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.
  • Tech update fiesta #1: Nexus One phone

    Have a long queue of tech items to catch up on -- before returning to "Going to Hell," China-US relations, new small-plane developments, beer, and, yes, "work." First up on the tech front: Nexus One phone, as previously mentioned here.

    NexusOne.pngI could try to be fancy in introducing my comment, but why bother: This thing is great. It's now been eight weeks since I switched my SIM card from a perfectly good Blackberry Curve to the Nexus One to see how it worked. I've never thought of switching it back and no longer have any idea where the trusty little Blackberry might be. (Sorry, BB! It's not your fault.)

    My one big complaint remains: typing on the on-screen "soft" keyboard, like an iPhone's, just is a nuisance. On the other hand, the voice-recognition software is usable enough that more and more I rely on it instead of typing -- for Web searches, to dial phone numbers, to give map and navigation instructions. Medium complaint: the battery makes it through a full day of use, but just barely. On the other hand, the battery is easily swapped out, unlike an iPhone's, so in theory you could take a charged spare. Small weird complaint:  most users I've spoken with mention that it's surprisingly hard to figure out how to keep the phone-call ringer ON while turning the email notification ringer OFF. Yes, there's a way -- it's just not obvious.

    In other aspects, this is great and better the more I use it. Seamless integration with Gmail, Google search, and Google's calendar, task, maps, and voice functions -- as you might expect.  Somewhat more surprisingly, a full and sharp version of Google Earth; plus, a voice-powered Google Translate function that spans a very large number of languages and, on the ones I have tried, works better than I would have thought. (You say a phrase in English and it gives you, say, the Chinese version -- in characters. Hasn't worked so well when we try to speak Chinese into it! Maybe that shows it actually is working....) Also integrated with, gasp, non-Google functions: Pandora, NPR and NYT news, lots more.

    The "Navigate" function, with spoken-out driving directions, led me astray once -- the first time I used it. I was heading to the airport in Duluth, a route I actually knew, and it steered me onto a road it didn't realize had been closed. Since then, flawless.

    After the jump, a recent paper from inside Google about other aspects of the phone. It's important to note again that I never used an iPhone so can't do head-to-head comparisons. But on its own this is a real contender.

    More »

  • FDL / JF

    For the record, this afternoon I was on a live 90-minute Book Salon session on Firedoglake.com.  Transcript of 100-odd comments is here. Topics included Ralph Nader, Senate reform, my "going to hell" article, the desirability of a new American revolution, and the fact that many FDL denizens were not sold on my premises or conclusion in that article.

  • The hops wars, in three parts

    1) Following this recent confession that, contrary to all expectations and previous life experience, I had come across a beer that was too hoppy for my taste, this note from reader Richard Hershberger puts it in perspective:

    "I realized a year or two ago where the race for the hoppiest was leading.  We seem to have settled into a characteristic American microbrew style being an IPA with huge amounts of hops.  I like a hoppy brew as much as the next guy, but frankly, this is getting boring.  Where I used to browse the microbrew cases like a kid in a candy store, now I spend my time looking for something more interesting than yet another IPA with excessive hops for the sake of excessive hops."

    2) On the other hand, beer in South Korea, like beer throughout Asia, is still completely safe from anything remotely resembling an "excessive hops" menace. Even the nation's pride, OB, is part of the watery, blah tradition of Asian beers as a whole. Thus I was grateful for another reader's mention of a microbrewery in Seoul that is waging a brave campaign to introduce hops, malt, color, and taste to the nation's pallid beer offerings. Part of the lineup from this brewpub, Platinum, (via article by Andrew Siddons) shown below.

    KoreaBeer.jpg


    My own beer discovery in Seoul recalled here.

    3) Finally, a new approach to the hops question, from a reader in the Midwest:

    "If you like hops, and happen to find yourself in Ft. Collins, CO, I had an American Pale Ale at the bar at Coopersmiths where they actually put a little tea bag of hops in the glass.  Was pretty good.  (Like all their beers.)"


    beer_hd.gif

    3A) Bonus hop item: I would be remiss to end a hop dispatch without an admiring mention of the wonderful local (to DC) Hop Devil Ale, from the Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown, Pa. Lots of hops and body -- but abundant rather than excessive. Some day I will get to their brewery.



