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.
  • Backlog: WikiLeaks, Dylan in China, and So On

    More WikiLeaks reactions, including links to a large number of other videos.

    The nightmare of, sigh, "work" means that I have done nothing with large numbers of interesting and important responses about a number of open topics, especially the WikiLeaks footage of the shooting of civilians in Baghdad three years ago, and, on a whole different plane of implications, the mystery of why Bob Dylan will not be making a concert tour of China. (Previous items on WikiLeaks start here and here and here. You know what I'm going to say next! Will have a general link when our site supports "categories" again.) The complexity of the first is obvious; in the second case, there are a lot more Rashomon aspects than I could have imagined.

    For the moment, several more WikiLeaks reflections on the rules of engagement, what is inevitable and what is avoidable during urban war, and what if anything can be learned from this grim episode.

    1. Unit Leadership Matters.
    A reader writes:

    In your posts you speak of a string of responsibility. I notice that within that string, the all-important role of unit commanders is almost never mentioned. It's either bad apples at the bottom, or Bush/Cheney at the top.

    The problem with cover-ups is not just that people get off scot-free. It's that the lie has to be absolute. If every dead civilian is branded an insurgent, or a terrorist, then logically you have to give a medal to the soldier who killed  them - or at least a pat on the back. You certainly can't discipline him. This creates a terrible incentive structure wherein war crimes actually have to be rewarded - or else the cover-up fails.

    From the Winter Soldier testimonies I gathered that it made all the difference what unit soldiers belonged to. In the worst units it was apparently expected of soldiers that they kill civilians - and they were congratulated when they did it. In others, the opposite. I don't think the Bush administration ever gave the order to kill "amazing numbers" of civilians. But they did make clear that they didn't really mind, either. And so units and their commanders were free to develop their own policies, in a skewed situation where - because of the cover-up culture - they knew beforehand that every war crime would be branded a heroic deed.

    2. There Can Be No Excuse. From another reader:

    Neither the 'context' nor the specific situation seem to justify the trigger happiness I've observed.  And I've reviewed a few videos of pilots in combat -I've never seen anything close to this - except where the operating area was plainly hostile territory and virtually anything that moved was considered an enemy (as in the first wave of the first gulf war as well as the 'turkey shoot' on the retreating Iraqi army at the end.)  While it's easy enough for us to say 'that's a camera' vs. their ID of an AK-47 and while the crew did have reports of small arms fire that I suppose led them to that location in the first place, they plainly did not feel that they were threatened or under attack and could have orbited and observed for a long time.

    3. Why Aren't We Noticing All The Other Grisly Videos? Below and after the jump from reader Chip Moore, details of similar footage that has long been available online. I have checked the links to see that they are real (ie, not RickRoll etc) but have not yet watched to see what they reveal:

    What a 30mm cannon does to a human body is brutal. What surprises me is that most people writing about this video did not say that footage like this is available and easy to find online, including official video from American gunships. No one has mentioned combat porn in anything I have read or heard about the wikileaks video. Of course, these videos usually do not include journalists being splattered, but nothing else is unusual. The radio transmissions are similar. The results of the gunfire is similar. The point of view of the American combatants is similar. 
    (The TV networks do a reasonable job of keeping copyrighted material off youtube and other such sites. Material I produced has been removed from Facebook because it contained copyrighted music. I assume FB have some automated method of finding DRM tags. Why the DOD does not do likewise is surprising, to say the least.)

    In 2006 I started to make a short animated film using some audio a friend recorded in Iraq in 2004. I wanted some Iraq footage for rotoscoping. I thought if I was lucky I might find a little, and I was very lucky. The internet is awash in combat video from Iraq and Afghanistan, shot from both sides.

    Most American combat groups seem to have a resident video hobbyist shooting unit action. This shows up as raw footage or produced, with considerable skill, as music videos documenting their activity. These videos are actually fun to watch by and large. There is a lot of movement and shooting, but not much on screen killing. They provide some sense of combat and what goes on in a small combat groups.

    There is also official combat footage from attack aircraft of various sorts. The footage contains the radio traffic for the action. This stuff is often quite graphic. The videos usually begin with a gunship lurking over some site watching the ground. There is much radio discussion about whether to engage. After a while, the crew is cleared to engage and there is a brief period of pretty graphic violence. More lurking follows with discussion about who is dead and who is wounded and what do do about any wounded individuals. The crew is eventually cleared to reengage, with the expected result.

    (Presumably the people on the ground can hear or see the American gunships. I suppose they believe they are too distant to be a danger.)

    On the other side, a videographer often joins an ambush to document IED and RPG attacks on American units. These videos tend to be shorter and cruder. One such video showed two American soldiers standing by a HumVee on a city street. A rocket is fired from the lower right corner of a frame. The HumVee is hit. There is a large explosion. The HumVee is badly damaged and the soldiers just disappear.

