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.
  • Finally, a Flying Device Too Wacky Even for Me

    Try the JetLev! Or, if you're not that brave, at least watch the video.

    Out of Germany now comes.... the JetLev!

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    Just as I was surprised to discover last month that there was such a thing as a beer with too strong a hops taste, I now realize (courtesy of Sanjay Saigal) that there is such a thing as personal aviation that is a little too personal. You will not regret spending 67 seconds watching the JetLev promotional video, below. And perhaps like me you'll find yourself wondering as you watch, What would happen if my legs got in the way of the high-speed jets of water that are keeping the thing up? (The JetLev sucks in water through the trailing yellow hose, then blasts it out to shoot the rider into the sky.)



    Main company site here; flight training instructions, plus list of "banned maneuvers," here. As the video shows, it's for men and women, young and old.  That's a young lady flyer below.  And when you're ready, buying instructions here. Let me know how it goes. This is Health Care Reform weekend, and I figure this has its own medical-care related theme.

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  • How to Think About the RMB, "Currency Manipulation," and Trade War

    The problem with the Chinese currency isn't "manipulation." It's something worse.

    Where to begin on this topic? Let me start with several "to be sure" statements and then the clearest formulation of the issue I can manage.


     "To be sure":
    - In general, I am skeptical of free-trade absolutism, and am a believer in the ability of nations to engineer their way to better trade and economic outcomes than pure laissez-faire would deliver. As explained in a serious way here and a sarcastic way here;

    - In general, I am in the "Oh calm down!" camp when it comes to the "Chinese menace," whether that menace takes the form of "stealing all our jobs" or of "controlling our financial destiny." On why not to worry about job-stealing, here; on finances, here; on general US-Chinese competition here.  

    - In specific, what I have seen in Chinese factories makes me doubt that changing the value of the Chinese RMB would make any noticeable difference in "bringing jobs back to America." The wage differences between the country are so enormous, and the productive and exporting infrastructure in China is so well advanced, that you could double the RMB's value against the dollar and still make it more attractive to produce somewhere in China than in the Midwest. That is why I think typical American complaints about "currency manipulation" are ill-founded. They imagine that a cheap currency is what has built China's industrial empire. That's a factor, but a secondary one.

    "Nonetheless": 
    We've reached a stage where the Chinese government's insistence on holding the RMB's value steady against the dollar -- rather than letting it rise, as it naturally would because of China's huge trade surpluses -- has become pernicious and destructive for the world economy. Why? The reason is the one laid out here* nearly a year ago:

    During a worldwide economic slowdown like the one of the past two years, the immediate problem is a failure of demand. There is too much productive capacity, relative to private and public purchases. Thus factories -- and, more important, workers -- stand idle. The point is elementary, and is the reason governments around the world, from China to Britain to the US, have been pumping new "stimulus" (demand) into their economies. But it also means that anything one government does to depress demand -- or to shift some other nation's demand to its own factories -- has a beggar-thy-neighbor effect and slows down recovery world wide. 

    That is what China is doing by controlling the value of the RMB. For reasons laid out here,** the only way the Chinese government can control the currency's value is to enforce savings on the Chinese public. When a Chinese-made computer or motorcycle is sold for dollars in the United States, the Chinese central bank (to oversimplify) seizes part of the dollar proceeds and sends it back for investment in the United States or elsewhere, before anyone in China has a chance to spend it. It goes into Treasury notes, the US stock market, or some other dollar security. That means that it is not used to buy some foreign product (which would increase demand elsewhere), nor is it traded for RMB on a foreign currency exchange (which would raise the RMB's value, decrease the dollar's, and overall increase the purchasing power in a Chinese person's hands.) Again the details are complicated, but the point is plain:

    If the Chinese government were not controlling the value of the RMB, China would be producing more "net demand" for the world economy now -- buying more of other nations' products, or exporting less of its own surplus. This is a simple arithmetic truth, and one whose significance was described a year ago by the stalwart Michael Pettis of the Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. I quoted him as saying: 
    The real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley [after this crash] would be Chinese protectionism --or rather, any effort by China to defend its huge trade surpluses, as the U.S. once did. China's government is unlikely to rely on outright Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs. Instead it could increase subsidies to exporters; it could try to push the RMB's value back down, after three years of letting the currency rise; it could encourage manufacturers to restrain wages; it could impose indirect barriers to imports, as with its recent pressure on China's airlines to cancel outstanding orders for Boeing and Airbus airplanes. By early this year [2009], China's government was in fact doing every one of these things... This is an economic problem for other countries. But it could be an even more serious political provocation, if China is seen as forcing its share of unemployment problems onto everyone else.