  • More on OPR, Margolis, selective morality, and drones

    Following this and this previous posts:

    1) Searchable PDFs. The huge PDF versions of the Office of Professional Responsibility report condemning John Yoo and Jay Bybee, and David Margolis' memo overruling the OPR recommendations, had the disadvantage of being image files only. You couldn't search by keyword -- for instance, "organ failure." Searchable versions of both of these reports, along with many other torture-memo-related documents, are now available here. These allow you to determine quickly that discussion of the Yoo/Bybee "organ failure" standard (for what constitutes torture) occurs at 14 points in the OPR report. Thanks to reader MC for the tip, and to the creator of the searchable-PDF site, who is a commenter at Marcy Wheeler's ongoing discussion of OPR and related info.


    2) What Margolis said. A reader writes:

    "I disagree with your reading of the Margolis memo.  It's true that he argues that the period after 9/11 was a different time, and that normal standards about caution might therefore not apply.  But that is far from his main point.  Rather, his point is that the OPR report doesn't even *have* a consistent standard---the very rule under which it finds Yoo and Bybee guilty of misconduct requires them to have intentionally or recklessly violated a known, unambiguous obligation or standard, and OPR never quite manages to identify such a standard, let alone to defend it.

    "In fact, in the original drafts which OPR was prepared to release to the public in early 2009, the report failed to even mention the office's own analytical framework for professional misconduct.  It tacked on that analysis after criticisms from Yoo and Bybee themselves, without changing the conclusions, giving a disturbing impression of exactly the practice the report argues Yoo and Bybee engaged in: fitting the arguments to the conclusion rather than vice versa.  This is not the performance that those of us were looking for who had hoped for some professional consequence to fall upon at least a few of those who squandered our nation's moral standing and made our leaders liars when they declare before the world that America does not torture."

    I agree with this reader that the "no established standards" argument was an important part of Margolis' case. But on re-reading the (searchable!) version of the memo, I'm still struck by the same thing I originally mentioned: how much of his analysis depends on the political/cultural assessment that in the months after 9/11, normal standards of judgment were suspended. Read and decide for yourself.


    3) Selective morality: what about the drones? A reader with a military background writes:

    "I have not read the OPR report and will not argue with your conclusions.  But I do find disconcerting and disconnected this outrage with torture and the quiet and evidently total acceptance of drone attacks in non combatant areas that result in civilian deaths.  As set forth by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker and a few articles by others, it appears indisputable such drone attacks have killed over 500 civilians including women and children.  All attacks were cleared by a lawyer. Should the judgment of these lawyers be held accountable?  Evidently not, since these attacks are applauded as a great success and heralded by the Obama Administration.

    "As onerous as torture is, the tactics of drone attacks killing civilians in non combatant areas and the bombing of Hiroshima seem to have more in common than a comparison of torture to Hiroshima.

    "I find this acceptance of the drone civilian deaths quietly accepted while a mistake by a 19 year old soldier in attacking a compound where he believes there to be an enemy is subject to a court martial as well as roundly condemned to be confounding."

    My first reaction is: the drone attacks, with attendant death of innocents, are part of the "normal" moral calculus and compromise of war. "Just war" theory recognizes that often war's objective* is to kill leaders or soldiers of the other side, and that inevitably this has meant death and suffering for civilians as well. That is why I described the A-bomb question as an extreme case of the moral-war debate: because so many non-combatants were so deliberately killed. The drone attacks are thus a new instance of a familiar tragic dilemma and debate. Torture is something else, which is why it has been condemned even by societies that recognize the morality of certain kinds of war. Still, I agree, the drones deserve more debate than they've been getting.
    ___

    * Of course, a war's real "objective" is advancing your side's interests and forcing the other side to capitulate. Achieving that goal without fighting is the best kind of war, as theorists from Sun Tzu onward have pointed out.