    I don't know if the journalists writing about the wikileaks video do not know about online combat video, or just chose not to mention it. Other gunship video online does demonstrate that the actions of the wikileaks gunship crew, reasonable or not, are typical and ordinary.

    In any case, if you are interested, here are a few links. Youtube and archive.org are not the best sources for combat video, but they do demonstrate how easy it is to find. The last two links are pretty ugly to watch.

    Footage of nighttime action in some Iraqi city.


    Footage of nighttime action in Iraq. This may be part of the same operation as the above video.


    Music video of unit in action in Mosul.


    Very graphic gunship video of killing of three men with a weapon. This is widely distributed.


    Very graphic video of RPG attack on HumVee in Iraqi city.


    More »

  • Good News, Aviation Dept.

    It's not all runway delays and detained smoker-diplomats.

    As always, we take our good news about aviation, the aerospace industry, and the general fun of flying wherever we can find it. This is in part an attempt to offset the distinctly non-fun aspects of flying that now make the very term "airline travel" an occasion for despair. (Links to past good-news-in-the-sky items when "categories" function is restored, which will be .... any day now, I am told.) Here is the recent harvest:

    1)  The Eclipse airplane company, whose ups and downs are described here, is back in business, sort of. The original firm had a spectacular rise in the early 2000s and equally spectacular financial collapse last year. The innovative (if anything, too ambitiously innovative) very small jets it produced probably still have a future. That at least is the bet of the new Eclipse Aerospace company that took over the assets last year. Its latest activities, including maintenance of the existing fleet of several hundred EA500 jets, are described here.

    2) Yesterday the all-solar-powered, zero-emissions Solar Impulse airplane completed its first full-fledged test flight, in Switzerland. It stayed aloft for an hour and climbed to nearly 4,000 feet. Several months ago I mentioned its tentative, barely-off-the-runway first trial run. (Solar Impulse, AP photo via FastCompany:)


    3) In the same vein, check out this Colorado-based initiative for cleaner, greener aviation possibilities, with more coverage here.

    4) The Federal Aviation Administration recently said it would relax its longstanding blanket ban on even considering pilot certificates for anyone who takes prescription anti-depression drugs. Now, on a case-by-case basis, it will consider applications from people who take Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, or Lexapro and their generic counterparts. The flat ban meant that any pilots (certainly more than zero) who were on the drugs had to lie about their situation; it also of course implied an old-fashioned stigma about mental health issues and the widespread problem of depression. The Wall Street Journal story had this "let's face reality" observation from affected parties.

    The Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, backed the move. "This policy change should improve aviation safety and pilot health," it said in a statement.

    The FAA says it can't estimate how many pilots might come forward but believes pilots' depression rate doesn't differ much from that of the general population, about 10%.

    As for what this might mean to individuals, I got this note from a reader who had enjoyed flying (I believe as a private pilot), with the subject line, "Imagine my joy":

    I've been grounded for 20 years because of chronic depression which has been controlled very capably and without side-effects.  I'd resigned myself to the kinetic memory of flying as all that would be available to me.  And now, if I could only afford it, I can go back up.

  • Appearances in DC

    A speech on Wednesday evening and a debate on Thursday morning.

    This evening I will be giving the John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture at Sidwell Friends School in DC. The classic account of John Zeidman's life is from 25 years ago here, in the New Yorker. I mentioned him briefly in the Atlantic last year.

    Tomorrow morning I will be moderating a full-scale formal debate about the merits of industrial policy and "picking winners" at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, here.
  • More on WikiLeaks and the Baghdad Footage

    More on the moral calculus of the shooting we see on film.

    I won't carry this on forever, but here are reader notes representing two strong themes in responses I have received. I have been saying that it's a mistake to concentrate on this crew and its real-time "fog of war" decisions. The deeper responsibility is with the string of policy choices that put them in position to make these kill-or-be-killed choices about civilians in a crowded foreign city. Several people, notably including combat veterans, have written back to say that's letting the crew off too easily. Sample of this reasoning:

    First a question: If these loose rules of engagement were in common use in 2007, how do we explain the behavior of the victims? They were aware of the helicopter. Why didn't they recognize their danger? [Ie, if it was commonplace for gunships to be shooting people with as little immediate provocation as we see, why did they dare expose themselves?]
    Next, an observation: Door gunner-ship is not randomly assigned. It may well be that 99% (or 99.9%) of U.S. troops would not have allowed this tragedy to occur, but that simple fact quite possibly disqualified all those individuals from being in that position. (And I note this as a direct result of my Army tour in Viet Nam.) The same, of course, applies to Granger and gang at Abu Ghraib. It is possible to indict the individuals involved and their commanders and 'the system' without involving American troops categorically.
    And a conclusion: Until one can say one would apply precisely the same reasoning and the same judgment without knowing the nationality of the miscreants, one flounders. (As in the case of the Michigan terrorists, who are just as frightening as Christians as they would be as Moslems.)
    I am in the middle of Matterhorn now, on your recommendation, and that book is pointedly relevant to this matter. Please re-recommend it! [JF note: Yes. Buy and read this book!]

