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.
  • If you have been wondering about Tai Shan....

    He's made it back "home" now -- well, if not his birth home of Washington DC, then at least his ancestral home, in Sichuan province in inland China. The latest newsletter from the highly-admirable Pandas International has this update on his arrival, including a number of en route photos of him like this:

    10-taishan-enc.jpg

    Plus this info about provisions for his care:

    "Prior to his arrival he was adopted for life by the Sichuan Auto Industry Group for a million Yuan or about $150,000. This donation will help support Tai Shan with food, housing and medical care."

    Tthe photo that really got my attention was this one, showing some of the panda-keepers waiting for Tai Shan's arrival:

    10-taishan-2.jpg

    I'm pretty sure that the man second from the right is the same veterinarian Tang Chunxiang whom my wife and I spent time with in 2007 at the main panda reserve in Wolong, Sichuan province -- before the reserve was destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

    DrTang.png

     

    Assuming it's him, I am very glad to see him looking so happy again, after the very difficult past 20 months. My story about Tang Chunxiang and the pandas is here; a slide show from Wolong is here. I will always remember the end of our visit when Tang summed up his 20 years in the mountains, in very carefully chosen English, this way: "The more I know the panda, the more I love the panda."

  • More on Clinton, Obama, and the ticking clock

    A reader in California writes about a similarity between Presidents #42 and #44:

    "I imagine [Bill Clinton's] prescience about death and the passing of generations at a young age is connected with the loss of his father before he was born, and the shadow that cast over his mother and his life. You see similar themes with Obama, perhaps also connected with a lost father, though his father was alive.  Obama's remarks about the passage of time, the shortness of each person's life,   when he was at the Great Wall were moving:
    'It's magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history,' Obama said, after breaking away from his tour guides to walk alone along the snowy parapets, hands jammed into his pockets against the cold and wind. 'It gives you a good perspective on a lot of the day-to-day things. They don't amount to much in the scope of history.' He added: 'Our time here on Earth is not that long and we better make the best of it.' (from Reuters)
    "It could also be that this heightened awareness of time passing is just what spurs some to extraordinary accomplishment - and wanting to be remembered in history, at least for awhile.(or maybe I'm making this up as a professional hazard of being a psychoanalyst,  but just saying...)"

    From a reader in Washington state:

    "Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck over Manhattan* ("I think men chase women because they are afraid of dying") plus James Fallows / Andrew Marvell ("But at his back he seems to hear/Time's winged chariot drawing near") equals Bill Clinton explained!"

    * Thanks to reader DM.

  • Going to hell #3

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

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

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

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

    More »

  • On Bill Clinton's autumnal tone

    Following this post from last night, reader Holden Lewis writes:

    "I, too, have always detected an "it's later than you think" mindset from Bill Clinton, and I have a theory as to why. Clinton's father died before he was born.

    "My father died before I was born, too. And the precariousness of life - the contingent nature of everything we do, and the fragility of all our plans - is always in the foreground for me. I'm sure that my fatherlessness and my worldview are connected. My intuition tells me that Clinton is the same way.

    "For me, this comes out when someone wants reassurance from me - "Tell me that everything's going to be OK." I'm a born non-reassurer. Disaster can strike any minute, no matter how innocent we are. Clinton isn't much of a reassurer, either. He's better at delivering warnings and planning contingencies.

    "Clinton's sense of justice draws from the same well, I think. When you grow up without having ever met your father, and all your friends have dads that they have varying levels of affection for, you get an early introduction to the unfairness of life. We all root for underdogs, but moreso for a fatherless boy and the man he becomes."

  • Bill Clinton in the hospital

    In the fall of 1991, just after he had formally announced his run for the presidency, Bill Clinton made a series of three policy speeches at this alma mater, Georgetown University. I read the first two of them and -- with my wife, and her sister visiting from overseas -- went in person to hear the third, about Clinton's plans for foreign policy. We were brought by friends to say hello to Clinton in the "green room" just before he went on stage: My clearest memory is the millisecond flash through his eyes, with the unspoken thought "can't I get ONE SECOND's peace while I am cramming for this big speech???" -- replaced even before it registered with a big radiant smile and welcoming hand.