  • More on OPR, Hiroshima, and Dick Cheney

    In response to this post, arguing that the Office of Professional Responsibility report on the "torture memos" is comparable to John Hersey's Hiroshima in making the public confront what was done in its name, a reader who is an academic historian writes:

    "One can only hope that the OPR report makes the same splash that Hersey's Hiroshima did,  and that like Hiroshima (which wasn't published in Japan until 1949, but sold very well once the U.S. authorities permitted its release) it eventually gets read in places which were the targets of U.S. policy.   That said,  it might also be worth noting that Hiroshima's reception in the U.S.  has a complicated legacy. Yes, the book confronted the U.S. public with unforgettable imagery of the devastation and human suffering caused by the atomic bombs, and perhaps for the first time forced readers in the U.S. to consider the Japanese victims as people not unlike themselves.  Hersey's choice of middle-class, well-educated Japanese as representatives of the larger public helped in this regard; that so many of the victims in his book were Christian was also a factor.  In other words, Hiroshima's effectiveness at provoking sympathy for the Japanese victims of the bombs was in part a function of its ability to also make Americans think of themselves as potential victims.  I wonder if readers of the OPR report will be able to make that leap from the suffering inflicted on the victims of Bybee and Yoo to their own circumstances.

    "Second, Hersey's piece almost certainly helped provoke Stimson's February 1947 Harper's article, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb." Concerned about the growing public sentiment in opposition to atomic weapons in general, if not to their use against the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  Stimson was persuaded to help construct what would appear to be a definitive, insider's account of the decision-making process leading up to the bombings.   His description of the decision to use the weapons as having been weighed against the estimated cost of an invasion, and his portrayal of the decision-making process itself as deliberate,  careful and morally upright, had the desired effect. It would be more than a decade before that narrative was effectively challenged, and historians continue to struggle against the the argument that the bombs saved a "million American lives."

    "While I don't see Margolis as comparable to Stimson - who knew that the decision-making process he described was a fiction - I do wonder which narrative will emerge out of these early histories of the dark Bush years.  Will it be one which closes the door on continued engagement with the costs of torture, or one which treats such engagement as without merit?"
    On a related point about the torture memos, but also with a Hiroshima angle, reader Zach Hansel writes:
    "You wrote about "the Dick Cheney view, the 24 view, which equates the torture memos with Abraham Lincoln's imposition of martial law."

    "Dick Cheney is not merely arguing to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, but is also arguing to torture people held under that standard, and he's advocating it whether or not there's an imminent threat of attack. Lincoln was shot down by the Court when he held would-be saboteurs in Indiana in 1864 because Indiana was not facing an immediate threat. The Court found martial law illegal in Hawaii in 1944 because the state was not under an immediate threat of attack.

    "I think both of those examples are fairly analogous to the threat posed by terrorism today. There was certainly the chance of a surprise attack against Hawaii at that time or sabotage in either Indiana or Hawaii at either time. There's a chance that a terrorist affiliated with a terrorist suspect in our custody can attack at any time, anywhere.

    "So, Cheney's matching Lincoln and going further than Lincoln in two ways... Cheney's position is equivalent to saying that, since Hiroshima was necessary, the atom bomb should be our first resort in any international conflict." [My emphasis]
  • The OPR report: this era's 'Hiroshima'

    (Title of this item changed from previous soft-sell approach.)

    When you are done reading this month's issue of the Atlantic -- and, as previously instructed, you should start with this article by Don Peck; then read Bruce Falconer's incredible and riveting profile of a "Dr. Death" in Switzerland; and then read all the rest of the great offerings:

    After that, please read the full Office of Professional Responsibility report on the "torture memo" misconduct of Jay Bybee, now a Federal appeals court judge; and John Yoo, now a tenured professor at the UC Berkeley law school. The report is available as a 10MB, 289-page PDF download here. Seriously, this is a document that informed Americans should be familiar with, as a basis for any future discussion about the costs and consequences of a "global war on terror" and about the maintenance of American "values" in the world.

    Through American history, there have been episodes of brutality and abuse that, in hindsight, span a very wide range of moral acceptability. There is no way to "understand" lynchings that makes them other than abominations. But -- to use the extreme case -- America's use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always be the subject of first-order moral debate, about whether any "larger good" (forcing an end to the war) could justify the immediate suffering, the decades-long aftereffects, and the crossing of the "first use" frontier that this decision represented.

    My point now is not to go through the A-bomb debate. It is to say that anyone who is serious in endorsing the A-bomb decision has to have fully faced the consequences. This is why John Hersey's Hiroshima was requisite basic knowledge for anyone arguing for or against the use of the bomb. The OPR report is essentially this era's Hiroshima. As Hersey's book does, it makes us confront what was done in our name -- "our" meaning the citizens of the United States.