    The other dominant theme is that there is a big moral-calculus difference between the two attacks shown in the footage: the initial one, on a group of men on foot who might or might not have been carrying weapons; and the followup, on a van and its occupants who were trying to collect a still-living victims of the first attack. Sample note:

    You might -- MIGHT -- justify the initial attack on the group on the ground, but the American soldiers were itching to fire on the two men whose only crime was that they were trying to come to the aid of a wounded man. Those men in the van clearly did not have any weapons, and posed no threat to anyone. But the American soldiers were almost pleading with their command to be given permission to kill them. If you are going to excuse this by putting it into "context," then you can excuse almost any behavior.
    But if we want to look at context, we need to look at the even bigger context. We are the invaders. We are in Iraq, supposedly to free Iraqis from tyranny. Shouldn't that mission demand restraint in this very kind of situation, when there is ample reason to believe that the people you have in your gun sights might be innocent civilians? If our military policy is to shoot first and ask questions later because we want to minimize the danger to our own soldiers, even if this means killing the people we are supposed to be helping, then the best policy would have been to keep the soldiers home in the first place, where they would face the least danger. You can't have it both ways and have a successful mission, which time has proven.

    And finally on the matter of calling this video "Collateral Murder." Yes, this may be ill-chosen. But come on! Almost every story about Iraq, especially in the early days, had far more blatant propaganda, including the mission name itself, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Please!

    And one other point, mentioned by several readers, regarding the possibility that "these young kids" in the helicopters might end up as scapegoats for larger policy failures:

    I don't have much to add to the discussion other than what's already covered - these things happen and should be considered before deciding to go to war; DoD should have put this out in the open much earlier; while I feel the attitude and the actions were wrong, I at least understand the thought process behind it; how many more times has this happened to victims with less of a voice; etc., etc.

    One thing I wanted to point out, though, in response to one of your reader emails. "These young kids" are probably in their thirties and up. Apache pilots are generally not young men, and the ranks of those involved (the sworn statements indicate that they were between CW2 and CW4) indicate that these soldiers have been in Army aviation for quite some time. These guys are professionals who had decided to make long term careers in the Army, and have almost certainly been flying combat helicopters since before the war in Iraq began.

    More »

  • Two Reader Responses on the Wikileaks Footage

    Should the shocking footage from Baghdad have stayed bottled up?

    My two previous arguments, again:

         Round 1: The video is "damaging" because its makes so vivid the consequences of urban irregular war. If we saw such footage of gunships with Chinese troops, or Russian, or Iranian, or whatever, we would be sickened by the results -- even if none of the troops involved was doing anything "wrong." This is what happens in urban war. But our country is now the one involved in this kind of combat.

         Round 2: The troops themselves were operating in real time, with no clear knowledge of what was going on, but aware that their comrades had recently been under attack in the vicinity. Someone closer to the scene may be able to judge the troops' reaction. I do not. I do say that the result -- the death of 11 civilians, including two journalists and two children -- was sickening by any human standard. Given the high probability of such miscalculations in this kind of combat, the lesson is to be very cautious about putting troops where they face immediate kill-or-be-killed choices about civilians on the ground. This is true even when, or especially when, you are the unchallenged "superpower."

    In assent, one reader writes:

    My first reaction to the story on the Wikileaks Footage (and I haven't actually even seen it) was, I think, exactly as yours:

    How tragic, and these young kids will probably get the blame.

    But the higher-ups have put them in an untenable situation where it is inevitable that such events will happen.

    Some young guys get screwed, maybe in prison, because we told them to do what they are supposed to do: get in a situation where hyper-vigilence is required.

    In dissent, below and after the jump, from Sean Willis:

    I read your initial blurb concerning the WikiLinks posting of the 2007 Apache helicopter gunsight footage this morning, viewed the expanded footage and the "Collateral Murder" site immediately after, and then as I was preparing to write you, noted your most recent blog entry on the same topic. I did not develop the same level of disgust that it appears you did, as I can see a valid line of reasoning for those involved in this tragedy.
    Judging from the running commentary on the radio, it appears the Apache was called into the area to provide close air support for US troops receiving small arms and RPG fire from non-uniformed enemy fighters. The Apache went about identifying and confirming the location of these fighters, and then requested permission to fire when it appeared to them that these "fighters" were attempting to engage US ground troops again. Later, an unmarked van shows up and several adults exit to assist a wounded "fighter" into the van for presumed evacuation. The Apache again requests permission to fire on the van and those nearby, still under the impression that they are enemy fighters. It is only after ground troops move in to assess damage and further clear the area that there's a realization some civilians were mixed up in the fray. And once it's determined that children were wounded in the attack, the radio conversation takes on a much more somber tone, and the ground troops set about to evacuate the wounded.

