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.
  • Re-Knitting the Frayed Social Fabric: What Libraries Can Do

    As Ohio goes, so goes the nation—or at least we can hope so in this case.

    Entrance to the main library in Columbus, Ohio, a city that is putting the "Open to All" motto into effect (Deborah Fallows)

    The more we travel to different parts of the country in our American Futures project, the more we're impressed both by local idiosyncrasies and by broad emerging patterns we hadn't fully anticipated. In the second category would be developments like these, among others:

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  • Urban Comeback Stories in 2 Swing States

    Tales from two cities, plus the secret of the writing life

    Franklinton, a now-depressed neighborhood that Columbus is trying hard to bring back (John Tierney)

    During this past week, while I have been head-down on a long magazine story, John Tierney has done two very interesting posts in our American Futures series about similar-but-different revitalization efforts in two older cities in two adjoining states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.*

    (I am sure it shows something embarrassing about what a lifetime's interest in politics has done to my brain, but the most obvious bracket I can think of that contains Ohio and Pennsylvania is "swing states," so I'll go with that.)

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  • Why Obama Should Say Very Little About Hong Kong, and Other Protest Readings

    What looks "strong" to the Washington commentariat would only weaken the demonstrators' position

    Students in Hong Kong (Reuters)

    Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:

    1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.

    Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.

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  • 'On the Other Side of the Shenzhen River'

    A man born in Kunming reflects on Hong Kong, and cries.

    Hai Zhang

    My friend Hai Zhang, who is originally from Kunming and whose writings and photos you can see more about here, sends this picture just now from across the Shenzhen River that separates Guangdong Province, in mainland China, from Hong Kong. He writes:

    On the other side of the Shenzhen River, I feel shamed, I cry and cry.  I think you know what I am crying for and what I am shamed of.

    For now, as the National Day Holiday dawns in Hong Kong and across China, three reading suggestions:

    1) "Against My Fear, I See That You Hope," a message from a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to her students who have taken to the streets in protest. This post, by Denise Ho, conveys how unusual it is for this movement to arise in Hong Kong, and the mixture of admiration and foreboding in many people's minds:

    As I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.

    I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be.

    2) "China Strikes Back," by Orville Schell for the New York Review and China File, gives more reason for the foreboding. Orville Schell is a longtime close friend, and he has known more about China, for a longer time, than I ever will. (He and John Delury also recently wrote a very good book about China's rise, Wealth and Power, which is newly relevant.) His conclusion is darker than I'm willing fully to embrace now. But this article is important background to what you see unfolding in Hong Kong.

    3) Henry Farrell on the limits of "explanatory" journalism, on Monday in The Washington Post. I'm all for explanatory journalism, which is part of what The Atlantic has always been for. But in its latest incarnation it's both highly valuable, when writers can add new data—or reporting-based interpretations—and suspect, when writers feel the need to "explain" events in which they're mainly working at second-hand remove. It's an adjustment each wave of journalistic improvement goes through.

    All the more reason to pay attention to those explaining, from on the scene. Including Gady Epstein in The Economist, Emily Rauhala in Time, the WSJ's Real Time Blog, the NYT and WaPo on-scene coverage, and more.  

    I'm not on-scene, but an observation from having been there over the years:

    It would be wonderful to think that the PRC leadership would take the soft-power, high-road route out of this confrontation. It could recognize the maturity and responsibility of the newly politically aware Hong Kong populace. It could cannily assess the advantages to China of "controlling" Hong Kong while letting it continue to operate with rule of law, uncensored Internet, untrammeled media, free universities, transparent financial markets, and all the other attributes of a first-world center. With a light hand, the PRC government could have it both ways.

    But that's not likely. Any more than it's likely that the current leaders will throw the doors to China open to the world's journalists—which would be the best way to advance the country's image, given that more interesting/good is underway there than depressing/bad—or that they'll uncensor the Internet or realize that they're magnifying their problems in the long run by jailing, for life, a moderate, intellectual leader of the Uighur cause. This is why it is hard to imagine a pleasant ending to the currently inspiring movement in Hong Kong.