    What struck me most powerfully about the speech (text here), at the time and in retrospect, was not its policy-prescriptions but the generational tone Clinton took toward the mainly-student audience. I represent a grizzled and events-battered tribe, he said in the Q-and-A period. I know my time is limited; we need to build a better world for you young people. It's not the "better world" part I noticed; it was the "you young people" part. He was at the time 45 years old, about to become the second-youngest elected president in history. But his tone was of a man aware of the finite time ahead.

    Elected to all his offices young, elevated young, humbled in various ways young -- Bill Clinton has nonetheless struck this "it's later than you think" tone through all of his public life. At this time of night and just off a plane, I don't pretend to know why. Maybe it's deliberate. Maybe it's unconscious. Maybe he knows -- or senses -- something about his heritage and prospects. Maybe he just is larger and faster than the rest of us in all ways.  He has been noticeably autumnal even in his vernal days. Get well soon.

  • In defense of Facebook (the second time around)

    In response to my saying yesterday that I'd had enough of Facebook, between the steadily mounting stream of spam "invitations"/announcements and the "scale" awkwardness of combining family/real-world friends with more casual acquaintances, this note from a reader:

    "I have come almost full circle in my own views.  I first joined over a year ago and promptly quit because of 'too much information,' partly as a result of letting Facebook use my email list to invite 'friends,' and because it seemed like such a sloppy, lazy substitute for keeping up with people by email.  Many of the people I most want to stay in touch with aren't on it, and I especially hated having mandatory ads show up on my page.

    "But I've recently rejoined, and have come to see it as a useful accessory rather than a substitute for virtual socializing.  I'm more selective now, and am comfortable with it as a gratifying reminder of my own history.  It now includes people I was (and am) very fond of, but whom it wouldn't make any sense for me to be emailing - we've reasserted our goodwill towards each other; I am glad to know tidbits of their present lives, some of which I pursue independently, and to occasionally hail each other over some entry.  It's a cushion against loneliness, and against investing too much in some particular, immediate relationship.  It makes me feel part of a carefully crafted whole, sustainable since its give-and-take is very lightweight.  Its usefulness is just different from other approaches to socializing, in an unexpected but pleasant way - like an interactive, ever-updated scrapbook.  But all its advantages do depend on being consistently selective about who's invited or approved, rather than on increasing the number of friends."
    This approach has some appeal. It's like the rare chance in life to start over and apply the lessons you learned the hard way the first time through. A related plan would be to sign up in two incarnations -- a personal one, for "real" friends, and a professional one, for the world at large. I'll add this to the to-do list.
  • For those following the filibuster saga (updated)

    An encouraging update and list of suggestions at the Washington Monthly's site, here. (Background here.) One of the rare encouraging indicators about the operating texture of our democracy is that this collection of issues -- abuse of the filibuster, proliferation of one-Senator "holds" on public business, and the general dysfunctional nature of the Senate in particular -- has gained increasing attention as a genuine source of trouble, and as something that could be fixed. As the WashMonthly item explains.

    Update: Not so fast, says (unfortunately) Sen. Harry Reid, in the WaPo today. Grrrrr.

  • From this month's Atlantic

    Our new issue (subscribe!) is full of strong articles, but let me strongly recommend that you start with this one: my colleague Don Peck's cover-story explanation of why the economic, emotional, sociological, and political effects of the ongoing recession/depression are likely to be with us for decades to come. This is not a feel-good article, to put it mildly; but it is lucid, convincing, systematic, and different in its emphases from what I (at least) have seen anyplace else. There is a lot more in the issue, but please start with this.

  • The glamorous life of a journalist, cont.

    Previously in this series, here. From the mailbox just now:

    "Hi James,

    "Hope you are enjoying the snow! I wanted to check-in and see what type of stories you are currently working on regarding jewelry and accessories. I work with an online jewelry retailer that has amazing fine jewelry at unbelievable prices (www.xxxx.com). Would love to send you some over for any stories you may be working on.

    "Let me know what you think.

    "Best,

    "XXXX" [A woman's name I don't know]

    I actually am touched by most of these notes. So many efforts on so many fronts! Any economy is a miracle of hope and cold-calls and knocking on doors.

    On the other hand, I'm not writing back. (Although, if "send you some over" means send some jewels, hmmmm.)

  • For the record: two radio interviews

    From the airport hotel in SF, two phone interviews today, on the "going to hell" article:

         - With Marty Moss-Coane of "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia, this discussion, with MP3 file here

         - With Doug Fabrizio of RadioWest on KUER in Salt Lake City, this discussion, with embedded audio file.