    That's where we are now. China's government has helped its own economy recover by holding the RMB's value steady against the dollar rather than letting it rise. But in doing so it has made recovery harder in the United States and -- more dramatically -- Europe and Japan, since the RMB has joined the dollar in falling in value against those currencies. This is not a matter of "manipulating" a currency, and I wish American politicians would stop using that term. But it is destructive to overall world prospects for recovery, because it is hurting everyone else. You don't need any advanced trade theory or specific industrial analysis to know this. It is necessarily true as a matter of basic math: a depressed world economy needs more demand, and an artificially low national currency means artificially restricted demand from that country.


    The best way to change the Chinese government's policy is a separate matter, for another installment. For the moment the point is: don't think about "currency manipulation" as being a tricky way to have a wind-turbine built in Shanghai rather than Sheboygan. Instead think of artificially suppressed Chinese purchasing power as putting a drag on the whole world's economy. That's what has to change.
    ___
    * Unfortunately this part of our archives is messed up, and the links to subsequent pages don't work. Here are the right links for pages 1, 2, and 3

    ** These links are also messed up. Here are the right ones for pages 1, 2, 3, and 4

    Also, links for "How the World Works" article are messed up. Correct ones here for pages 1 and 2. Hmm, maybe a new item for the post-website-redesign To Do list. UPDATE: Archive links are now fixed; links in main text should work fine. Thanks to web team for quick repair.
  • The Heartbreak of History, Philippine Dept.

    Time passes but too little changes in the Philippines.

    Twenty-three years ago, shortly after Corazon Aquino had replaced Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines, I traveled through the country and wrote an Atlantic article called "A Damaged Culture." Mrs. Aquino was then still in the late stages of being perceived as a world hero. Her husband, Benigno, had become the martyred symbol of the anti-Marcos resistance after he was murdered by government goons as he got off a plane on his return to Manila. (His body on the tarmac, below.) Mrs. Aquino was the living symbol of the "EDSA revolution" of 1986, which with relatively little violence* had succeeded in driving Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos from power and appearing to open a new age of reform and promise for a long-suffering people. After the revolution, Mrs. Aquino had addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress and been chosen Time magazine's Woman of the Year.


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    But what I saw and heard in the country suggested that much less had changed than reformers and friends of the Philippines would have liked to think. For instance, as I wrote back then:
    In a sociological sense the elevation of Corazon Aquino through the EDSA revolution should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order. Marcos's rise represented the triumph of the nouveau riche. He was, of course, an Ilocano, from the tough, frugal Ilocos region, in the northwest corner of Luzon. Many of those whom he enriched were also outsiders to the old-money, old-family elite that had long dominated the country's politics. These elite groups, often referred to in shorthand as Makati (the name of the wealthy district and business center of Manila), regarded Marcos the way high-toned Americans regarded Richard Nixon: clever and ambitious, but so uncouth. 
    Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, is part of this landowning elite... Since the Spanish days land has been concentrated in a few giant haciendas, including the 17,000-acre Hacienda Luisita of the Cojuangco family, and no government has done much to change the pattern. "You could argue that real land reform would lead to more productivity, but it's an entirely hypothetical argument,' an Australian economist told me. "This government simply is not going to cause a revolution in the social structure.' Just before the new Congress convened, as her near-dictatorial powers were about to elapse, Aquino signed a generalized land-reform-should-happen decree. Most observers took this as an indication that land reform would not happen, since the decree left all the decisions about the when, where, and how of land reform to the landowner-heavy Congress.
    It is very hard not to think of this history when reading today's NYT story, by Norimitsu Onishi**, about the latest front-runner for the presidency -- the Aquinos' son -- and the ongoing importance of the family plantations.

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  • Placeholder for later news: Google-China, RMB-China, "cyber war," etc

    Why "cyber threat" is not "cyber war," plus a jazz classic about the filibuster.

    In a different world -- specifically, one in which I was going to be near a computer more than hurriedly today -- I would try to say something about the apparently-impending next crisis point in the Google-China showdown, about a similar intensifying disagreement over China's currency policies, and about the coming health care vote -- and of course about the final outcome of migrating all my email files from Outlook to Gmail. In the world I actually inhabit, here are quick links on two important topics:

    1) Cyber threat (true) versus "cyber war" (false): As I argued last month in the Atlantic, the vulnerability of computerized info systems -- which control our finances, run much of our infrastructure, and in other ways keep the modern world modern -- deserves more sustained public attention than it has gotten. But attention is different from panic; and much of what we have heard recently about the looming cyber danger has the unmistakable tone of faddish exaggeration, and "threat inflation." Threat inflation is a Beltway term of art for hyping public concern about an issue, and then transforming that fear into federal contracting dollars.