    I could say that the Chinese leadership is on a self-destructive course—but, hell, I have said that about America at countless stages. For now, thanks to Hai Zhang; consider reading these items; and most sincere admiration and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.

  • A Day on the Road: A Story-Map View of Allentown

    What you find is usually not quite what you were looking for.

    Map by John Tierney and Deb Fallows

    The real reason to be a reporter is the chance it offers to see, ask about, and prowl around the world. For more on the high concept of the reportorial satisfaction in seeing, you can check this post from the summer.

    This has been a special satisfaction of our American Futures travels over the past year. The joy and the terror of the process is showing up in a place with a few questions in mind and a few contacts lined up, and then following leads, backing out of dead ends, and spending whole days in pursuits you hadn't foreseen. Inevitably you discover that the preparation was essential, but that inevitably the most intriguing questions are the ones you hadn't even thought to ask before you made the trip.

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  • 'When We Felt Threatened, We Opened Umbrellas and Raised Our Hands'

    A message from Hong Kong


    From a reader in Hong Kong:

    I was at the uneventful (if tense) Legco [Legislative Council] demonstration on Saturday as well as last night's demonstrations between Causeway Bay and Central.

    It was as much depressing as, ultimately, uplifting. When I was incapacitated by a blast of pepper spray, I somehow found myself being reverse crowd-surfed to a safe area.

    There, a young girl cradled my head and poured water into my eyes. Some others wiped the chemicals off my arms and legs. When they went on to help the next injured person, an old woman kept watch over me, speaking soft Cantonese and plying me with all manner of snacks and drinks. These were complete strangers. Later, when we scrambled to avoid the first tear gas attack, a small band of people committed to staying put and helping the crush of smoke victims climb over the concrete barriers and into safety.

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  • Iron Pigs Rising

    Another strand in the fibers of civic connection

    Warming up before the Pigs-Chiefs night game, Coca-Cola Park (James Fallows)

    It turns out that the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs aren't really that good at baseball, at least this year. They lost two of the three games we saw at Coca-Cola Stadium last month—a day-night doubleheader on a Saturday, and a night game the following Monday, all against the Syracuse Chiefs and all in idyllic, clear high-sky conditions. A few weeks later at the end of the season, the Chiefs were at the top of the triple-A International League Northern division, and the poor Iron Pigs were 15.5 games back in last place.

    Maybe we're not good-luck omens for plucky minor-league teams. Earlier in the summer, our Duluth Huskies, of the Northwoods league, took a 9-7 lead over the Eau Claire Express into the bottom of the 8th, only to lose by the improbable 11-inning score of 16-9.  (That is what giving up 7 runs in the top of the 11th will do to a team.) Happily, the Huskies ended up tied for first in their league.

    But we couldn't feel too bad about the Iron Pigs' loss. Although we loyally cheered for them, the visiting Chiefs are the AAA-farm team of our local rampaging Washington Nationals, so from our perspective it was a win either way.*

    (The Iron Pigs are part of the Phillies organization.) And we got to take part in one of the civic institutions meant to be part of a revived Allentown and greater Lehigh Valley.

    Deb Fallows describes the game, the team, the stadium, and the idea behind all of them in a new post in our American Futures series. You can read it here. Below you can see that post's author, in the white skirt, looking on from the centerfield lawn/stands as Kai Ryssdal (green shirt) and his Marketplace team interview Lee Butz (white shirt) who built the stadium.

    And if you're still wondering about the Allentown spirit, please check out this city video, produced earlier this year and featuring many of the people you've heard about in our dispatches so far, and a few more to come.

    Personal note: for the past ten days, and the ten+ days to come, I have been and will be heavily preoccupied with a big print-magazine project. Look forward to returning to this beat.