     A point I think I made in passing on both shows: how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR.

  • Going to hell #2

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

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

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

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

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

    More »

  • I become part of a national trend!

    The front page of USA Today informs me this morning -- at my airport hotel in Calif, in Day 2 of waiting out the backlog of canceled flights back to Siberia-on-the-Potomac -- that people are turning away from some online social networks, Facebook in particular. This is because of privacy intrusions and, more fundamentally, the unwieldiness of "symmetric" social networks like Facebook's. My "actual" friends or family members might want to be connected with me on Facebook. (Or, in the case of some of them, they might not!) But if I then have a much larger cloud of professional acquaintances in the same undifferentiated "friend" status, people end up being connected or exposed in ways they didn't intend. A very useful essay on scale problems in social networks, by Tim O'Reilly last year, is here.

    Given the continued growth of these networks, I realize that a story like today's can sound like the old joke about a restaurant that's so crowded nobody goes there any more. Still, I find that way too much of the traffic I get from Facebook is of the variety shown below (click for larger):

    FacebookSpam3.png

    Or:


    Facebookspam2.png

    Or:
    FaceBookSpam4.png

    I could go through and "de-friend" the people identified as sending each of the invitations; or of course I could change my notification settings; but I could also reexamine what I am doing there at all. Before anyone else says it: yes, yes, I am aware that I am not exactly the target Facebook demographic. So, why did I join in the first place? Answer #1: I'll try almost anything that's interesting. Answer #2: I thought there could be value in connecting to people with shared journalistic, political, China- or tech- or aviation- or beer-related interests. But on balance it's not worth it -- and any lost childhood friend who wants to find me can probably figure out other ways to do that. So it is time to begin the dis-engagement process.

    While I'm at it, this new piece in the NY Review of Books is very useful about Facebook's origins, strengths, and weaknesses. It is still remarkable to me that Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, so obviously stole the idea for the company from two other students that he made an out-of-court settlement of that claim for a sum usually reported to be $85 million. This is remarkable in many ways: that the sum was so "large," in normal terms; that it was so trivially "small," in terms of Facebook's current perceived worth (therefore amounting to a "great bargain"); and that it has so little apparent effect on Zuckerberg's standing or ability to get other firms to work with him. C'est la vie, as either Balzac or Richard O'Connor might have said, in somewhat different words.
  • On the cyber-threat from China

    I have an article on this subject in the new issue of the Atlantic (subscribe!). I had done the reporting and writing for the story long before the Google-v-China controversy broke. We had a day or so to take note of that development before the issue went to press. Welcome to life in the monthly magazine business! I think that the analysis in the story actually stands up well in light of the Google episode -- including the insiders' estimate that China is a serious source of international cyber-attacks, but not the leading source and perhaps not even the second most important. More in the article itself (illustration from this issue, below).

    china-cyber-war-wide.jpg.


  • Tonight's aviation-mishap report

    I have not yet seen, but I heard many admiring previews of, a PBS Frontline show tonight (just minutes from now, on the East Coast) about last year's Colgan crash in Buffalo and the related problems of low-budget regional airlines. If you miss it, as I will in real time today, it will be available online starting tomorrow here. It is narrated by Miles O'Brien, known to the world as a long-time CNN figure and to me as a fellow pilot of Cirrus airplanes.

    On the more positive side of recent aviation news, in case you have not yet heard enough about "Captain Sully" and the remarkable safe landing last summer of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson, this site, by Exosphere3D in Denver, has some equally remarkable recreations of the event. My favorite is the one below (best viewed in full-screen), matching all the comment of all the controllers involved with a moving map of the plane, birds, etc. But there are lots more at the site:


    Reader Michael Stoogenke, a geospatial analyst (who is not part of Exosphere3D), says this about the representations:

    "Given the sophistication of the simulation, it's easy to overlook an important point -- the level of detail in the background mapping is very sophisticated. ExoSphere3D probably acquired the maps, aerial photos, and 3D buildings in the public domain or for relatively low cost. This type of thing would not have been possible 10 years ago (3-5 years for the 3D buildings). If the crash occurred between 2000 and 2007, ExoSphere3D  would have had to dole out thousands of dollars to obtain this level of detail in their sims. In the age of Google Earth, we now take this for granted. Indeed, we've come to expect it."

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