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.
  • American bounty

    About a year ago, on a trip to Hong Kong, I saw a single bottle of Sierra Nevada beer that somehow had made it to a grocery store shelf. After I bought it I wrapped it up in a scarf, then later tucked it inside a shoe in my suitcase and brought it all the way back to our apartment in Beijing to save for a special moment. That was my policy on the few times I improbably saw a Sam Adams or Rogue Dead Guy beer in a mainland Chinese store. All of this was defense against the bleakness of the local offerings.

    Last week, at a grocery store in the SF Bay area, this is what I saw (click for larger and more lovingly detailed, from this Nexus One camera phone shot). It's disorienting.

    Thumbnail image for 2010-02-09 15.58.32.jpg


    We may be headed down, but it's a cushioned descent. More on the Rogue Dead Guy saga in China shortly; also, on the Nexus One's camera and other features.  And yes, yes, I realize that a Chinese aficionado of, say, wild mushrooms or Sichuan spices might have the converse reaction if going back to a Chinese traditional market from the bleakness of sanitized American stores.
  • Going to hell #5

    Whole series here; original article here. Reader Malcolm McPhee of Washington state writes to suggest a single Constitutional amendment to solve several problems at once:

    "I agree with you that our old, broken and dysfunctional governing system is an alarming problem. I want to suggest another possibility for reform that requires neither a constitutional convention nor a coup. I also want to suggest that there is a better way than continuing to work within our system's flaws and limits to secure our nation's future.

    "I maintain that a single constitutional amendment that cuts to the core of American government's dysfunction would work vastly better than a coup, a constitutional convention or continuing to muddle through within the present system.

    "That constitutional amendment would deal with election, election finance and the use of money in the public sphere. Obviously, actual wording warrants considerable thought and effort. However, I can suggest some example content:

    "1. Prohibit the contribution of anything of value to candidates for federal office or to federal officials.
    "2. Establish federal government funding and procedures for federal elections.
    "3. Provide for direct election of the president.
    "4. Prohibit the use of super majorities in any public election and in the rules of legislative bodies except in amending the US or state and local constitutions/charters.
    "5. Other
    "This amendment would be designed to return the right of government "by the people" to America and to reduce the influence of money in American elections and governance.
    This recommendation rests on several arguments: 1. That this amendment does cut to the core of the American government's dysfunction 2. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, is still worth dying for and preserving. 3. That money has corrupted our system so gradually, so insidiously and so thoroughly that we do not even recognize it as a serious problem per se and often view it as a given.

    More »

  • Klitgaard, "Tropical Gangsters," and Haitian redevelopment

    Robert Klitgaard, until last year the president of the Claremont Graduate University, has devoted much of his academic career to the study of governmental corruption. I loved his book Tropical Gangsters, about his efforts as a World Bank economist to work with the government of Equitorial Guinea, at the time often referred to as the worst government in the world.

    He has recently written a paper about how the catastrophe in Haiti might be the stimulus for a fundamental reform in governing practices there. It is available as a PDF at this site; direct link to PDF here. "It is of no use," the paper says -- "at least not until we do the analysis" -- to assume "that Haiti's legacy of failure makes Haiti a hopeless case." Instead:

    "We should instead ask how the design and implementation of Haiti's reconstruction and development strategy might address [what academics have called] 'the sanctioned plunder that was and remains the core of Haitian politics.' This is the goal of this paper."

    Worth reading.

  • Buzzard Strike (updated)

    This is the most bizarre aviation video I have seen in a long time. It was shot in Miami just before the Superbowl, and it shows the results of a bird strike in a helicopter.

    Bird strikes are unpleasant for all involved, starting with the bird. Small-seeming birds can do an amazingly large amount of damage to an aircraft (cf: "Miracle on the Hudson"). This involves a big bird, and the results are much different from normal for all involved.



    Thanks to John Tierney of Sense & Nonsense for this tip; original source was here. The video has the virtue of being both creepy and semi-miraculous.

    UPDATE: Thanks to reader J. Stein, I now know that the headline for this item should actually be "turkey vulture strike." Details below. Live and learn!

    "In the interests of communicating clearly with your international readership-- this is a Turkey Vulture, not a Buzzard.  Buzzard is the name of a large class of buteo hawks on the other side of the Atlantic (same family as our North American Red-Tailed Hawks).

    http://www.naturalbornbirder.com/gallery/Common_buzzard_8664_e.jpg

    http://www.dvoc.org/Conservation/Corner2007/Images/Turkey-Vulture-BINNS-IMG_96.jpg

    "Presumably in the pre-binocular days, European settlers saw these large soaring creatures in the sky and thought they were actually buzzards, and the colloquial name stuck even after the mistake became clear."
  • Going to hell #2A

    Last week, as #2 in the "Is America going to hell?" series, reader Joseph Britt offered an action plan that included "centralizing space and science functions in a new department." Reader Steve Corneliussen, who emphasizes that he is speaking for himself rather than for the federal Jefferson Lab where he works, begs to differ:

    "As you likely know already, that's an old, much-discussed idea. I'm with those who say it'd be terrible because it would cut off the avenues by which novel ideas and techno-audacity can circumvent bureaucratic stodginess.