    * Similarly: From my parochial perspective, this is the most satisfying baseball season in a long time. The Eastern division leaders are the Nationals and the Os, for whom my kids grew up cheering in the pre-Nationals era. In the West, it's the LA Dodgers with whom I grew up, and the Angels. The Central people can fight it out. Only imperfection is that the As, who we cheered on when living in Berkeley, haven't yet made it.

  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Lehigh Valley Edition

    Allentown deals with fiscal problems from its past with a bet about water supplies for its future

    Fountain in Allentown's Cedar Creek Park (John Tierney)

    Water is increasingly the theme that connects the world's big energy, environmental, and climate-related questions. Fracking in the United States, China, and elsewhere is creating new, cheaper, potentially cleaner energy sources; but it consumes a lot of water, and might pollute even more. Air pollution is the most visible (literally) environmental disaster in China, but maintaining water supplies for the country's cities, factories, and farms may be an even greater challenge. Water-level rise is one of the most feared future effects of climate change, and ocean-water acidification in the here-and-now is already an emergency for coral reefs, shellfish, and so on. Then we have the business, agricultural, and environmental consequences of the California drought. (Which is an occasion to mention: Our California High-Speed Rail series is about to resume, and will be the next feature in this space. I have been wrestling with a big print-magazine article and American Futures travels since the previous installment.)

    And even the verdant Lehigh Valley, home to Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and environs, is dealing with water issues. In "The City That Turned Its Water Into Cash," the latest American Futures installment, John Tierney describes the unusual bet the Allentown city government made about solving the pension burdens it had inherited from its past, with water supplies for its future. It's a local version of privatization steps taken in other cities, most famously or notoriously with Chicago's decision to lease-out the right to run its parking meters. John explains the logic behind it and why the city leaders in Allentown considered this a necessary next step in their area's revival. For more details, please see his post.

  • First Bowling Alone, Now Vaulting Together

    From Tocqueville onward, observers have thought that informal organizations held America together. Are any of them left?

    Motivational billboard at the Parkettes gymnastics training center in Allentown, Pa. (Deborah Fallows)

    Whether in admiring ways (from Tocqueville to Frank Capra) or disparaging / mocking (from Babbitt onward), observers of America have marveled at the informal organizational fabric that held this disparate country together. Elks and Rotary, volunteer fire departments and Junior League, Cub Scouts and Brownies, PTA and library board, neighborhood sports, of course religious organizations—these all typified and governed America as much as its formal governing structures.   

    Over the past 20 years, Robert Putnam has been the best-known exponent of the idea that this essential fabric has atrophied. First in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy and then five years later in the book Bowling Alone, Putnam argued that America had become a group of atomized, dis-connected individuals who owed nothing to one another and had become a crowd rather than a society.

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  • Made in America, Again
    Álvaro Dominguez

    Made in America, Again

    Three big trends that could shape the future of high-tech manufacturing—and the middle class

  • The 100% Renewable-Powered City: Too Good to be True?

    Balancing substance and symbolism in the movement toward cleaner energy sources

    Solar panels outside the Burlington-area headquarters of Renewable NRG Systems, which we wrote about last year ( James Fallows )

    Yesterday I mentioned the latest accomplishment of Burlington, Vermont. Previously the site of such implausible-sounding but actually true achievements as "an airport that is pleasant" and "a newspaper that is doing well," it now boasted a "100% renewable" city energy supply.

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    A reader in China, who is himself in the clean-energy business, writes to dispute the claim—really, how much of a step forward it represents. First he highlighted these parts of the AP story about the renewable claim. The story said:

    "[The local utility companies do not contend] that each of their customers' lights comes from renewable sources all the time. When the wind isn't blowing and the rivers are low, they will buy power from traditional sources that include electricity generated from fossil fuels.

    "When the resources are right, though, they get more than they can use, and the difference is sold to other utilities. Over time, they sell more than they buy."