    James Lewis of the CSIS in Washington, whom I quoted several times in my story, has a very useful new essay here explaining the difference between "threat" and "war" -- starting with the basic fact that most electronic intrusions so far have been by "normal" criminals or by businesses spying on their competitors. Definitely worth reading. For a broadside against the larger concept of "cyber war," see this, in Wired.

    (Yes, I know that the title of my article was "Cyber Warriors." But, hey! 1) I'm just the writer; 2) the first half of the article talked about the Chinese military in general, or "warriors" in the normal sense; 3) the "to do" part of the article was mainly about non-bellicose, non-budget-inflating ways to deal with the problem. Plus 4) nobody's perfect!)

    2) The filibuster (bad) versus commentary on filibuster (good). There is a lot of movement in this field (and I will link to past items once our previous "category" feature for our website is restored). Soon I'll report on a recent interview I had with former Senator Bob Graham on the topic. For now, it's worth checking out yesterday's commentary by my friend Timothy Noah on CBS Sunday Morning. Bonus points to him for working in Billie Holiday's macabre Strange Fruit and explaining why that song, and not Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, should be the real pop-culture reference point for filibuster discussions. See his comments on embedded player, below.



    Watch CBS News Videos Online

  • Proud to Be a Californian, Part 1,386

    California is falling apart. On the brighter side, the beer is good.

    My home state may be falling apart and going to hell, but on the other hand.... Great beer!

     

    On the next NorCal trip, I'll finally get to the highly touted Monk's Kettle beer-nirvana in the Mission district of San Francisco. This time I had to content myself some Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA from an "ordinary" grocery store -- and a glass of Pliny the Elder IPA in a neighborhood bistro. (To think that 1.3 billion people must still drink waterish REEB, Snow, or Yanjing! Life definitely is not fair.) This all does numb the pain of a state or a nation in decline. On to policy matters tomorrow, or sometime. 

  • Corny but Droll

    A Berkeley hotel re-opens, and is still very much aware of its locale.

    Do Not Disturb sign, Shattuck Plaza Hotel, Berkeley, CA this week:

     

    Always good to see hospitality-industry facilities that are in touch with local history and heritage.

    In its previous incarnation, as the mere Shattuck Hotel, this venerable establishment had become somewhat seedy. This is the first time I had seen it since its re-opening and re-branding last year. You can still tell that it was built in 1910, but (mainly) in a good way. Peace!

  • Good News About Flying, in Four Parts

    From New Zealand to the Pentagon to the TSA, interesting new possibilities for flight.

    1) For those so inclined: a functioning personal jet pack, from New Zealand.

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    In-flight video at the site. Place your order here. Expected cost "will be about the same as a high-end motorcycle or car," according to the FAQs. I know this routine! When rationalizing buying a small airplane to my family, I avoided referring to "dollars" and instead tried to get away with the luxury-car counting-unit too. The FAQ list also includes, What happens if the engine stops? The answer involves a parachute.

    2) Courtesy of USA Today, a sane statement from a TSA official! The TSA's John Sammon, referring to possible changes in policy in light of the terrorist crash of a small airplane into the IRS office in Austin last month, said: "It may simply be a confirmation that for very small planes you're not going to see a lot of casualties." Obviously even one casualty is too many; obviously too, anti-IRS and anti-institutional violence of any sort is no joke.  But to be sustainable, a security policy must make sensible tradeoffs of risks and rewards; in a free society, it must also reflect a sensible long-term balance between security and liberty. You could entirely eliminate the risk of airplane hijackings or bombs if you didn't let anyone fly; you could entirely eliminate gun deaths if there were no guns; no risk of car bombs if there were not cars; etc. Panglossian that I am, I will take Mr. Sammon's comment as the dawn of a new age of sensible balance coming out of the TSA.

    3) Courtesy of The Guardian, news that DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced-research body, is close to tests of a scheme to make jet fuel out of algae. This has obvious advantages over making jet fuel out of crude oil from petro-dictatorships. It has a less obvious advantage, which is that algae absorb about as much carbon when growing as their fuel releases when burned, for a much lower net-carbon impact. And unlike the benighted ethanol-subsidy program -- winner of a "stupidest policy ever" contest -- growing algae doesn't compete with growing crops for food. I hope this turns out to be feasible.