    You state, "But at face value it is the most damaging documentation of abuse since the Abu Ghraib prison-torture photos." Yes, taken out of context, the notion that US Military personnel would "chuckle" about the taking of human life or running over the remains of a dead person is very disturbing. But when looking at the incident from the perspective of a person defending their fellow soldiers during an active gunfight, the tone to my mind becomes understandable, if not ideal. I do not think this was abuse.

    Conversely, the domain name of the website, "Collateral Murder", improperly prejudices the content contained within. Amongst the dead in this footage were several persons of military age who were seen to be carrying weapons in an area where US forces had received small arms fire. The Reuters photographer, with no identifying marks to show him as such, crouched into what was perceived as an aggressor's stance and pointed what was perceived to be a weapon (RPG) toward US ground troops. As the Apache's mission was to protect those troops, I cannot see how they should have acted otherwise.

    As for the US Military decision not to originally release this footage, I think the response here is exactly why they would choose not to. It is too easy to take things like this out of context and purport them to be massacres and "War Crimes". If the van had a Red Cross on the roof, or if the photographer had been wearing a Reuters-logo'd vest, I doubt this incident would have happened. Though if it did, I would then think the rhetoric be more than justified.

    That the Military had shown the footage to Reuters personnel and investigated the incident within a week after the event feels like an appropriate response. I do not deny that this was a tragic event, but I also don't see the malice that perhaps you and others are reading into the evidence.

    I agree that "Collateral Murder" is a bad name for the site. I disagree about the military's decision not to discuss the situation fully, early on. The local people themselves know that such things occur. The difference is whether they see the United States taking responsibility -- for what, even if understandable in its confused origins, was a terrible tragedy -- or whether they see us pretending it did not occur. In the long run these things come out.

    More »

  • Further on the Wikileaks Iraq Footage

    The lesson of the footage for future wars.

    Reaction to the stunning 2007 footage from Baghdad has only begun. For some of the Atlantic's interpretations, see for instance here and here

    But one of Andrew Sullivan's commenters raises a point I meant to make previously -- and which, because it was the middle of the night, I didn't spell out. What I said was: as with Abu Ghraib, there will be a strong temptation just to blame (or exonerate) the lower-level people who pulled the triggers, but that deflects us from real questions of responsibility.

    There will be  lot of those "real questions" to consider, from rules of engagement to the apparent cover up of the footage. But the threshold point I meant to start with is this: The very high likelihood of such "tragedies" occurring is a very strong reason not to get into wars of this sort

    By "of this sort" I mean: twilight-zone urban warfare, not to mention "discretionary" or "preventive" wars, and situations in which a heavily armed-and-amored occupying force of foreigners tries uneasily to mix with a population overwhelmingly of a different race and religion and language. For their own survival, the occupiers need to be hyper-suspicious and ever alert -- even though today's prevalent Counter Insurgency doctrine ("COIN") warns of the self-defeating consequences of behaving this way. (Indeed, a mounting debate about the COIN approach in Afghanistan is whether the effort not to seem distant from the local population is exposing US soldiers to too much risk.) It is a situation with enormous potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding, and tragedy. And therefore one to avoid if you have any choice at all.

    It is right to be shocked at the violence in this footage, as we are shocked when an especially hard hit in a football game leaves a player motionless on the field. But the violence behind that hard hit is one millimeter away from what the football players are praised and rewarded for doing. The decision to gun down Iraqi civilians in real-time pressure and ambiguous circumstances ("Is that a gun?" "Are they hauling a wounded terrorist away? Can we get clearance to 'engage' right now????") is one millimeter away from the alert and aggressive warrior spirit for which troops are honored and trained. Ideally, every warrior would always know the exact line that separates just enough violence from too much. They can't know that in real time, which is why no war, even the most necessary and justified, has ever been "clean."

    We could not know that this episode would occur. But we could be sure that something like it would. It's not even a matter of "To will the end is to will the means." Rather the point is: You enter these circumstances, sooner or later you get these results.

    A failure of tragic imagination is what I most criticized in war supporters in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and it was much of the reason I opposed the war. We can't do anything about that decision now. But this new footage is worth bearing in mind as we face the next decision -- about bombing Iran, let's say; or extending the anti-Taliban fight into Pakistan; or how long to remain in Afghanistan.
  • In Case You Missed Them...

    Three items, one very disturbing, involving the role of the press.

    ... let me mention three quite different recent items that all bear on the predicament of journalism. Not the "modern" predicament -- the struggle to stay in business -- but the longer-term issues of trying to represent the "truth."

    1) Lane Wallace's very good piece on our site, about why grizzled, "experienced" reporters often miss the biggest stories on their own beats.

    2) Jeff Goldberg's long and engrossing New Yorker saga of a Mistah Kurtz-style foreign couple in Africa and how (involving the US press) they may have gone bad.