    The story then quoted an energy expert on the effects of the plan:

    "They are selling the renewable energy credits to customers in other states. Those customers have the renewable and clean energy benefits of that power," [one expert] said. "Simply using accounting measures to make claims about clean energy doesn't get us there."...

    [A professor at the University of Vermont] said reaching 100 percent was a big achievement.

    "It definitely makes me feel better here at UVM to know that every time I turn on a light switch or fire up my computer or anything else, to know that it's 100 percent renewable," he said.

    This reader in China (a Westerner) begs to differ:

    I hope I do not sound too didactic in pointing out that the reason we care about renewables at all is to affect (for the better) the physical world:

    1.      Moving an existing dam from one owner to another [which is part of what Burlington did] is an example of something that has no effect on the physical world. The buyer gets the renewable energy, the seller and its customers lose it and need to replace that lost renewable energy with something else. To claim this as any sort of improvement in the physical environment is basically just a shell game.

    2. As noted in the articles, all these renewables (except perhaps the hydro) have to be backed up by non-renewables, so the net impact in the physical world is an increase in total installed net electric power generating capacity – not a decrease.

    What is missing to make renewables the boon they really could be is widespread, cost-effective power storage, so that the renewables can provide power on demand without needing backup from fossil fuel plants.  People are working on this.  The others of us need to recognize how vital it is.

    3. It is a basic rule of renewables that if you sell to someone else the renewable energy credits (or attributes) associated with your generator, then you can’t claim to have renewable energy yourself from the same generator.  The reason for this is obvious – double-counting would otherwise be rampant, because the buyer of the credits is claiming to be using renewable energy as a result. What you sell to the buyer is the right to say “I am using renewable energy.”  You can’t both sell that right and assert it yourself.

    4.      It sounds as if Burlington has cleverly tried to deal with this by a sort of renewable energy credit (or attributes) arbitrage process – buy low, sell high.  So they can sell their cake and claim it, too.  As a skeptic in the article correctly suggests, we are not going to improve the physical environment with accounting.

    5.      The delusion of the fellow turning on his computer and “knowing” that the power always comes 100% from renewables is the reason all this matters, in the real world.  He’s happy, when in truth he should only be somewhat relieved at a marginal improvement and mildly appreciative of what would seem (from this article at least) to be his utility’s admirable efforts to improve conditions in the real world while considerably overstating (or over-implying/suggesting) the net real-world environmental impacts of those efforts (I think the apt word here might be “puffery”).

    6.      It is only the latter (the puffery) that troubles me, since I think that – society-wide – it encourages the computer-guy delusion, and makes it sound as if cleaning up our electric power supply is all going to be much simpler and less expensive than is the case.  It is going to be terribly difficult, it is going to be expensive, and yet it is urgent, because the world is well along the path to being cooked.  Lulling people into any sort of complacency is just plain counter-productive.  

    Offered for the record, as perspective on what this announcement indicates—and does not. More ahead on city- and state-level efforts to make real progress in climate and energy issues, at a time when legislative steps at the federal level seem impossible.

  • Greening Up in Burlington, Rocking Out in Allentown

    As American government seems ever more paralyzed at the national level, cities continue to find ways to grapple with real problems. Two more examples.

    A rustbelt city trying to recreate itself: downtown Allentown, Pa., two weeks ago (John Tierney)

    1) Green Power in Vermont. Last year our American Futures team reported on several almost-too-good-to-be-true aspects of life in Burlington, Vermont. A print newspaper that was thriving. A commercial airport that was actually pleasant. A brewery whose output was so much in demand that it rationed sales to give everyone a chance. A strong business-and-social-responsibility culture, including in clean tech and info tech. Advances in traditional higher-ed but also in a "career-oriented" approach. An ability to absorb refugees and immigrants. Overall, effective governance and public-private collaboration, from the era of its onetime Socialist mayor Bernie Sanders to the current Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger.

    Today, a significant news announcement via this AP story by Wilson Ring. It begins:

    Vermont's largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass....

