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.
  • Back to China and Copenhagen: what actually happened?

    Two weeks ago, just after the Copenhagen talks wrapped up, I mentioned the very provocative article in the Guardian contending that Chinese officials had intentionally and alarmingly torpedoed the prospects of a deal, which included going out of their way to thwart Barack Obama's last-minute personal intervention. (Original post here; follow up here.)

    Sorting through the contending accounts to understand what exactly the Chinese delegation did, why they did it, and what it means matters quite a lot. It will reveal things about the Chinese government's mood and intentions in its current phase of economic success. (Has it become triumphalist? Has an overbearing stage begun? Or was this the result of mis-reading the circumstances and overplaying its hand?) It will reveal things about the future prospects for dealing with climate issues. It will have implication for the next steps in US-China and world-China relations more broadly.

    A lot of material has turned up over the past two weeks; today and over the weekend, I'll point out some of the leads, evidence, and interpretations that seem most interesting. To kick it off, here is an account published two weeks ago, soon after the conference, by Ken Lieberthal of Brookings, that does a very deft job of sketching out the evidence pro and con -- and indicating why there is so much curiosity about the way the Chinese team behaved. As he says: 

    "Chinese diplomacy at this meeting overall was somewhat puzzling. Second-level Chinese officials showed up at critical meetings of heads of state on Friday afternoon - the kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ. The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's [premier Wen Jiabao] delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama - suggests that Wen had lost control over his own negotiating team (Wen told the translator not to translate this official's initial outburst and then simply ignored him the second time he raised his voice). Was Wen going beyond the limits of his negotiating authority? Were members of his negotiating team protecting their personal flanks back in Beijing? Whatever the explanation, this initial Chinese foray into the middle of a global conference with extremely high stakes highlighted that Beijing still has some work to do as it assumes more central roles in global negotiations on financial, nuclear and other issues."

    Lieberthal concludes on a tone I'll paraphrase as "it wasn't bad news overall, considering how bad it could have been." He applies that both to the future of climate negotiations and the prospects for US-China relations. Eg, "The Copenhagen 'failure' may in fact have put the world on a more effective, practical approach to addressing the core issue of constraining future greenhouse gas emissions."

    More to come through the next day or two. This is a good place to start.

  • More on Our Declining Infrastructure

    In my current cover story in the magazine, I quote an observation about the genealogy of America's physical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water and sewer systems:

    "Stephen Flynn points out that the physical infrastructure of big East Coast cities was mainly built by the 1880s; of the industrial Midwest by World War I; and of the West Coast by 1960. "It was advertised to last 50 years, and overengineered so it might last 100," he said. "Now it's running down. When a pothole swallows an SUV, it's treated as freak news, but it shows a water system that's literally collapsing beneath us." (Surface cave-ins often reflect a sewer or water line that has leaked or collapsed below.)"

    From reader R.B., in Canada, this very nice WatermainBreak clock, which shows how widespread the problem actually is. Also, a YouTube video, here and below, of what happened in Baltimore last month when the water lines gave way: 



    Unbeknownst to me, my longtime friend and even longer-time China hand Orville Schell has been writing an article on the parts of America that are falling behind the rest of the world. It appears today in the LA Times. Let's get this country fixed up!

  • The glamorous life of a journalist (continuing series)

    On a TV show this morning to discuss my cover story in the current issue, about how America looks -- for better and worse -- when you've been looking at it from afar. The host very graciously introduces me, and says, "Our next guest moved away to Canada for several years and is writing about how it feels to be back in America."

    Thumbnail image for 201001_toc.jpg

    Hmmm! Co-host graciously does a segue, "Actually, that was China, and... "  But it got me thinking; Imagine how I could have cut down on back-and-forth travel costs if I had done the "Let me tell you how America looks from a foreign perspective" schtick this whole time from, say, Vancouver, or perhaps PEI, rather than Chengdu or Ya'an! And how much better the beer (and air quality) would have been....