    3) And now, on an entirely different scale, the very powerful and frankly nauseating video released 12 hours ago by the Wikileaks organization that appears to show the casual killing of about a dozen civilians, including two Reuters staffers, by a US helicopter guncrew three years ago in Baghdad. (As Andrew Sullivan previously mentioned.) I can't pretend to know the full truth or circumstances of this. But at face value it is the most damaging documentation of abuse since the Abu Ghraib prison-torture photos. As you watch, imagine the reaction in the US if the people on the ground had been Americans and the people on the machine guns had been Iraqi, Russian, Chinese, or any other nationality. As with Abu Ghraib, and again assuming this is what it seems to be, the temptation will be to blame the operations-level people who were, in this case, chuckling as they mowed people down. That's not where the real responsibility lies.

  • Maybe Rashomon Was Actually A Story About China

    Three more ways of thinking about Bob Dylan in China.

    Because there certainly seem to be a lot of ways to interpret the real clash of the titans: Bob Dylan vs. Government of China. First version (it was all the GOC's fault) here. Second version (no, maybe it wasn't) here. Versions three and onward are summarized below, from reader mail.

    Dylan's Not Involved In This Anyway. Several people (including Reuters editor and amateur Dylan scholar Robert MacMillan) pointed out that the original claims of censorship came not from Dylan directly but from his Taiwanese tour promoters, Brokers Brothers Herald. So who knows where the complaint really came from? Fair point. You would think that if BBH were just making this up to save face, and that Dylan didn't like their cover story, he would have indicated something as the controversy blew up worldwide. But with these moody poet-troubadors, anything is possible. Conceivably he doesn't know about this or figures it would only make it worse to get involved.

    Dylan Doesn't Back Out Just Because of Weak Sales or other business problems. From reader Marc Syken, who thinks it really was about censorship:

    As someone who has seen Bob on multiple occasions, a couple of quick points - Dylan does not back out of a concert if ticket sales are light.  I've seen Dylan in half filled venues, and he has never canceled.  In fact, I know of no show Dylan has ever canceled b/c of ticket sales.  His tour schedule (with set lists) is here, http://www.boblinks.com/ - he plays at least 50-75 shows a year, which is pretty good for a guy 68 years old.  Dylan has played the far east before, is backed by Sony records, and obviously knows the lay of the land when it comes to the music business. 

    Those facts all militate against Dylan using the history of Chinese censorship as a "cover" to back out of concerts due to his being hoodwinked by an unscrupulous promoter.  Given Dylan's track record as a concert performer (as opposed to a bunch ne'er do wells like Oasis), I would tend to believe the original version of events. 

    And Andrew Sprung, to the same effect:

    it seems odd that a Dylan tour organizer would make outlandish financial requests - Dylan seats are usually pretty reasonable. I saw him in a college gym in Buffalo in about 1995, a venue that was hardly part of a get rich (again) quick scheme.  I've since seen him 2x at moderate cost. Maybe things have changed, or the Taiwanese promoter has its own agenda, but maybe too the 'good authority' [who said it was all about weak sales] ain't so good.

    Maybe All the Explanations Are True. A reader with a Chinese name at a U.S. university says this fits a familiar pattern:

    For an observer from afar, all the explanations you and others given are plausible. Here, I just want to mention one of the tactics that Chinese Government always employs. It is often the case for Chinese Government to use some technicality to hide their real reason for rejection or any other form of action. Like accusing an activist of some sexual misconduct or dissolving certain organizations with the reason of tax filing irregularities.

    All of these make sense to me, which is an illustration of why it is often so absorbing and so frustrating to try to figure out what has "really" happened in Chinese affairs, especially those involving the government.

  • An Entirely Different View of the Dylan-China Saga

    Is Bob Dylan using Chinese "censorship" as a convenient excuse?

    A little while ago I posted something I strongly believe: that the Chinese central government's thin-skinned quashing of "sensitive" topics is a disservice to the Chinese public and an impediment to the country's full development. The (reported) rejection of Bob Dylan's request to hold concerts in China, following a previous turn-down for Oasis, was the occasion for making this point.

    But a few minutes after posting that, I got a reply from Zachary Mexico, a music-world figure and author of China Underground, saying that the factual premise for the comment was probably wrong. That is, how do we know that the Chinese government nixed the concert requests? His first note said (quoted with permission):

    re: Bob Dylan: I have it on good authority that the Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter's outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic.

    re:Oasis: I have heard from several mostly reliable people that the concerts were cancelled by the promoter, EMMA entertainment (they've since gone out of business) for lack of ticket sales, and not for any political reasons.

    Blaming the Chinese government is an easy way out when these tours become financial sinkholes.

    I wrote back saying, essentially: Interesting if true! How do we know these things? He pointed me to this report in China Music Radar and gave a variety of other reasons to be skeptical of Dylan's "censorship" claim. I quote them after the jump.