    "It shows that we're able to do it, and we're able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future," said Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service.

    A lot of things are easier to do in a small state like Vermont than in a big, sprawling, quarrelsome country like America as a whole. Still, these things don't happen on their own, and this is another reason to offer congratulations.

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    2) Eagles Power in Allentown. As we previewed last week (and as was covered on Marketplace), this past Friday night was a huge watershed for the government, businesses, and people of Allentown, Pa. That was when the high-stakes effort to revive the tattered downtown had its debut event, with a concert by The Eagles at the new PPL Arena.

    How did it go? Our friends at the Morning Call have a number of generally upbeat stories. For instance, here's the way their review of the concert itself was played on the Morning Call's site.

    And here was the connection between the band and the town. The Eagles group, John Moser wrote,

    which once was such a mighty force in music that it sold 60 million albums in the 1970s alone and became the third-best-selling band of all time, is back on tour after just one studio album in 35 years and no Top 10 songs since 1980.

    That puts the band in much the same situation as Allentown — a city that is decades removed from its glory years and is looking to reassert itself.

    Both were pretty impressive at the arena's first event Friday.

    For other local coverage, you can start here or here, which includes a charming video of people who had come back into the downtown for the first time in years. This latter story includes a variety of reactions like this:

    "I used to come here as a kid, but there was never any reason to come back unless you had jury duty," [a suburbanite] said. "This is a lot nicer than I've heard. They've really cleaned it up. I can't believe this is Allentown."

    Allentown still has a million problems and a very long way to go, as people there are aware and as we will discuss. But to kick off the new season of American Futures coverage, please check out John Tierney's new post on the unusual tax plan that lies behind the downtown revival, and the people in state and local government behind that plan. He explains how it's different from urban-incentive programs in place anywhere else, the tradeoffs it involves, and why—in his view, as a one-time political-science professor* and a communitarian in outlook—he thinks it is a positive step.

    More to come later this week, as we unveil a new look for this series. For now, good wishes to people working hard for their communities from Burlington to Allentown.

    *Small-world department: When John Tierney was in graduate school at Harvard, his dissertation supervisor was none other than the late James Q. Wilson, who is famous in and beyond Atlantic precincts as co-author of the hugely influential article "Broken Windows." John studied urban politics and has been wrestling with these issues for a long time.

  • Countdown to Tonight's Arena Debut in Allentown

    Is the city ready for its close-up? The locals say it is.

    A 500-pound cake, inside the arena it depicts (Village Bake Shoppe)

    Yesterday Marketplace had a very thorough story about Allentown’s effort to revive its downtown, and I did a teaser for a series of posts we’ll start next week. If you check the Marketplace link, you can read a great overview by Tommy Andres of the city's predicament and plans. As a bonus you'll see the incredibly Village People-esque Billy Joel music video of his early-80s song "Allentown" (which was actually about nearby Bethlehem) plus modern-day pictures of the city. You go can straight to the video here.

    For now, an update on the event that’s the official kickoff of the new era in downtown-Allentown’s history: the debut of the new PPL Arena, with a concert at 8 pm tonight by The Eagles.

    Two weeks ago, our team of road-hardened reporters—Kai Ryssdal and Tommy Andres of Marketplace; John Tierney and Deb Fallows of the Atlantic, plus me—were absolutely as one in disbelieving that the now-shiny, then-unfinished new arena could possibly be ready in time for tonight’s scheduled opening.

    But by all on-scene accounts, ready it is. I just heard from one local resident that there is still some last-minute patchwork underway. But the huge trucks carrying The Eagles’ stage equipment have been there for a long time, disgorging equipment and setting up for the show that starts five hours from now as I type.