    Not to suggest that I am anything other than fully grateful for any broadcast opportunity to spread the Atlantic's gospel. And, by the way, I hope you find the article interesting.



  • The Google Nexus One: an initial report (updated)

    I've used this thing for about ten days now.* Like the (many) other people whom Google let see the phones in advance, I was sworn to secrecy until the formal launch yesterday. I'll leave for another time some of the "meta" issues about what it means that Google is getting into the hardware business, or that mobile-phone customers will at last have a choice about buying a phone, separate from the choice about which carrier to sign up with,

    NexusOne.png

    or the full implications of the Google Voice service, which seems quite significant but which I'm just starting to use. There's a good set of overview links from the Atlantic Wire here and the Atlantic Business Channel here and here, with extra from the WSJ here and the NYT here. The main Google site about the phone is here

    Instead, here are a few user reactions. In one way -- really, one and a half -- I am ideally positioned to react favorably to the phone. The main way is that I'm already a T-Mobile customer. (Great coverage and data service if you spend a lot of time outside the U.S.  In America, T-Mobile coverage seems only so-so.) While the Nexus One isn't tied to any carrier, the initial price is much cheaper for T-Mobile customers. All I did was pull the SIM card out of the back of my T-Mobile Blackberry Curve, on which I've sent and received email all around the world, and snap it into the Nexus One. (Query: why isn't this just called the Google Phone?)

    The half-factor in my favor is that I've never used the Apple iPhone, so I found some of the Nexus visual features more gee-whiz than iPhone veterans might. The half-factor working the other way involves the reason I haven't used an iPhone: for me the BlackBerry's keypad is easier to punch out messages on, compared with the iPhone's on-screen touchpad. The Nexus also has an on-screen touchpad, which is the main thing about the phone I don't like.

    Apart from that, here are the mainly positive initial impressions:

     - The thing is very handsome, to look at and to hold. The screen is much more attractive, high-rez, and deeply colored than the (real-size) image above conveys. As some other reviewers have mentioned, the animated screen-savers are surprisingly interesting to see.

    -  It is very well integrated with Gmail -- go figure! -- and makes cruising through those messages much faster than it is on a Blackberry.

    - It seems fast, compared with my BlackBerry (which is, of course, working off the same carrier) -- able to load applications and switch from one to another with a kind of peppiness. As a tech-specs matter I understand that its processor is faster than the iPhone's, but I can't speak about the difference first-hand. I also understand that it's "multi-threaded" in a way computers are and most mobile devices aren't, so it can run processes in the background and let you have a couple of things going on at once. This does seem true compared with my BlackBerry.

    - It also is well integrated with Google Maps -- go figure! -- and must have a GPS receiver, since the on-screen real-time map was showing my precise location while driving down streets on places outside the US, where I've been recently. My BlackBerry's on-screen map only gives approximations, based on cell-tower location.

    - Its "voice search" feature has the potential to make me a believer in something about which I've always been extremely skeptical. Among the many kinds of technology I wish existed, but don't, is a reliable voice-into-text system. That way, I could make recordings during an interview, and have them instantly converted into transcripts. Hah! But one of the apps on this little phone allows you to speak a search engine query, rather than type it in -- and so far I have been more surprised by its successes than its failures. Examples from this evening: I heard a radio report about Democrats deciding not to run for reelection, including in Colorado. I picked up the phone and said to it, "colorado governor ritter" -- and within seconds the first hit was for the Wikipedia entry on Governor Bill Ritter, and the second hit was for his official colorado.gov.governor site. I then said "denver mayor hickenlooper," in normal tones, and had similar success in finding out about Mayor John Hickenlooper. Later my wife and I were seeing a DVD of the (sleeper, and very good) movie Sunshine Cleaning, with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. I was wondering, what was that last odd sleeper movie in which we saw Emily Blunt? I picked up the phone, said "movies with emily blunt," and got the IMDB listing of her films. (Answer: The Great Buck Howard.) I'm not recommending this as a way to behave in company, but technically it's impressive.

    - The camera is very good.