    I can't judge this first hand, though it's always a positive sign when someone is willing to be quoted by name. I pass on his material because -- assuming it's right -- it adds a different tone to what is becoming a big story; and because this is part of the (valuable) internet tradition of "showing your work" and going public with the process of trying to establish what the truth is. It also illustrates a problem the Chinese government has created for itself, even if it is entirely blameless in this situation: Once you get a bad reputation, you get blamed even for things you didn't do.

    But if Zachary Mexico and China Music Radar are right and the Dylan team is falsely blaming Chinese "censorship," then shame on him or whoever is doing this -- and my apologies for passing along a misleading story. There's enough genuine restriction and censorship to criticize.

    From the Z.M. email:

    I have some [peripheral] connections in Dylan's camp and was planning to follow him and his band on their China tour. I was warned it might be cancelled because there were problems with the promoter way before the promoter asserted that the Chinese government wouldn't allow Dylan to play.... This whole enterprise was really sketchy to begin with. It had all the hallmarks of promoter difficulty. Dates were posted on the Internet, then removed with no explanation. 

    Oasis was booked into enormous venues when they are simply not that popular in China. They couldn't sell enough tickets to cover costs; the promoter cancelled the show, blaming economic reasons, and then shifted the blame to something Tibet-related because it's a much sexier story. This is well-documented. This article from Reuters re:Oasis is a bit confusing; but, yes, the promoters did claim economic difficulty before finally blaming political problems for the cancellations.

    More »

  • Every So Often It Must Be Said...

    Who is more frightening to "all-powerful" China: Bob Dylan, or Bjork?

    ... that it is incredibly tin-horn and defensive for the Chinese government to deny Bob Dylan permission for concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, as it previously has turned down Oasis (after an "unpleasant surprise" from Bjork two years ago).*

    Bear moments like this in mind as you read the next zillion stories about China's unstoppable rise to world dominance, the attraction of the Chinese social-political model, and so on.

          Threat to public order: Bjork. (From Bjork.com)

    On the cautionary side about Chinese power, this is of course a reminder of why it would be bad to have current Chinese-government** concepts of free expression applied beyond its borders. The Dylan/Oasis/Bjork cases may seem trivial; the jailing of civil-society activists like Liu Xiaobo flows from the same mentality but is obviously much more serious.

    On the other side, pettiness like this is a reminder of the self-limiting aspects of the Communist government's internal controls, and the contradiction between its ambitions to have a vibrant, "creative," high-innovation, high-value productive society and its extreme nervousness about certain kinds of free discussion. "Certain kinds" because in many realms, as I've repeatedly  noted, modern Chinese society is rollicking and wide-open. But in well-known zero-tolerance fields, notably including anything involving the threat of "splittism" (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc), plus other areas that become "sensitive" for no apparent reason, the government allows no leeway at all. Seriously, how "vibrant" a culture of intellectual inquiry are you going to have under a government that is afraid of Bjork? How attractive is China going to be as a talent magnet for the wide world if becoming a citizen means a greater risk of arbitrary imprisonment?***

    As I've also said time and again, China is a much more appealing country seen up-close than its government decisions make it appear. This is an extreme example worth noting; it's a decision unworthy of the billion-plus people in whose name it is made.
    * At a concert in Shanghai in 2008, Bjork yelled out "Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence." We were in Shanghai at the time, and it was a truly big deal.

    ** It's worth always remembering: while the Chinese public is often tolerant of government efforts to avoid "chaos" and stamp out "splittism" etc, very few people I've met there would be afraid of hearing from Dylan or Bjork. The government is the only one that feels threatened.

    *** Reason #four million why the Guantanamo / detention-without-trial era in recent American history has been so damaging to our image worldwide. Of course American society has standards of rule-of-law that China doesn't come close to. But it is harder for us to denounce open-ended detention of "security threats" elsewhere than it used to be, or should be.

    ALSO I see that the Atlantic Wire has an item on this.

  • On the Question of White House Kabuki

    How to read between the lines of "insider" accounts.

    Recently I mentioned an argument by Steve Clemons about the latest wrinkle in the endless back-and-forth between White House reporters and insiders on the White House staff. Since the dawn of time, reporters have been looking for the juicy anecdote on the lines of, "John Quincy Adams was worried. He took a sip of his Oolong Cha and turned to Vice President Calhoun. But could he really trust the wily South Carolinian? Ever since that fateful night in Philadelphia, the one they both tried to forget,...." One way or another, reporters have to make it worth the insider's while to share such information. This doesn't always or very often mean favor-trading of the crudest and greasiest kind. But always there is some assumed benefit to the source for providing this kind of dope. Personal esteem from the reporter -- a surprisingly important factor; a favorable tone to coverage of the source -- something very obviously seen in many Bob Woodward accounts; advancing the source's side in public or internal struggles; and so on.

