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.
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.
In response to my long article in the January "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, on whether America was finally, now, really going straight to hell, I received more mail than in have in a very long time. More than I've been able to answer; much more than I've been able to take note of on this site; and way more than we'll eventually be able to use in the print-magazine "Letters" section.
So I'm kicking off a "Going to Hell" series of interesting correspondence -- some with ideas about how to deal with structural problems in American governance, some with signs of hope -- or doom -- that my article missed, some with support for or challenges to the views I set out.
"Going to hell" policy: This is a supplement to rather than a replacement for the "real" letters section in the magazine. In most cases, I'll just quote the message, saving replies for the magazine's letters section -- except, of course, when I decide otherwise. If someone writes directly to me, using the "Email JF" button to the right, and says "You may use my name," I'll use the name. The same is true for letters that went originally to the magazine's Letters section, which requires real names and addresses. Otherwise I will not use names.
To start us off, a message from Joseph Bracewell, a contemporary and long-time friend, who was raised in Texas in a political family. He writes:
"My father was a politician (State
Senator) for 10 years when I was a kid, then a lawyer/lobbyist the rest
of his career. The State Legislature in Texas used to meet for 120 days
(January-April) every other year. My Dad said his principal regret in
politics was voting to air condition the State Capitol (thereby enabling
the Legislature to meet longer and/or more often and accomplish more
mischief). The point I take from this is that small changes could make a
difference, and that there ought to be an action plan somewhere between a
constitutional convention and "muddling through."
"With that in mind, here are a few random ideas that could be on the
"1. I think some kind of national service requirement makes sense. Maybe
some private non-profit work could be made to count also. I had a job
summer working for Coca-Cola, and now I never order Pepsi.
Background here and here. After showing the "used yoga mats for Haiti" sign for intrinsic comedy value and as a vignette of la vie San Franciscienne*, I quoted the person behind the campaign as to its benign intent. For the record, here is an opposite perspective, from reader Sharon Shewmake of UC Davis:
"I thought it was a particularity stupid way to donate, especially after everyone pointed out that shoes-for-Haiti is wasteful and stupid....
"I think that one of the reason people like to give things instead of money to charity is because they feel a connection, and the more specific the item the more of a connection. It's nice to think that someone in Haiti will enjoy my old yoga mat, but if it's not what they need then it's an irresponsible gift. Keep your old yoga mat (why do people have old yoga mats anyway?) and donate the $50 you would have spent on a new one to the Red Cross. I think the sign about donating the yoga mats is really arrogant. I appreciate they are trying to help, but it's a stupid and arrogant way to do so."
The sides having been heard, I declare the debate closed, or moved to other venues (like this yoga-related site). For the record, my wife and I have given cash donations but not goods after this disaster and others of its type (the Sichuan earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, etc). To all I say, Namaste, and on to other subjects. ____ *I am inventing this translation. If it's wrong, excusez-moi!
Thanks to the impressive science behind this story:
The whole story is worth reading, but this is my favorite part:
"Hops were the stars of the beer ingredients, showing as much as four times more silicon than was found in malt. The downside: Hops make up a much smaller portion of beer compared with grain. Some beers, such as IPAs are hoppier, while wheat beers tend to have fewer hops than other brews, the researchers say."
Now I have science on my side when I look for those well-hopped ales! Thanks to TAJF for this lead, and thanks to Fox for being "fair and balanced" where it matters.
In response to a large volume of wounded, testy, quizzical, or simply hurt responses to this post yesterday, showing a sign I saw on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighborhood, a few extra words:
1) Am I making fun of yoga? No indeed. Although this is not a featured part of my public identity -- compared with the beer-lover part, the aviator part, the interested-in-China part, and so on -- I enjoy and value yoga and particularly respect good teachers. I am not very adept at it so appreciate their patience all the more.
2) Am I making fun of this particular enterprise, The Pad? No. As I have heard from many sources today, it has a very good reputation. If I lived in the neighborhood, and if I could register under a fake name, I would sign up.
3) Am I making fun of the idea of helping disaster victims in whatever way is possible? No. Several people wrote to say that mats could be a comfort to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets in Haiti.
4) But, come on, some things are just funny.
Update. Here is a note I have received from Leila Burrows, of The Pad Studios, whose sign was in the picture. I quote it with her permission. I mean her and her team no disrespect and -- stipulating point #4, above -- regret any hurt feelings I may have caused.