    Mayor Ed Pawlowski told me today, “We’re ready!” Doug Pelletier, head of a software firm that has just moved its headquarters to a renovated site one block from the arena, agreed. Scott Krauss and Matt Assad of the Morning Call, who have followed the downtown plans from the start (and often questioned them), have an upbeat report on the opening. They include this quote from Ray O'Connell, a city councilman:

    "What this means to Allentown is hope. Hope. Hope for a better Allentown. Hope for the families of Allentown. Hope for the children of the families of Allentown. Hope. And without hope, you have nothing."

    Rodale General Store, near the HQ in Emmaus

    To round things out, here is an on-scene update from the Atlantic’s own Corby Kummer. He is in town not for the concert but, in his role as one of the world's leading food writers, for a board meeting of the Rodale Institute. The Rodale publishing empire is based just south of Allentown in Emmaus, and the Rodale Institute, nearby in Kutztown, is the nation's leading center for trials of organic vs conventional farming techniques. Corby reports:

    "Hell, yeah, it's ready. Ya gotta have faith." This was the response [yesterday afternoon] of a crusty guy at loading dock of the arena. "Now we just have to get the food in." He was directing traffic in and out of catering facility.

    Workers on sidewalks at the rear corner were hosing the concrete. Traffic on the road leading to the monument, 7th St, is still blocked in all but one lane.

    [This morning] I stopped a large guy in a small delivery truck with Village Bake Shoppe written on the side and asked if he’d delivered food. Yes indeed, he said. A gigantic 500-pound cake that’s a replica of the whole city block. He said it took over 70 hours and he needed eight people to help him unload it.

    Faith. Hope. Cake. And rock stars. You need them all. Good wishes to Allentown tonight, and more of its saga next week.

    Update: Here's a livecam, via the Morning Call, of the new arena and the crowds there hearing the Eagles. Didn't know of it when the show began, but will watch when it breaks up to check the crowds.

  • The Eagles Come to Allentown, and So Does 'American Futures'

    Tomorrow is the first day in an old city's new life—or so the city leaders hope and believe.

    PPL Center arena in the heart of downtown Allentown, as it looked two weeks ago. On Friday night at 8 pm, it kicks off Allentown's new era with a concert by The Eagles. (All photos: Deborah and James Fallows)

    In a few hours, our partners at Marketplace will carry their latest “American Futures” report, this one on an unusual, high-speed, and high-stakes effort to revive the tattered downtown district of Allentown, Pa. Starting next Monday, here at the Atlantic’s site, Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I will kick off a new season of American Futures reports with a series of posts on Allentown's ambitions, challenges, and personalities.

    In between those two dates—to be precise, tomorrow night, Friday, at 8 p.m.—the new era in the town's long history will begin, when a brand-new 10,000-seat arena will have its debut event with a concert by The Eagles.  If you're interested in getting tickets, good luck! Some people told us that the concert was entirely sold out three hours after tickets first went on sale; others, that it had taken 24 hours. Either way, it's a significant moment for the town.

    What you see at the top of this post is the way the arena and its surroundings looked less than two weeks ago, when the most common downtown sights were cement trucks, construction cranes, paving crews, and other signs of people working hard against a deadline. What  you see below this paragraph is one of many sketches of how a revived Allentown central district is hoped to look.

    "Will this possibly be ready in time?" we asked ourselves—and our hosts. "Yes!" said mayor Ed Pawlowski, who has overseen the revitalization effort from the city-government's perspective. "Yes!" said J.B. Reilly, the developer most prominently involved in the downtown effort. "Yes!" said Lee Butz, whose construction firm is building the arena. We'll all know for sure tomorrow.

    The story we plan to tell about Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley region is different from what we expected before going there (which is, of course, the reason to make these trips), and I suspect different from the image that the city's name may call up in many people's minds. Billy Joel's anthem of industrial decline "Allentown" is misleading in a micro way. It's about the ripple effects of shutting down a huge steel works—but that was in fact the story of nearby Bethlehem and its enormous Bethlehem Steel plant, whose ruins have now become an eerily compelling modern-Stonehenge style arts center, concert venue, and casino. (The music-video is also an astonishing specimen of early-Reagan-era camp, but we'll save that for a later installment — plus the reasons why Billy Joel called the song "Allentown" rather than "Bethlehem" in the first place.)