    Clemons said that during the Obama era the pressure for inside nuggets, with the resulting implicit favor-trading, was even greater than normal, because at the moment the market for Obama-insider books was hot. For the rest of his argument see this.

    In response I got this question from a reader:

    Is it generally the case that reporters actually get to witness authentic moments of intimacy, normalcy, candor, irreverence etc. on the part of presidents? Or does that "information" more or less exist on the same plane as, I don't know, a leak or a quotation on background or something.

    From the perspective of the person who may want to buy such books 1-2-3 years down the road (I'm not even sure I am one), it would be useful to know whether these books are honest works of, well, reportage or if it's all some sort of kabuki [or] puppet show at five removes.

    Kabuki.jpgA very good question, which once I thought about it made me realize that there is a day-vs-night distinction. During a campaign, reporters can and do see many of the juicy moments. Not all, but a lot. Campaigns are big and sprawling and chaotic. They can't afford to freeze anybody out, notably starting with the press. Everybody wants to talk about what's going on, and many people have seen some interesting version of reality. So campaign books can have a relatively high "saw it myself" quotient, and in general they are believable.

    Once an Administration begins, however, the available vignettes are more like the five-remove puppet show. They represent administered rather than observed truth. By definition, reporters aren't there to see the big moments; also by definition, the people who are there to see have distinct self-interest in distributing certain versions of reality. By the time historians get around to sorting the evidence, they have a better chance of weighing the biases of the various early accounts. But when you read "inside" tales of Administrations still in power, bear in mind the back-story, motivation, and stylized kabuki-esque rituals behind any anecdote therein.
    Illustration is Portrait of Nakayama Tomisaburo, by Kabukido Enkyo, ca 1800, from Library of Congress collection, here.

  • The Real Reason China Resists on the RMB

    Why the Chinese government does what we consider "illogical."

    As reported yesterday, the US-China "currency manipulation" showdown is past for the moment. The underlying issue -- China's insistence on keeping its RMB at an artificially low level, which ends up keeping the US dollar artificially high -- is far from resolved. But it won't be forced to a head this month.

    That doesn't mean that our coverage is over! Herewith a note from Bill Bikales, an American economist who has lived for years in China, about how the situation looks from Chinese officialdom's point of view. I think his explanation is right, and it's different from what I've seen elsewhere spelled out quite this clearly. He writes (emphasis added):

    Thank you for reminding your readers that while the RMB is undoubtedly manipulated and undervalued this is not a matter of great relevance to US growth and employment.

    We both know that China is not particularly inclined to accept US advice, or pressure, on this or any other important policy matters. But I think that the "China never gives in to foreign pressure because of its century of humiliation" explanation that appears so often in the press is superficial and misleading.

    As I see it, China is asking a question to which there is no easy answer; what right does the US have to lecture anyone on economic matters now, having played so large a part in causing the current global recession through loose monetary policy, poor risk management by some of our most prestigious companies and monumental regulatory failures? They are responding to the continued US belief in American exceptionalism, that we can do whatever we do, right or wrong, and ignore the criticisms and demands of other countries who often bear the consequences of our actions, while we continue to insist on our right to criticize and make demands on them. As Brad Delong and Stephen Cohen have pointed out, the US simply no longer has the economic clout to get away with this any longer, and who better than China to stand up to it?

    As far as the RMB goes, surely it is far more important for the global economy that the US deals with its huge fiscal problems than that China lets the RMB appreciate? To which we reply - reasonably enough - that this is not the time to do so, yet, until we've recovered from the recession. (Although many doubt, also with good reason, that we will deal with the fiscal mess even then.) But in that case China's leaders expect us to accept their own assurances that they are also going to deal with the RMB issue once the global recession has passed and they are confident that they can do so without causing a major slowdown and loss of jobs in their country. As they were indeed doing before the financial crisis. Yes, we had no or negative growth over the last two years, and China had 9-10% percent growth in both, but our standard of living is still 15 times greater than theirs. Their imperative to keep growing rapidly in order to catch up with the advanced economies is as powerful to them as is our own need to shift from -2% growth to +3%.

    It is this underlying asymmetry in the whole RMB brouhaha that China is responding to.

    And all I have to add is: Happy Easter.

  • Wrapping Up the Neustadt/Obama Point

    Everyone's talking about Richard Neustadt and his lessons for Barack Obama

    Twice recently, here and here, I discussed whether the Obama Administration's health-care reform victory was likely to spill over into broader or longer-term legislative accomplishment. The obvious maxim to apply here (and I didn't resist!) is from the late Richard Neustadt, in Presidential Power, about success today improving the odds of success tomorrow. This might sound like nothing more than "momentum matters" or "them that has, gets," but it actually is more interesting and complicated in Neustadt's telling.