    If you want to argue that "whatever" happened in the "war on terror" was necessary because of the magnitude and novelty of the threat, then you had better be willing to face what the "whatever" entailed. Which is what this report brings out. And if you believe -- as I do, and have argued through the years -- that what happened included excessive, abusive, lawless, immoral, and self-defeating acts done wrongly in the name of American "security," then this is a basic text as well.

    To conclude the logical sequence, if not to resolve this issue (which will be debated past the time any of us are around), you should then read the recent memo by David Margolis, of the Justice Department, overruling the OPR's recommendation that Yoo and Bybee should be punished further. It is available as a 69-page PDF here. Margolis is a widely-esteemed voice of probity and professional excellence inside the Department. What is most striking to me as a lay reader is how much of his argument rests not on strictly legal judgments but rather on a historical/political assertion.

    The assertion is that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, anxiety was so high, fears were so great, and standards of all sorts were so clearly in abeyance, that normal rules about prudence and arm's-length deliberation cannot fairly be applied in retrospect. Ie, "you had to be there." Perhaps. (And, of course, we all were there.) In normal life we recognize the concept of decisions made in the heat of the moment, under time pressure, and without complete info. But it is worth noting that the central "torture memos" were from mid-summer 2002, nine months after the initial attacks -- by people whose job was supposed to be providing beyond heat-of-the-moment counsel.

    The "torture years" are now an indelible part of our history. The names Bybee and Yoo will always be associated with these policies. Whether you view them as patriots willing to do the dirty work of defending the nation -- the Dick Cheney view, the 24 view, which equates the torture memos with Abraham Lincoln's imposition of martial law -- or view them as damaging America's moral standing in ways that will take years to repair (my view), you owe it to yourself to read these original documents. I tried to make this point in more halting real-time fashion yesterday in a talk with Guy Raz on NPR.

    Photo credit: wikimedia commons.

  • This is churlish of me, but....

    ... it's an opportunity to mention one of my favorite parts of The Internet.

    A reader wrote a while back asking where he might find a full copy of my 1987 Atlantic article about the Philippines, called "A Damaged Culture." It was extremely controversial in the Philippines for a long time, so even though it was from the magazine's pre-internet era I thought it was worth putting the text on line -- and did so a couple of years ago, here.

    I thanked him for his interest and sent him the link. But I at least thought of directing him to this site: http://tinyurl.com/yfthl99.

    Spoiler alert: if you already know everything about "Let me Google that for you," no need to click. Otherwise, worth checking out.

  • Let me say again: Good for Evan Bayh

    In one previous entry, I urged Evan Bayh to use his lame-duck Senate seat through the rest of the year as a giant megaphone to talk about what's wrong with the place; and then congratulated him on his first clear step in that direction.

    I will confess that most of the reader messages I received boiled down to: "Don't get your hopes up, he has never rocked the boat." OK. But in keeping with the "today is the first day of the rest of your political life" philosophy, I'm going to judge by the evidence as long as it's positive. Now we have another encouraging step from Bayh. He has a prominent op-ed in tomorrow's NYT talking about the dysfunctional Senate in general and making detailed recommendations about the filibuster in particular. For instance:

    "[T] Senate should reform a practice increasingly abused by both parties, the filibuster. Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose -- to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business.

    "Last fall, the Senate had to overcome two successive filibusters to pass a bill to provide millions of Americans with extended unemployment insurance. There was no opposition to the bill; it passed on a 98-0 vote. But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters....

    "[F]ilibusters should require 35 senators to sign a public petition and make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory. Those who obstruct the Senate should pay a price in public notoriety and physical exhaustion. That would lead to a significant decline in frivolous filibusters."

    It's worth reading the whole thing -- and, more importantly, rewarding and encouraging politicians who decide to head in this direction. Keep going, Sen. Bayh! Visual inspiration* to keep in mind:

    mr-smith-goes-to-washington.jpg
    _____
    * Yes, I realize that the drama of Mr. Smith turns on Jimmy Stewart's character carrying out a marathon "real" filibuster. But the larger point of the movie was a challenge to coziness and corruption in the Senate, a message that lives through the years.