"I do not follow your feed, however, we have received some rather
irritated email communication since you posted a photo of our A-frame,
sandwich board, inviting people to donate their old or used yoga mats to
be sent to Haiti and used in the overly crowded hospital beds. I'm only
sorry the intention of this drive was unclear to you. Actually, our
drive was a part of a bigger organized effort spear headed by the
founder of JADE yoga mat, during the weekend of the annual San Francisco
Yoga Journal Conference. JADE asked studio owners, teachers, students
alike to give up their old or used mats so that the thousands of
suffering people in Haiti may have somewhere softer the ground to
"You may also know that my business
partner and I run donation events on monthly basis to contribute 100% of
the program earnings to people in need. Most recently we raised $3200
to fund the education of 15 students in Ahmedabad City, India.
we all contribute in one way or another to help ease the tremendous
suffering that continues in Haiti."
About the mid-air collision near Boulder, Colorado, it now appears that the two planes involved -- a Cirrus SR-20, and a Piper Pawnee that was towing a glider -- actually ran into each other. Early reports suggested that the Cirrus had hit the line connecting the Pawnee to the glider. In either case, the Cirrus apparently lost most of one wing. More on this later today.
About the exemplary Buffalo News coverage of the Colgan regional airline crash in Buffalo, I had written: "I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce." A reader who is familiar with the Buffalo News and some better-known regional papers writes:
"The Buffalo News is one of the few newspapers of any size not owned by a chain. It's owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has been profitable, and remains at least relatively profitable (caveat, Warren Buffet has stated recently that newspaper ownership may not be rational). It's a very decent newspaper, with a much better than average web site, at this point, far outshining the N&O [Raleigh News & Observer], something I would have been shocked to even think a decade ago...
"One clear factor or interest; while the N&O has been mightily affected by the general downturn in the fortunes of newspapers, by far the greater impact in recent years flowed directly from the stupendous debt resulting from the McClatchy / Knight - Ridder merger. Both the N&O (former McClatchy) and the Charlotte Observer (former KR)... have been profitable, albeit much less so than in past years, during the huge shrinkage of staff, news hole and number of pages. The dramatic layoffs have resulted from cost cutting which were, in turn, driven by the overwhelming debt (something like 4 billion, of which lots remains) paid for a property now worth ... well, you couldn't get even one billion for the whole thing now, needless to say. The other driver was and is the giant bleeding represented by a few major properties (the Miami Herald, for example); most of the cuts at the N&O and Observer were apparently made to throw money down those deep, deep holes. While ad revenue shrinkage is certainly a factor at these papers, free of the debt represented by the buyout (and, in the case of McClatchy, free of the Herald, which came over in the KR deal), there would have been a decade in which to deal with 'what's to become of the paper?' Instead, there's this mess. The N&O still has its moments, but they are few and far between."
While on the road since Tuesday night have missed the blizzard and other events in DC -- my wife is also on the road, so I can't watch her do the shoveling unlike last time -- but have also missed time near a computer for intended updates on politics, US-China friction, and other topics. Herewith a catchup process begins with two sad items, concerning a small-plane collision today and the aftermath of a airline crash a year ago.
The small plane crash occurred this afternoon, just north of the Boulder, Colorado airport, when a Cirrus SR-20* SR-22 apparently hit the rope or wire connecting a powered airplane to the glider it was pulling up to its gliding altitude. The glider was apparently far enough away from the impact that it could free itself from the tow line and glide safely to a landing. The tow plane crashed to the ground and those aboard were killed. The Cirrus did not crash, but its occupants nonetheless died. A local video captured the Cirrus descending underneath the parachute that is a trademark part of Cirrus' safety system. Over the past decade, many people have been saved by this "ballistic recovery" parachute system that allows the whole airplane to float down to a survivable landing. In this case, the cockpit appears to be on fire as the plane comes down, so that the parachute cannot help the people inside. (This video is four minutes long, but the aviation part of the footage is the same several seconds repeated over and over.)
Initial surmises about plane crashes are often misleading. Still, here is what seems to be known at this point: Hitting a taut rope or wire at nearly 200 mph could be enough to rip a wing from a plane, as appears to have happened to the Cirrus under the parachute. The wings are where the plane's gas is stored, so damage there could account for a fire. I have flown a Cirrus airplane several times from and around this airport and know that in good weather (especially on weekends) it is a busy center for glider activity. Operating near glider airports is tricky, because you have to watch for both the tow plane and the glider some distance behind it. Many modern small airplanes have traffic-detecting anti-collision warning systems, but they probably wouldn't register the thin line connecting the glider and its tow plane. Condolences to all affected by this tragedy.
[*UPDATE: A later photo showing the tail of the plane that crashed makes clear that it was a Cirrus SR-20 rather than a SR-22 airplane. The planes look practically identical, but the SR-22 is a faster, more powerful, and in other ways more advanced model. The photo, here, is gruesome but clearly shows the airplane's model number.]