    "My favorite example of such circumvention:

    "One of my wordsmith jobs in science is at Jefferson Lab, the national particle accelerator laboratory where you kindly visited and spoke one day in the summer of 2001. The scientists here were the first to apply a form of superconducting accelerating technology on a large scale. The success of their particle accelerator made obvious an enormously attractive opportunity: you could take that same new superconducting technology and make it serve not only particle physics, but photon science and technology -- that is, the use of light having special characteristics. You could make the world's first high-average-power, wavelength-tunable free-electron laser, or FEL. That tunability matters because Mother Nature can be very picky about which precise colors of light can do which tasks.

    "But Jefferson Lab is a Department of Energy facility, and back in the early 90s, DOE didn't have or even imagine FELs as part of its mission. What to do? Well, enterprising scientists found other ways to proceed within the federal research establishment. Jefferson Lab's FEL became a noted success, one thing led to another, and now there are prospects for further such progress within DOE.

    "The anecdote leads to this obvious question: How could I be telling this story if there had been only one monolithic science agency back in the early 90s?"
  • About NPR, public radio, and the ecology of news

    Several days ago I mentioned that I had recently been on two public-radio talk shows, "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia and "RadioWest" on KUER in Salt Lake City. At the end of the item I mentioned that it was worth reflecting on "how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR." A reader who works in public radio but not for NPR writes to say:

    "I think it is worth mentioning that both of these programs aren't on NPR but rather member stations. I know it may seem like a fine distinction, but by lumping together all public stations that carry NPR content and calling them NPR, you're essentially blurring the lines between the autonomous stations and the largest of the many content providers. This may seem harmless, but as someone who is in favor of diversity of programming in public radio, I am concerned that NPR's strong armed branding efforts  and lack of general (public / consumer) knowledge about how public radio content is distributed are making it harder for independent content providers to make it work.

    "At [a DC-based public radio operation], I've observed how this economic depression has forced local stations to reevaluate how they spend their dollars. Often, the stations opt to spend their money on flashy national programming (Car Talk, Morning Edition, etc)  and end up cutting back on local programming--whether it be in newsroom or on local shows, like the ones you appeared on.

    "I agree that the American media landscape would be vastly different and worse if there were no local stations or NPR. My concern is that as NPR grows into a full-fledged multimedia corporation, they won't leave much room regional and independent perspectives. This would be a huge loss, because it is the content and narrative differences between stations that make public radio in America great."

    So I guess to refine the point: it's worth imagining how different the news ecology would be without public radio in all its forms, including NPR. My wife and I give money to the local public radio stations in the various places we've lived, since they provide so much information, context, and culture we wouldn't get otherwise.
    ___
    For the record: I enjoy appearing on public radio talk shows nearly anytime I can, and I have been doing regular news-analysis for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered since coming back from China.

  • Gala PST->Gmail results

    Several weeks I put out a request for tech help, which led to this successful result. In return I promised the most cherished gift of all -- an actual print subscription to the Atlantic -- for those who provided the winning info. Eight people did so more or less at the same time. In gratitude and true to my word, I've entered eight gift subs. For the record, thanks to Kai Zhao, Arthur Feldman, Mike Rogers, Dave Diamond, Vinod Ponnusamy, Tony Haenn, Thorvald Aagaard, and Walter Smith.

  • Going to hell #4

    Whole series here; original article here. A reader writes:

    "The filibuster is not the problem, it is the Senate, itself. Its function throughout the history of the republic has been suspect. The Senate was created only because small states were afraid the populations of the large states would overwhelm the small. That difference never really materialized. Oh, there have been many disputes that pit large against small states, but none of these disputes were large enough to warrant creating an upper legislative house to lord over the republic. Had the states at the time of the writing of the Constitution been roughly equal in population, we may never have been saddled with a Senate. Our Senate was not based on the House of Lords; that body is based on class and heredity. Heredity never played a part in the Senate (Lodges, Gores and Kennedys were more about name recognition) and class was never as strong here as in Britain (ok, theoretically never as strong). Our upper house became something else entirely: the main arena for pro-slavery interests then for segregationists.

    "Pro-slave interests fought for the creation of new slave states from the territories in the decades preceding the Civil War. They needed parity in the Senate to block anti-slave legislation. Then, after the Civil War, the Senate filibuster rule was the main legislative obstacle to ending segregation and passing civil rights laws and other anti-progressive legislation, as well. Filibustering civil rights lasted into LBJ's presidency (and beyond?). The Senate has been a lot of things in  its over two centuries of existence, but this racial stain is its main claim to fame, until now.

    "Senators are by neither birth nor education more capable of legislating than House members. Their contributions to the legislative process are not on some higher level than the House (note Sen. Susan Collins' ideas about the Constitution). The House once had the filibuster, and if it were the only legislative body, it might bring it back, but maintaining party discipline over a larger group would be more difficult than in a 50 member Senate. It is habit and magical thinking that keeps us clinging to the idea of two legislative bodies.  Of course I know we will not eliminate the Senate. But it is not unfair to describe it as a legislative body that has outlived its original function and that holds sway over the republic with a rule it keeps alive to throttle itself."
  • 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.

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