  • Beer updates from all over (updated)

    1) From a recent trip to Ohio, a beer whose cheeky name I really admire  -- not to mention really admiring its hoppy taste. Here it is: Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Co.

    BurningRiver_BottleGlass.jpg



    OK, I realize that Kids Today might not recognize the puckish elegance of calling a Cleveland-brewed beer "Burning River." Details here. Dennis Kucinich would be able to explain.  (UPDATE: I am remiss in not having mentioned Randy Newman's famous song on the same theme, "Burn On," his tribute to the mighty Cuyahoga.)

    The picture above is from the web site. Below, the beer last week in situ at a Holiday Inn near Dayton:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8378.jpg

    2) From a recent trip to Northern California, the solution to a "dividing by zero" paradox in the beer world. In math a dividing-by-zero problem is, of course, one that is unsolvable by definition. In the beer world, I have always thought the counterpart would be the concept of "adding too many hops." Skimping on hops? The bane of cheap, weak lagers the world round. Throwing hops in by the ton? The more the better! You couldn't possibly use too much.

    But I have now found the exception: Hopsickle Imperial Ale, from Moylan's brewery of Novato, in

    1) From a recent trip to Ohio, a beer whose cheeky name I really admire  -- not to mention really admiring its hoppy taste. Here it is: Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Co.

    BurningRiver_BottleGlass.jpg


    OK, I realize that Kids Today might not recognize the puckish elegance of calling a Cleveland-brewed beer "Burning River." Details here. Dennis Kucinich would be able to explain.  (UPDATE: I am remiss in not having mentioned Randy Newman's famous song on the same theme, "Burn On," his tribute to the mighty Cuyahoga.)

    The picture above is from the web site. Below, the beer last week in situ at a Holiday Inn near Dayton:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8378.jpg

    2) From a recent trip to Northern California, the solution to a "dividing by zero" paradox in the beer world. In math a dividing-by-zero problem is, of course, one that is unsolvable by definition. In the beer world, I have always thought the counterpart would be the concept of "adding too many hops." Skimping on hops? The bane of cheap, weak lagers the world round. Throwing hops in by the ton? The more the better! You couldn't possibly use too much.

    But I have now found the exception: Hopsickle Imperial Ale, from Moylan's brewery of Novato, in Marin County. Very good, and "Triple Hoppy" as the label says. But... for the first time in my life, the following words entered my brain: "You know, this might be too bitter." Next, let me at those math problems.

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8336.JPG

    3) From a recent trip to Southern California, welcome news that the Hangar 24 Brewery has gone from a shoestring startup to a big recession-defying success. Two years ago, I learned in faroff China about my ideal fantasy business: a craft brewery, at a small airport! And in my hometown to boot. On several visits since then I've seen it expand. Now -- you can hardly get into the place.
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8384.JPG

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8391.jpg

    Branded capital goods for a little startup:
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8392.JPG

    I take my good news where it's available, which often tends to be in the microbrew realm.

    More »

  • Bad week in small-plane news

    A crash in East Palo Alto two days ago after an early morning take-off apparently in fog, killing three employees of the Tesla electric-car company; the notorious suicide/murder/terror crash in Austin yesterday; a landing in the wee hours this morning at LAX by a 23-year old student pilot who stole a Cirrus SR-22 airplane and flew it erratically all over the place.

    The stolen plane, Cirrus N443CP*, in happier times:

    Thumbnail image for 443cp.jpg

    These are completely different situations -- weather-related accident; psychopathic crime; extremely reckless joyride/misconduct putting the joyrider himself at dire risk, respectively -- but they are sure to be linked in news stories by the rote/reflexive "this comes one day after an incident in which..." faux-logical connector.** There is nothing more to say about the Palo Alto crash than condolences to all affected. More tomorrow, when I am again at a computer, on the "security" and "terrorism" implications of the other two cases.
    ___
    * Why are Cirruses often in the news? Over the past ten years, they have become the biggest-selling model of small single-engine piston plane in the world. Something like 5,000 of them are now in operation, so if there is news about small airplanes, it often is news about a Cirrus.