    - There are lots of apps already available, many free, including one about which I've already bored my wife to tears, so I won't mention it here. But I'll mention it next time. (Hint: Google Sky Map.) Another: a feature that scans any SKU-style bar code you point it toward, and quickly does a search for that product, its specs, and the range of prices. And a wonderful English-Chinese translation utility. (Where was this when I needed it?) And...

    What's not to like? Minor inconvenience: the BlackBerry feeds several of my email accounts into one big inbox sluice, so I can see them all at once. The Google Phone won't do that on its own without some tinkering. Also: you can zoom to change the text size of web pages but not email messages, which sometimes is an issue. Battery life is OK, not remarkable. Then again, the only device that is remarkable for its Methuselah-like battery endurance is the Kindle. Larger inconvenience: I really don't like typing on this on-screen touchpad. And, the phone is expensive unless you go with T-Mobile.

    More later.  For now, interesting.

    * Update: Because some people have asked, let me spell out how I got the phone. For weeks Google has been distributing the phones among its own staff and to people in the general tech world, subject to embargo on public comments until the formal product announcement on Jan 5.  A friend in the company gave me one -- free. When I decided (a) that I would write about the phone and (b) that I liked it enough actually to use it, I bought it from the company, at list price. This is my general policy on software and tech gadgets. If people send me demo copies of devices or programs, I'll use them -- it wouldn't be practical to pay full price for everything someone wants me to try. But if I end up using the program or device in real life, I make a point of paying for it. And I try, when writing about tech items, to make clear whether I've bought something or am just trying out a demo. I say all this in a "for the record" spirit.

  • Our new issue...

    ...is full of great stuff. Please subscribe! That way you can read these articles as they're meant to be read -- with pictures and illustrations, in nice fonts and with glossy ads -- and, not incidentally, that way we can keep putting out such issues for another 153 years.* Or at least another ten or twenty. Seriously, this is one of the best, most varied issues in quite a while -- which I would say even if I didn't have a very long article in it. Read, enjoy, subscribe.

    201001_toc.jpg

    * Atlantic Monthly: Founded 153 years ago.
  • More on "interesting" software: InfoQube

    Following previous dispatches here and here about the endless, quixotic search for the ideal outlining program, many people wrote in to sing the praises of a Windows-based program I had not been aware of: InfoQube, or IQ. (Hardee-har!! I get it!) Sample testimonial note from someone who identifies himself as "a highly satisfied user" and who doesn't appear to be connected to the company:

    "I'd like to let you know that InfoQube (IQ), while still a bit unknown and not out of beta yet (but soon to reach v1.0 ), is a very powerful Outliner too!

    "In my humble opinion, probably the most powerful and flexible out there. Really. I have been using it for the last 2 years, doing incredible things with it... Not only does it do outlining, but it also has a calendar, Gantt charts, pivot tables, etc.

    "It's not your typical software : it takes an open mind and a bit of reading (not that much!) to understand its principles. These small initial efforts are quite rewarding, that's for sure!
    Have a look at it (Download), and feel free to ask questions on our friendly Forum. ["Our" = user community, not speaking for the company itself] Pierre Paul Landry, our IQ talented, dedicated and friendly developer, answers many questions himself."

    Here's a thematic illustration from the company's site, on the "Qube" theme. (Click for bigger.) Disappointingly, the actual program is confined to normal 2-D computer screen displays. I have not yet tried InfoQube myself, but I received enough mail from people who have that it seemed worth mentioning.

    InfoQube2.jpg


    While I'm on the subject of satisfied users, I have mentioned several times the modestly-priced, Mac-based writing program Scrivener, on which I am relying for more and more of my work. An impressive list of writers (mainly novelists) who have become devotees is here. Worth considering.
  • Finally the Internet is worthwhile: "How to fly the P-47"

    Thanks to Carl Malamud's PublicResource.org project, which takes material prepared by public agencies and makes it available free online, you too can get basic info on flying the P-47 "Thunderbolt." It comes courtesy of these films, produced for pilot-aspirants in 1943 by the War Department. [Fixed link to Public.Resource -- had been wrong.]