    4) What the hell: courtesy of Crunch Gear and Sky News, let's wind up with another New Zealand candidate for "interesting" ways to fly. It's a home-built flying hovercraft.
     
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    I can't embed the three-minute video, but it is worth going to the site to watch. The young woman reporter who takes a ride on this thing is lot more risk-tolerant than I have ever been, in either my reporting or my aviating life. Or perhaps more naively trusting. Either way, she ends up having an unexpectedly dangerous exciting ride.  More on the story here, including a shorter video that doesn't include the dramatic last minute.

  • Artificial Intelligence Fail: Google Maps, Visa/Amazon

    These big, smart computers -- they don't know as much as they think!

    "Big data" can do so much that it's natural to think it can do anything. Display a sentence translated into Chinese -- and written in Chinese characters -- after I speak a sentence in English into a mobile phone? No problem! I did that just this afternoon, with a Nexus One phone using the Google Translate app, as a stunt for a Chinese friend. ("Big data" underpinnings for this achievement: a huge enough corpus of spoken English phonemes to have an idea of which ones most likely matched the sound waves from my voice; and then a huge enough corpus of matched English/Chinese written material to provide a plausible Chinese version of my thoughts.)

    Real-time traffic report from -- let's say, Beijing, right this minute? No problem, either -- confirming that northbound traffic on the East Third Ring Road, right outside our former home, is as jammed now as always. The emphatic black/red hashed line leading to the Guomao Bridge really brings it all back:

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    Perhaps more surprising, we can see, in real time, that downtown Chengdu is gridlocked too:

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  • Sic Transit Gloria Ballardi

    The house that gave rise to 'Empire of the Sun' survived invasion, civil war, and decades of Chinese Communism. It has finally succumbed to Chinese prosperity.

    Last April, the British writer J.G. Ballard died at age 69 79. By chance, on a trip to Shanghai a few days earlier, I'd seen the house where Ballard had lived as a boy in the 1930s, before the Japanese invasion and the experiences that gave rise to his unforgettable novel Empire of the Sun. I described the visit here, along with photos of how the house looked, 70-plus years after the Ballard family had fled, in its new role as a fancy restaurant. This is the attic where the young Ballard had played with his toys, which had become a private dining room:

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    The house was built in 1925 and through the next 85 years survived the Japanese bombing and invasion;  the Chinese civil war; the years under Mao and the Cultural Revolution; and the redevelopment of Shanghai starting in the 1980s. But, according to this report today in the Shanghaiist, based on this story by Malcolm Moore in the Telegraph, late last year its luck ran out. It is being redone in concrete and will be some kind of luxury club. The owners told Moore they had no idea who'd lived in the building in the 1990s, let alone 75 years ago. Please see the Telegraph site for a very interesting video about the house, plus this detailed account of its and the family's history, as part of a larger discussion here.

    Westerners have to be careful in waxing nostalgic for China's "good old days," especially when this involves artifacts of the colonial era known as the "Hundred Years of Humiliation" in China. But it's objectively true that the early 20th-century architecture and street layout of Shanghai's old "Concession" district make the city distinctive in the world and provide much of its style and very self-aware sense of elegance. Shanghai's skyscraper-laden Pudong district is the occasion for much predictable touristic marveling at the city's rate of growth -- "This was a swamp 25 years ago, and Jeez would you look at it now!" But, like skyscraper concentrations anywhere, Pudong is built on an inhuman scale and is more impressive/imposing than attractive/enjoyable. Shanghai's older west-of-the-river districts, of both Chinese and Western design, are what make the city memorable.*

    My specific point is simply to note the fate of one structure that has a lasting role in world imaginative history. The larger point, for ongoing discussion, is the complicated relationship between a culture very aware of its thousands of years of history, and the ever-changing forces (eons of poverty, a decade of chaos in the Cultural Revolution, the dawning of a new kind of prosperity-driven chaos now) that have made people uninterested in, unsentimental about, or unable to preserve the physical artifacts of that history. I am glad that I saw this house in the "old days" -- a full 11 months ago.
    ___
    * I was going to insert here several more photos of the Shanghai Concession district from last year, but at the moment I can't retrieve them, since our new website system does not yet support the old "categories" function for locating previous posts. Web sites aren't built, or redesigned, in a day.

  • Tai Shan Reveals a New Skill

    If a "bear cat" can learn a tricky dialect of Chinese, why can't you?