    ** I made that sentence up, but sure enough, here is what the LA Times story says about the LAX case: "The incident comes one day after a 53-year-old pilot, who had been battling the Internal Revenue Service for decades, plowed his single-engine Piper Cherokee into a Texas building housing IRS offices, killing at least one worker. "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The behavior current incentives reward:

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

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

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

    Could a change in Congressional election procedure be Constitutional?

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

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

  • Obama meets the Dalai Lama (updated)

    On the road and changing planes, let me take four minutes on Boingo to refer readers to an op-ed yesterday by Jerome A. Cohen, who has been involved for decades is the campaign to expand citizen rights and the rule of law in China, in the South China Morning Post. You have to register or subscribe (worth it!) to read the whole thing, but the headline and subhead get the idea across.

    His article is called "Fight the Good Fight: As China rises, foreigners need to keep protesting against cases of injustice on the mainland." It argues that the United States should continue the same contradictory-sounding but strategically sensible policy toward China that it has more or less maintained throughout the past 30 years. This involves looking for areas of cooperation wherever possible -- on financial and business matters, on environmental challenges, on strategic measures like those I discuss at the end of this article. In general, that means that the United States should treat China as a potential partner unless compelled to do otherwise.

    But American leaders should also resolutely speak up for values the country is supposed to believe in -- individual liberties, religious tolerance, due process, freedom of expression -- and not be afraid to criticize Chinese policy when these issues are at stake. Thus the Chinese government will complain every time an American president meets the Dalai Lama -- but the United States must continue those meetings in consonance with its own beliefs*, despite the protests, and continue to complain when Chinese dissidents are locked up, as in the Liu Xiaobo case. Why make gestures like these? According to Cohen:

    "Despite the regime's censorship, [such protests] boost the sagging morale of those in mainland China who hope for freedom and due process of law, as the country's beleaguered rights lawyers and activists emphasise [sic -- Cohen is American but the SCMP is in Hong Kong!]. Moreover, they give the world a fuller picture of contemporary China than that provided by the Olympics, the Confucius Institutes that the government has established abroad and its mind- boggling economic accomplishments. China's quest for "soft power" - international influence based on more than military and economic coercion - will always be frustrated as long as there are continuing foreign protests against abuses suffered by dissidents, religious figures, criminal defence lawyers and others.

    "Finally, if stated with requisite humility, public reaffirmation of the basic human decencies that every government should accord its own citizens as well as foreigners reminds all countries, including the US, of the importance of practising what we preach to China."

    As is evident from this last line, Cohen is not blind to America's deviations from its own ideals. Anyhow, this is what to think about today's meeting, as I sign off and run to the next plane.
    __
    * To be clear, those legitimate American beliefs do not involve support for "splittism," the main Chinese government charge against the Dalai Lama. Rather they involve respect for him as a spiritual leader, a view 100% rejected by the Chinese government but accepted in most of the rest of the world.

    UPDATE: Jerome Cohen's full essay is available here in English with links to versions in both simplified and traditional Chinese. Thanks to ESZ.

  • Going to hell #6: revenge of the Boomers

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

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

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

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

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

    More »

  • You can do it, Sen. Bayh!

    Yesterday I expressed my hope and dream that Sen. Evan Bayh would use the next ten months -- while he's still in the Senate and has both a vote and a public megaphone -- to do something about the things he says are driving him out of public life.

    Today, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, Bayh said flat out that he thought the filibuster was being abused and the rules should be changed. Even (gasp) that he might "lead" an effort to reform it! See the discussion in this clip, which starts two minutes into the interview:

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    Representative passage:

    "It's [the filibuster]just brought the process to a halt, and the public is suffering. So the minority needs to have a right. I think that's important. But the public has a right to see its business done. And not routinely allow a small minority to keep us from addressing the great issues that face this country. I think the filibuster absolutely needs to be changed."

    Who says dreams don't come true! At the very least, an encouraging dreamlet-scale start. Ten months to go, Sen. Bayh; nothing to lose; a lot of good to be gone; and a reputation to gain.

