from the atmosphere than they do now and thereby reducing the greenhouse effect, if they are protected and managed in a different way. He called this process "Re-Greening the Emerald Planet," and he supplied several charts (which I don't have) to show how powerful the effect could be.

    He tied this analysis to perhaps the most frequently-used chart in modern climate-change thinking -- one produced by McKinsey & Co and the McKinsey Global Institute comparing the relative costs of different measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere. (For more on the study, here. For discussion, here.) On the chart, the below-the-line items, on the left side, are GHG-reduction measures that save more money than they cost. Most of these are sheer efficiency measures (insulating buildings, switching to more efficient lights). The above-the-line escalating figures on the right are the rising costs of other abatement measures. The most expensive of them are high-tech "carbon capture and sequestrian" systems, plus protecting forests in heavily-populated Asian countries. (Click for larger.)


    Lovejoy's point was that a lot of "re-greening" steps are near the middle of the chart, either actually saving money or costing very little compared with a variety of clean-energy technologies. For more on the latter, see Josh Green's new piece.

    So far, so familiar for most people following the debate. But then Hayes stepped up with what was news to me. This was the announcement that the Department of Interior, which is by far the largest landowner in the United States, and which at various points in its history has been seen as a beacon of the "drill, baby, drill!" philosophy of land management (cf: James Watt, passim), was in fact now quite serious about applying a "Re-greening" approach to the 20 percent of the US landmass under its control.

    Hayes gave more details than I will recount here. They boiled down to a sequence of: trying to measure and understand the carbon-absorption properties of the various lands under its control; seeing how they can be improved, including with market-based offsets; telling the story to the public of why protecting and expanding forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc has an important climate-change component; making forest-preservation an important part of international climate negotiations (rather than talking only about clean-energy sources); and a lot more. (Including changes in U.S. agriculture, which are of course outside Interior's direct control, so that instead of being, incredibly, a net emitter of greenhouse gases, it has a positive effect. This is related to the Food, Inc. discussion of industrial agriculture mentioned here.)

    "If we can come up with some measures that are correct and that people can understand, and show instances where we can positively affect the carbon balance, that can be a huge sea change," Hayes said. "We can show people that there are affirmative things we can do to help our climate. I am very excited about it."

    That doesn't solve all the problems, answer all the questions, etc. But it was surprising enough to hear from a senior DOI official and seemed politically and psychologically shrewd, in letting people think that there was some reaction to dire greenhouse gas projections other than holding their hands over their ears and wishing the whole problem would go away.


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