    Tai Shan the panda -- so cute and widely beloved during his early years at the Washington National Zoo, now a lumbering near-adult recently dispatched to his ancestral homeland -- has just come out of a one-month quarantine period in China and is prepared to begin his new life. Below, with his new best friend, trainer Wu Daifu:

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    In conformance with stereotypes of superior study-skills of those in Chinese academic institutions, Tai Shan has already mastered one of the trickier dialects of spoken Chinese --  the regional style of Sichuan, in which several tones are reversed from standard Mandarin. That's hard, Tai Shan! The Chinese panda-news bulletin informs us about his other achievements:
    Now, "Taishan" can not only understood Sichuan dialect, but also communicate with the keeper by eye contacts, even can do something like standing, squatting, and sitting down as guided by the keeper....

    The animal keeper begins its feeding with much love. He will train "Taishan" when feeding, guiding him to make different positions in whistles as well as by gestures. Currently, "Taishan" can cooperate very well under the keeper's instructions, and also can be proceeded with the routine physical examination like phlebotomizing and B Ultrasonic scanning.

    "Taishan" has a strong adaptability, gentle personality and good mental state. Its appetite is also great, especially like eating bamboo and wowotou (a kind of steamed corn bread), and conserves a decent style when eating. He's such a courteous gentleman.
    This last observation will make all Americans, the virtual parents of Tai Shan, especially proud. More Chinese accounts of his progress here and here. A amazingly charming two-minute Chinese-language video of Tai Shan's emergence from quarantine is here. It includes an interview with Dr. Tang Chunxiang, whom I wrote about here, saying that everything is going well for Tai Shan on his return to his homeland.

    Tai Shan-like, I too am emerging from quarantine and will attempt to contribute once more to the Atlantic's website.
    ___
    For the record: The Chinese word for giant panda, 熊貓 or xiong mao, means "bear - cat." Thanks to M. Griffith for Tai Shan tips.
  • Two Notes on Infrastructure and Going to Hell

    Thoughts on roads and rails, from inside a Chinese bus and an American train.

    In response to this item, two comments arriving within 30 seconds of each other. To be honest, this sort of thing is the main payoff of having a web site.

    From a reader in China:

    I live in Zhengzhou, Henan Province and when I travel around the city I have the privilege of using the buses.  Today, in the rain, through the steamy window of my jam-packed bus, I saw a women just sit down in the middle of the road and take her shoes off.  My God, do I know how she felt! In true Chinese fashion, the other drivers just drove around her through all the potholes.

    From a reader on a visit to the US:

    Like yourself, this week I am being subjected to  experiencing the "pleasure" of riding Acela from Washington, DC to New York and back.  However, unlike you, I am having a hard time finding anything to be even remotely optimistic about. 

    Let's start with their much touted, free Wifi.  I was in the business section on my journey up to New York and found the Wifi so painfully slow,  I was pining for the days of dial-up.  Trying to load the Atlantic's web page? I gave up after it took nearly 5 minutes for the just the Atlantic masthead to appear on the page (luckily, I had a hard copy with me .  Google news managed to load after about two minutes, but when I clicked on a story from PC World, I was redirected to another page which informed me the site was being blocked because it may contain content deemed offensive to other passengers.  My two theories:  

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  • A Bit of Positive Infrastructure News: Wi-Fi on Amtrak Acela

    Amtrak catches up with BoltBus in enroute amenities.

    Although it may be hard to believe, in the same modern America in which most people appear to be talking on a cellphone or texting/reading/etc on a Blackberry or smart phone on top of whatever else they are ostensibly doing (notably driving), overall "connectivity" really is weak in the U.S. compared with most other places. For reasons examined here.

    Thus it is with grateful surprise that I discover, in real time, that Amtrak is offering free (for now) and pretty fast Wi-Fi service on its East Coast corridor Acela trains, like the one in which I am just passing through Baltimore on the way to New York. Last time I made the DC-NY haul I took the BoltBus, as described here, precisely because of its onboard Wi-Fi. Plus, what a bargain! The Acela is pricey but has prided itself on offering a "civilized" way to go from city to city. This is a nice step -- on the whole. That is, it's a good sign for American infrastructure, and for me slightly more good than bad for peace of mind en route. Nonetheless, I will try to make this the last post I ever file from inside a moving vehicle.

  • At Last! Barack Obama Ascends to Greatness as an Orator

    The President figures out the three words he should not use to end an address.