    Just to round out the point, here are several recent nice references to Neustadt's premises and principles in Obama's age. Michael Nelson, of Rhodes College, has a Chronicle of Higher Education essay here;  and Matthew Dickinson, of Middlebury, has a blog entry here. Three  years ago Dickinson co-edited a book of analyses and appreciations of Neustadt by many of his students and colleagues, here. All of this material is highly recommended and is useful in thinking about the power of our current president.  Cover photo from the 2007 book:


  • It's Official: No "Currency Manipulation" Judgment for Now

    Taxpayers get extensions from the April 15 deadline; the Treasury Secretary has wisely gotten one too.

    For some reason the notice is not yet published at the Treasury Department's Press Room site -- presumably it will be up there soon This afternoon Timothy Geithner announced that he would delay a report, normally due on April 15, about the trade and currency-exchange policies of other major world economies. This report has been a diplomatic ticking time-bomb, in that Geithner would have to announce whether China's refusal to let its RMB rise against the US dollar amounted to "currency manipulation." This is a judgment that would have triggered other political and legal actions by the U.S. government, and that he would have been delivering two days after Hu Jintao had come to Washington to discuss cooperation with the U.S. on efforts against nuclear proliferation. Just as a matter of protocol, the obvious and apt comparison would have been to Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent gracious welcome of VP Biden to Israel.

    As mentioned earlier today and in the preceding five or six posts (complete links when we have "categories" again), I think that, completely apart from the timing, applying the "manipulation" label would have been pointless, self-indulgent, short-sighted, and actively harmful. Geithner's finessing of the whole issue seems like a nice way out of the predicament -- which clearly must have been worked out with the Chinese government as part of the deal for Hu's visit.

    Geithner's official statement, quoted after the jump (from numerous news versions available), puts it in the right big-picture perspective: the world's economies have to get into better balance, and currency values are a big part of this. But let's work it out in a non-moralistic way.

    This is a much better result than it could have been. Geithner's statement is below.

    I have decided to delay publication of the report to Congress on the international economic and exchange rate policies of our major trading partners due on April 15. There are a series of very important high-level meetings over the next three months that will be critical to bringing about policies that will help create a stronger, more sustainable, and more balanced global economy. Those meetings include a G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Washington later this month, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China in May, and the G-20 Finance Ministers and Leaders meetings in June. I believe these meetings are the best avenue for advancing U.S. interests at this time.

    As part of the overall effort to rebalance global demand and sustain growth at a high level, policy adjustments are needed that measurably strengthen domestic demand in some countries and boost saving in others. These are also important to ensure robust job growth. In the United States, private savings has increased, the current account deficit has fallen, and the President has outlined a series of measures to reduce our fiscal deficit.

    Countries with large external surpluses and floating exchange rates, such as Germany and Japan, face the challenge of encouraging more robust growth of domestic demand. Surplus economies with inflexible exchange rates should contribute to high and sustained global growth and rebalancing by combining policy efforts to strengthen domestic demand with greater exchange rate flexibility.

    This is especially true in China. China's strong fiscal and monetary response to the crisis enabled it to achieve economic growth of nearly 9 percent in 2009, contributing to global recovery. Now, however, China's continued maintenance of a currency peg has required increasingly large volumes of currency intervention. Additionally, China's inflexible exchange rate has made it difficult for other emerging market economies to let their currencies appreciate. A move by China to a more market-oriented exchange rate will make an essential contribution to global rebalancing.

    Our objective is to use the opportunity presented by the G-20 and S&ED meetings with China to make material progress in the coming months.

    More »

  • One More Log on the RMB Fire

    All you need to know about the Chinese RMB: Yes, they should change its value. No, that won't make much difference to us.

    Here are handy talking points to bear in mind in case someone asks you, "Hey, what about that tricky Chinese RMB?"

    1) It is important that China let the value of its currency rise again (it's been frozen for nearly two years), because that will reduce its economy's distorted emphasis on exports and over-production. This in turn will make economic recovery easier world-wide.

    2) While this RMB change will be good in general, unfortunately it won't do much to solve today's employment problems in the United States. Such benefit as America gains from a more balanced, faster growing world economy will be indirect and slow.

    3) See point #1 again. This is important for the world and should happen.

    There is new evidence for this way of thinking. (Previously here and passim.) Ray C. Fair of Yale, in a paper for the Cowles Foundation, tries to calculate the impact on the US job market of a rise in the RMB. The abstract of his findings:

    This paper uses a multicountry macroeconometric model to estimate the macroeconomic effects of a Chinese yuan appreciation. The estimated effects on U.S. output and employment are modest. Positive effects on U.S. output from a decrease in imports from China are offset by negative effects on U.S. output from increased inflation and from a decrease in U.S. exports to China because of a Chinese contraction.

    PDF of full paper here. Again, this is an important step for China to take, and for the US to urge it to take.  But it won't solve our jobs problem. As a bonus, if you click on Fair's personal site, you will see some other surprising things. For instance, the set of "aging in sports and chess" calculations. But mainly you're now set to talk about the RMB.


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Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



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