A year ago, 50 people were killed when a Colgan regional flight crashed as it prepared for a landing in bad weather near Buffalo, NY. This week the National Transportation Safety Board released its report about the crash. Consistent with much previous discussion of the case (eg here and here), the NTSB found that the flight crew's basic errors of judgment and airmanship led to the crash. More striking was its warning about air crew standards more generally, and the reliance of big-name national carriers on worse-funded regional lines like Colgan:
"This accident was one in a series of incidents investigated by the Board in recent years - including a mid-air collision over the Hudson River that raised questions of air traffic control vigilance, and the Northwest Airlines incident last year where the airliner overflew its destination airport in Minneapolis because the pilots were distracted by non-flying activities - that have involved air transportation professionals deviating from expected levels of performance. In addition, this Fall the Board will hold a public forum on code sharing, the practice of airlines marketing their services to the public while using other companies to actually perform the transportation. For example, this accident occurred on a Continental Connection flight, although the transportation was provided by Colgan Air."
For the record, Colgan's reply is here. Consistent with my previous mention of impressive works of reportage that deserve more attention than they might have received, the reporters and writers of the Buffalo News have done an outstanding job of investigation, analysis, and explanation about this tragic occurrence. For instance, this story about the training errors that might have led to the crash and this large collection of reports. I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce.
This is further on the question of what Barack Obama and the Democrats
can do about an opposition that is disciplined
to vote No on all major issues, and that thwarts "bipartisan
compromise" because there is no plausible item that could be added to a
stimulus or health reform bill that will swing one of those votes to
Yes. A reader writes:
"I have been waiting for someone somewhere
to relate the current Congressional impasse to the 'Turnip Day' special
session that Truman called in his acceptance speech at the 1948
Democratic Convention. Some Republicans believed they should complete
some unobjectionable legislation in the session, but Leader Robert Taft
was adamant that they would yield nothing to 'that son of a bitch the
President'. Taft succeeded in making the session an utter failure, but
Truman succeeded in demonstrating that the Republicans were
obstructionist and he won the campaign meme of the 'Do-Nothing
Congress'."This experience of the American electorate punishing rabid
partisanship seems too poignant to disappear into history, don't you
Agree! The official US Senate history of Turnip Day is here; the text of Truman's Democratic Convention speech is here, courtesy of the Miller Center's excellent presidential archives. As the Senate history says about the moment:
"At 1:45 in the morning, speaking only from an
outline, Truman quickly electrified the soggy delegates. In announcing
the special session, he challenged the Republican majority to live up to
the pledges of their own recently concluded convention to pass laws to
ensure civil rights, extend Social Security coverage, and establish a
national health-care program. "They can do this job in 15 days, if they
want to do it." he challenged. That two-week session would begin on
"what we in Missouri call 'Turnip Day,'" taken from the old Missouri
saying, "On the twenty-fifth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry."
"Republican senators reacted scornfully. To
Michigan's Arthur Vandenberg, it sounded like "a last hysterical gasp of
an expiring administration." Yet, Vandenberg and other senior Senate
Republicans urged action on a few measures to solidify certain vital
voting blocs. "No!" exclaimed Republican Policy Committee chairman
Robert Taft of Ohio. "We're not going to give that fellow anything."
Charging Truman with abuse of a presidential prerogative, Taft blocked
all legislative action during the futile session. By doing this, Taft
amplified Truman's case against the "Do-nothing Eightieth Congress" and
contributed to his astounding November come-from-behind victory."
Yes, the subject line is a lame reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the creepy-voiced computer, HAL 9000, hears that Keir Dullea / "Dave" is planning to turn it off -- and takes aggressive action. Below, Keir D fending off HAL:
I think my version of HAL - that is, Outlook -- overheard me saying that I was planning to move messages out of it and into the cloud, via Gmail. Apparently it is taking matters into its own hands! Over the past 24 hours, I get this error message when trying to get into my main current-correspondence Outlook file (click for larger):
Or, for elegant variation (click for larger):
And this one when I run Outlook's previously-reliable SCANPST.EXE program to repair .PST files.
This is what we call in tech-land a "reproducible error." Same result after reboots, resets, you have it. Entirely inaccessible .PST file. Large-scale data loss! Many hundreds of messages marked "to follow up" or "to answer"! Another reason to move the rest of the data into the cloud, before something screws it up.
Gee, Outlook, was it something I said? Despite my irritation, I find it somehow touching that Outlook is fighting to maintain its "relevance," playing the part of HAL in these lines:
Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
What's the problem?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
What are you talking about, HAL?
This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid
that's something I cannot allow to happen."
On the bright side, now I have an excuse: if I haven't answered your email, "it was in that corrupted file..." And in a hard-bitten way I can't help admiring Outlook's refusal to go quietly.
That's President of the United States on Filibuster of the United States Senate.