  • About cyber-fragility and the "pre-9/11" moment

    In my "Cyber Warriors" article in the current issue, I mention that a variety of internet-security experts contend that we are living in a "pre-9/11 era" on this subject. But this they mean not that thousands of people will be killed and everything about U.S. politics and policy will be thrown up for grabs. Rather, the image is meant to suggest that policy and public awareness will be divided into "before" and "after" phases. And "after" this happens -- whatever "this" turns out to be in the cyber-destruction field -- people will ask why we weren't more vigilant ahead of time. A story just now in the Washington Post uses just the same imagery, talking about an exercise yesterday that was "staged... to demonstrate to a complacent public the plausibility of an attack that could in many ways be as crippling as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes."*

    From Gary Chapman, of the LBJ School at UT Austin, who has been writing about the internet aspects of national security since the 1990s, an objection to mis- and over-use of the "pre-9/11" imagery. Later on, I'll post a contrary view, from another tech veteran who thinks that the warnings are perfectly appropriate. Chapman writes:

    "Concerns about cybersecurity and the potential for a national "catastrophe" initiated by hackers -- whatever their motivations or backing -- are reasonable; until people start using analogies to 9/11 or begin talking about a looming "digital Pearl Harbor." Admiral Mike McConnell [former NSA director, whom I quote several times in my article] has been raising such alarms, but count me as a skeptic. It is difficult to imagine the loss of any computer-dependent system comparing to the spectacle of 9/11, its implications for security for ordinary Americans, or the emotional impact of that event, particularly over the horrifying deaths that millions of people watched on television. Likewise, the significance of Pearl Harbor, which launched the country into the biggest war of all time, is not likely to be matched by a computer-related failure, even one that dramatically damages the global financial system. We should use the analogies to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor sparingly, if at all, and not for a possible failure of computer networks or digital transactions. Terrorists using weapons of mass destruction might qualify, but not computer hackers.

    "Admiral McConnell believes that nothing will motivate Americans to take cybersecurity seriously until a disaster happens, which is probably true. But unlike 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, Americans are likely to blame the managers of institutions that are the targets of hackers, not the hackers or their sponsors, who will in any case be obscure or difficult to identify. McConnell apparently believes that the cybersecurity of big banks is a matter of national security, but it would be hard to imagine an industry with lower esteem in the eyes of the public these days, and therefore one that is highly unlikely to "come clean" about their vulnerabilities to hackers. The public, in its current sour mood about large institutions in the U.S., would probably support the *dismantling* of a system that makes the U.S. vulnerable to computer threats rather than more government spending to secure the Wall Street firms that precipitated the financial crisis and the recession."
    In similar vein, a tech-policy veteran who asks not to be named writes:
    "The loose talk about "digital Pearl Harbor" and "equivalent to 9/11" is regrettable, in my opinion. We should learn how to calibrate cyberthreats, which are serious but not in the same league. Something bad happening to PayPal or even CitiBank is not the same as planes bombing Hawaii or crashing into the World Trade Center, I'm sorry. We should resist these kinds of analogies."
    By instinct and experience I am skeptical of "threat-inflation" sloganeering, whether about the cyber or the "real" world. (No doubt this point is at top-of-mind right now because I am sitting in an airport lobby where every five minutes the PA system delivers the news that "the current threat advisory as established by the Department of Homeland Security is 'Orange'." Tell me, please oh Lord, who on Earth is made safer or more secure, or which evil-doer anywhere is more hindered, by repetitive broadcast of this moronic boilerplate? What does the "current" level mean, if it never changes?** Why is it the same in Washington DC, which someone might want to blow up, and rural Mississippi, which is probably under less imminent threat? What am I supposed to do or think because it's "orange"? Is there any conceivable reason this system is still in place -- other than the fact that no political official dares take the risk of recommending that it be lowered? But I digress.)

    Back to cyber-security: I think the 9/11 comparison is useful strictly in the terms mentioned above: That if there is some large disruption, the whole issue will be discussed in an entirely different way, and policies will change, in both positive and panicky overkill directions. Acting calmly right now would be preferable ... but so would a lot of other things that we not going to do.

    Next up: a reader's argument that 9/11 allusions are indeed realistic when it comes to the potential damage done by cyber-threats.
    ____
    * Update: I see that the Atlantic Wire is on this theme too. Escher-drawing style, it includes  a reference to my own Atlantic article on the topic.

    ** To be fair, it has only been at its steady "Orange" level for the past four and a half years, since the summer of 2005. So it's not that it "never" changes; it just hardly ever changes -- as wars begin and end, regimes rise and fall, world politics changes, terrorists are arrested or set free, etc.

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