    (Yes, children, there was a "Department of War" all through American history, until the creation of the "Department of Defense" in 1947. More was involved in creation of the DOD than the change in name; but in retrospect "Department of War" seems a breathtakingly and admirably honest term. I think we should change the Pentagon's name back to "Department of War," and re-assign "Department of Defense" to the organization that now bears the loathsome name "Department of Homeland Security." But I digress.)

    As you'll see if you watch, the films do get into some technical aspects. But they ease into it with some, umm, cultural material -- especially the first few minutes of the film below. It's #2 in the series, covering normal operations of the airplane.



    Here's the first in the series, general pilot familiarization with the P-47:



    And the third, on high-altitude flight and aerobatics:



    Congrats and thanks to Malamud -- and the original film makers. This gets me in the mood for starting to fly again. These guys look suave!
    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for P47-1.png

  • More on GrandView, Thinklinkr, and other "interesting outliners"

    I mentioned recently a new free, collaborative, cloud-based outliner called Thinklinkr, which is a worthy new contender in this troubled field.

    Two bits of extra info for the outline-curious. First, a spectacularly thorough and provocative post by Stephen Zeoli on the "Welcome to Sherwood" site, here, on the reasons why so many buffs consider the orphaned, antique, DOS-only program GrandView the best outliner ever invented. (Gentle hint to Thinklinkr crew and others: read that post, and shamelessly copy!) GrandView screenshot, from the review:

    gv-outline11.png

    Then, below and after the jump, selections from a message from Jason Tillery, one of the two-man crew responsible for Thinklinkr, about the idea behind its development and future plans. I wrote asking him, What should I know about this program? Parts of his reply follow. The ellipses are for the more overtly corporate-PR sections; I've left the material that explains the development strategy:

    "Outlining software has been around since the 60's, but until now there were no real web-based offerings.

    More »

  • Krugman, protectionism, and the RMB

    This is the next installment in a catching-up-with-the-week's-events series, as advertised here. Today's topic: US-China relations, economic imbalances, and the value of the Chinese RMB.

    In his NYT column yesterday, Paul Krugman discussed the Chinese government's refusal to let the RMB rise against the dollar, which (since the dollar is falling versus most other currencies) means that the RMB is rapidly sinking in value against the Euro and yen, even as China runs up huge trade surpluses. This, Krugman said, was a "predatory" policy that should and would provoke retaliation from the rest of the world.

    My reaction on reading the column was, Matte mashita!, roughly "I've been waiting for this!", the phrase that audiences at Japanese kabuki performances may yell at the appearance of a favored character or famous line. For nearly a year, I have been watching the economic press in anticipation of just this kind of article.

    It was about a year ago, in the devastation of China's manufacturing-export business that followed the world economic collapse, that I spoke with the financial-markets expert Michael Pettis, at Guanghua School of Business in Beijing. I wrote about his views (and others') in this article last spring in the Atlantic.

    The heart of Pettis's argument was that China's economy in this past year was like America's in the early 1930s. Each had been the workshop of the world in the preceding decade; each had piled up huge trade surpluses and financial reserves; and -- the underappreciated part -- each suffered big job losses when its foreign customers could no longer buy its excess production. Having had more than "its fair share" of the world's manufacturing jobs in the 1920s, the US had more of them to lose in the 1930s. So too with China as demand fell around the world last year. Relatively more of China's people had depended on foreign customers for their jobs, thus relatively more of them were at risk than in Europe or the US. And indeed, tens of millions of Chinese factory jobs disappeared last year, especially in the southern part of the country.

    The crucial part of Pettis' analysis was the next step: whether China would respond to this loss the way the U.S. had in the 1930s. Back then, desperate to protect American factory jobs, the U.S. Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, with levies on thousands of product categories. In itself, that tariff was not the cause of the world Depression (contrary to the implications of "Smoot Hawley" in the standard political speech or op-ed column). But as other countries retaliated, the cascading failure of demand intensified the hard times worldwide.