    A band warming up on a Saturday afternoon at SteelStacks, once the enormous Bethlehem Steel works

    Allentown has suffered its large industrial layoffs, notably with what had once been the world manufacturing center for Mack trucks. Now that is a center of advanced-tech and light-manufacturing startups—including a great brewery, and a "meadery"—working on what had been the Mack shop floors.

    Once the site of Mack Trucks, now an incubator for a
    "walkable manufacturing" economy

    We'll describe the goal of "walkable manufacturing" that the people running this center envision for their community.

    But the overall economy of the Lehigh Valley region is stronger, for surprising reasons, than many outsiders would assume. What many people in Allentown describe as the city's real problem, and the challenge their new programs are designed to address, is specifically the decay of their historic downtown as a place where people were willing to shop, dine, spend time and money, work, live, and generally consider an attraction rather than a menace.

    Thus when people in Allentown talk about a turning point downwards in their city's modern history, they're less likely to mention the Bethlehem Steel shutdown than the shuttering in the 1990s of the main Hess department store, which had been one of the highest-grossing retailers in the country. If you go to these archives of the Morning Call, you can find some astonishing Times-Square-on-New-Year's-Eve pictures of the throngs that once teemed in front of, and down the aisles inside, the main Hess store. (I will include some if I can get permission from the relevant people at the Morning Call. Meanwhile, here is one from Department Store Museum.) The Hess store and many other downtown retailers were the victims of, naturally, the spread of suburban sprawl-malls. By the way, the more we travel, the more we come to regard these malls as Public Enemy No. One in the mis-shaping of late 20th century America.

    Getting an idea of what downtown Allentown had once been helped me understand a comment we heard from State Senator Pat Browne, a Republican who represents Allentown and who is credited with coming up with the tax plan, known as Neighborhood Improvement Zone or NIZ, that plays a crucial part in the investment boom now underway. "Ten thousand people coming right here, downtown!" he said two weeks ago, looking forward to what should happen tomorrow night. "What that will mean to everyone here ..."

    If you look even a block or two in the wrong direction from the hub of all the construction, you can see all the signs of a still very troubled downtown area. Pawnshops, boarded up buildings, check-cashing operations. We'll report on how the city thinks it can spread prosperity from an intensely built-up center; what this will mean for the city's sizable Latino minority, many of whom are Puerto Ricans or Dominicans who have come from New York and New Jersey in search of a more affordable, safer life; why some of the area's companies have decided to shift their investments from suburban sprawl back downtown; how the area's school systems affect revival prospects; and more.

    With the Marketplace crew, talking with City Council President Julio Guridy a few blocks from the new city center and arena.

    There's a lot riding on tomorrow's opening performance by The Eagles. I am happy to report that as of 2:30pm EDT Thursday, 30 hours before the opening, my friends in Allentown are saying that things seem all set and ready to go.

    Mayor Ed Pawlowski, inside a downtown building just before it reopened as the headquarters of Trifecta Technologies, a locally owned software firm.

    There's more to come, but that's enough for now. Over to Marketplace, and then to The Eagles, and see you here next week for more of the Allentown saga.

  • Before Tonight's Speech About ISIS

    When people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. When people say "we can't look weak!" it's usually time to discount whatever else they say.

    Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

    Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.

    The magazine's cover eight years ago.

    Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:

    Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States....  In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”

    ISIS, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about manipulating the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic and arguments of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago. They said:

    • That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
    • That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something!" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something"—military attack—that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective in undermining terrorism often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicized "kinetic" acts.
    • That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the side of the stronger player, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the underdog is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
    • That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
    • That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. But if you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)

    You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:

    No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that....

    Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:

    Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!

    Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength, of deliberation and haste. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles—the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his ISIS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."


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