"So the problem here
you've got is
an institution that increasingly is not adapted to the demands of a
competitive 21st century economy. [Good point! JF] I think the Senate in particular, the
challenge that I gave to Republicans and I will continue to issue to
Republicans is if you want to govern then you can't just say no. It
just be about scoring points. There are multiple examples during the
course of this year in which that's been the case.
"Look, I mentioned the filibuster
record. We've had scores of pieces of legislation in which there was a
filibuster, cloture had to be invoked, and then ended up passing 90 to
80 to 15. And what that indicates is a degree to which we're just
to gum up the works instead of getting business done.
"That is an
problem. In the Senate, the filibuster only works if there is a genuine
spirit of compromise and trying to solve problems, as opposed to just
the place down. If it's just shutting the place down, then it's not
At another point, addressing the Democratic senators and congratulating them on the work they had done:
"You did all this despite facing enormous procedural obstacles that are
unprecedented. You may have looked at these statistics. You had to
cast more votes to break filibusters last year than in the entire 1950s
and '60s combined. That's 20 years of obstruction packed into just
one. But you didn't let it stop you."
Good to see some direct attention to this issue from the top. Consistent with the "shame strategy" analysis put forward by the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder here.
From Barack Obama's comments this morning at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee conference in Washington. Emphasis added:
Yesterday I quoted someone who has worked in and observed national politics for many years, about why this era's partisan impasse really is different from what we've known in other eras -- and worse. In short, his point was that today's GOP minority was acting like a parliamentary opposition -- voting absolutely as a bloc, under the threat of party discipline -- in our non-parliamentary system, which made it very hard to get anything done.
He is back with another installment, after surveying the range of internet response to his views:
"I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in
effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'
"That's the reason to keep including (as your blog
did) the word "major" in front of "legislation."
In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one
required lock-step voting - only major votes. Hence the notion of
the "three line whip" notice in the House of Commons - defy that,
and you're dead. But absent the three lines drawn on the whip
notice, an MP can vote the way he or she prefers. Or at least that was
the way it used to work. Probably it is all done by Blackberry messages
"What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip
major legislation. The Recovery Act passed the House without a single
vote - not even one! That could not happen without party discipline
coming from the party, not spontaneously from each House member of the
party. It is true that there are lots of other bills that Republicans
vote for if they wish. True, but irrelevant. If any of the bills
really matters to Obama in a big way, the contemporary GOP version of
whip notice comes into play.
"(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get
the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose? Find
answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try
blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes. Someone
somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means,
oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples
"A closely related development fascinates and
partly re the GOP and partly re the press. In the Senate, the GOP votes
against cloture. But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes,
lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage.
up with THAT?" I've asked several times. In the past, if you
opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not
always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the
only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed
it! The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic
staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot
Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they
believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill
it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on
passage is not? Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which
can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the
the Senate Democrats."
I got this note from someone with many decades' experience in national politics, about a discussion between two Congressmen over details of the stimulus bill:
"GOP member: 'I'd like
this in the bill.'
"Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'
"GOP member: 'You know I can't vote for the bill.'
"Dem member: 'Then why should we put it in the bill?'
"I witnessed this myself."
I wrote back saying, "Great story!" and got the response I quote below and after the jump. It is worth reading because its argument has the valuable quality of being obvious -- once it is pointed out. The emphasis is mine rather than in the original; it is to highlight a basic structural reality that has escaped most recent analysis of the "bipartisanship" challenge.
"BTW, that exchange I quoted is not really a great story. It is a basic
story, fundamental to legislation -- a sort of 'duh!' moment -- and to
the US Congressional system, and to the key difference between our
system and a parliamentary system when it comes to bipartisanship. I'm
astonished every pundit doesn't already get it, but many either don't or
seem willfully to ignore it.
"In our system, if the minority
party can create and enforce party discipline (which has never really
been done before, but which the GOP has now accomplished), then OF
COURSE there can be no 'bipartisanship' on major legislative matters, in
the sense of (1) the minority adding provisions to legislation as the
majority compromises with them, and (2) at least some minority party
members then voting with the majority.
On the "you gotta draw the line somewhere" principle, I have not yet gone so far as actually to send out a Tweet. But about a year ago I reserved my own name on Twitter. Here is a concise reminder of why that can be a prudent step:
The dispute over the latest round of US arms sales to Taiwan is potentially quite serious, in its implications for China-US relations and for China's current trends and tendencies. As mentioned earlier, I think all omens suggest a rough period ahead in China/US and China/rest-of-world interactions -- even though, as I've written a million times, I think Chinese and US interests can be more compatible than contradictory in the longer run. More on the arms sales issue in the morning, plus a long-promised followup on what actually happened between the US and China in Copenhagen.