    No, no, no -- I'm not talking about the case for health-care reform he made in the East Room on Wednesday afternoon, although I thought that was strong and not one minute too soon (more like, six months too late). I mean instead the resounding way he ended the speech, Skip ahead to approximately time 19:20 in this official White House clip to share the joy:

      
    Not to spoil the surprise, but he manages to get off the stage with words other than...  "God Bless America!" (For why this was the right way to go, see here and here.) Know hope.

    And, apart from the ending, the speech is good too.

  • Two Illustrations of Good, Clear-Minded Journalism

    Journalists are often scared into a "sources say" avoidance of saying plainly what they think, or know. Here are two, today, who weren't scared.

    David Leonhardt, in an "Economic Scene" analysis piece in the NYT today, talking about fears that the U.S. unemployment situation might be about to get even worse. One problem is the continued weakness of consumer spending. And then:

    The second problem is that the stimulus program and the Fed's emergency programs are in the early stages of slowing down.

    These programs have done tremendous good, as I've written before. The bubbles in housing and stocks over the last decade were far larger than an average bubble, and yet the resulting bust is on pace to be shorter and less severe than the typical one in the wake of a financial crisis. That's not an accident. It's a result of an incredibly aggressive response by the Fed, Congress, the Bush administration and the Obama administration.

    Why do I mention this at all? Because he didn't let the current landscape of partisan argument scare him into a "sources say" approach. The most ill-informed part of the GOP/Fox criticism of stimulus spending is that unemployment is still bad, so the programs must not have done any good. It's almost embarrassing to have to point out the reply, which is: unemployment would be even worse without the intervention. (So the stronger argument would be: the stimulus should have been larger all along.) The real point is, Leonhardt wasn't cowed into saying, "sources say the programs have done tremendous good." He could just say what the facts were. Plus, he gracefully points out that both the Bush and Obama administrations were pulling the plow.

    Also, just now on NPR's All Things Considered, Michele Norris's interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander about what happens next with the health-care reform bill. (Link here; audio will be there later this evening.) Alexander was manfully making the same points he did at last week's Health Summit -- the Republican "ideas" that had been added to the plan were "rear view mirrors on a car going the wrong way," passing the bill on a majority-vote reconciliation would be a historic offense against Constitutional balance etc. In each case, Norris in a polite but no-nonsense way asked him the "Yes, but what about???" questions. Didn't GW Bush get his big measures through by reconciliation? Why was it good then and bad now?

    The impressive aspect, which should be standard in big-time interviews but obviously isn't, was the refusal to take a first-level talking point as the end of a discussion, and instead raising the counter-evidence. Significantly, this was not just "gotcha" counter-evidence familiar from many talk shows, the effort to smoke out some minor changes of position over time, but rather the probing of deeper holes in an argument. And, before you ask, of course politicians from every part of the spectrum should be subjected to such "Yes, but what about?" questions. This just happens to be what I heard today.

  • Going to Hell #8: Maybe It's Later Than We Think?

    A researcher responds to "America going to hell?" and says ... maybe we are.

    Last month I had a series of responses (latest one here; links to all the rest when our previous "category" feature is restored) on the question of whether America was really going to hell -- and if so, what might be done about it. Original "going to hell" article here.

    The previous entries, plus many more still in the queue, were mainly about alternative prescriptions -- ways to deal with the filibuster, the role of money in politics, the calcification of the Senate, and so on. The one I'm about to quote concerns my diagnosis: that the United States remained strong in its resilient and creative powers, and is troubled mainly by an obsolete governing system.

    Below and after the jump, a long dispatch from a reader who is a university-based research scientist and department chair, questioning whether America's two, related commanding-heights advantages -- its dominant research-university system, and its role as magnet for high-end talent from around the world -- are as durable as I suggested:

    I enjoyed reading your article on the historic American sense of fear of decline and rejuvenation. However, I wanted to comment on your discussion with regards US science in comparison with rapidly developing countries like China.
    First, a bit of background about myself. I am a plant molecular biologist involved in crop biotechnology and grew up in the US from Canadian parents who later moved back to Canada. I worked in the past for two of the largest agricultural biotechnology companies in the US... and currently have a large research collaboration with XXX. Further, people who I have trained or worked with are in the research organizations of all of the large agricultural biotechnology companies. Finally, over the last few years we have set up research collaborations with many researchers in China including developing a large collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and my Canadian university, XXX. s such, I have travelled to China 3 times in the last 2 years and hosted many researchers from there. That is enough about me.

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Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

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