    To bring this back to Krugman and China: Pettis concluded that the natural result of last year's economic slowdown would be the shrinkage of China's export economy and global trade surplus. Anything else would delay the "rebalancing" of economies that was necessary worldwide. If China tried too hard to prevent this, then that step would be the modern Smoot Hawley equivalent. As I put it in the article:

    "The real damage of Smoot-Hawley, [Pettis] says, was less economic than political. Other countries understood that the United States was trying to protect its trade surplus and therefore its workforce. They didn't like it as a political matter, and they struck back.

    "If that were to happen again... the real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley 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, China's government was in fact doing every one of these things."

    That is the context for Krugman's article, in my view. Political leaders around the world talk about the need to "rebalance" their economies; this means more saving and less overconsumption in the United States; but it also means less under-consumption in China, in the sense of relying less on foreigners as customers. As long as the Chinese government holds the line on the RMB, it is doing its best to resist and thwart that balancing process. As I argued in another article, the value of the RMB is not at all the main reason for China's manufacturing success or the shift of world jobs to China. But the refusal to let that value change will become a major impediment to the global economic adjustment that China's leaders (with all others) say is necessary.

    The bottom line of Krugman's column is: if China's government doesn't change this policy, it is inviting trouble for itself and everyone else. To me this seems obviously right.

  • Happy New Year! Starting off right with "interesting software"

    While out of range for the past week, I've not weighed in on a lot of subjects I would normally have a view on, from the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, to the nature and function of the TSA, to the implications of press and judicial developments within China, to the latest twist in China's policy on the RMB.

    I will plan to catch up, on each and all, in the next day or two. For the moment ... how about a promising entry from the world of "interesting" technology?

    What I have in mind is Thinklinkr, a free, "cloud"-based outlining program that very much deserves attention. Since the dawn of the personal computing age, outlining programs have constituted a fascinating but often heartbreaking product category. Fascinating because they are an essential component of electronic "thinking tools." (Another essential component: systems for collecting, organizing, and retrieving info. And ideally one more: something to do the actual thinking and writing. So far, no dice.) Heartbreaking because several of the best entries have atrophied or been orphaned, and others are minority tastes.

    Perhaps it's mainly rosy retrospect, but I still think the classic DOS outliner GrandView was the best I've ever used. Background on GrandView here. Those I use and like these days include the elegantly minimalist BrainStorm (PC only); the intriguing-in-many-ways PersonalBrain (PC, Mac, LInux); the also-intriguing MindManager (PC, Mac); OmniOutliner (Mac); plus the outlining functions in the wonderful Mac-only writing program Scrivener; plus the outlining functions in the upcoming Version 6 release of the wonderful PC-only "idea processor," Zoot. (Zoot 6 is in late beta.) And some others I am forgetting right now.

    I give that long warmup to say that I've always cared about this field, and I find Thinklinkr a worthy new contender,as a very fast, very flexible online outlining tool. Its basis in the "cloud" means that you don't have to worry about Mac/PC issues nor about synching among your different machines. You do, of course, have to be online. It also keeps track of previous versions of an outline, and allows users in differently places to collaborate in real time. Worth checking out. (Partial screenshot below, and further info below that.)

    ThinkLInk.png

    Reference section: For a history of the outlining field in general, start here; for a later "rediscovery" of outlines, go here. For my previous perspectives on and judgments about other "thinking" systems, see this about Zoot; this about BrainStorm; and this about Personal Brain. For a blog by the designers of Thinklinkr, see a sample entry here and main page here. I have written to the company to ask about the ideas behind the program and will post the answers shortly. Thanks to Michael Ham for the lead.

  • How America Can Rise Again
    Seamus Murphy

    How America Can Rise Again

    Is America going to hell? After a year of economic calamity that many fear has sent us into irreversible decline, the author finds reassurance in the peculiarly American cycle of crisis and renewal, and in the continuing strength of the forces that have made the country great: our university system, our receptiveness to immigration, our culture of innovation. In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world. But here’s the alarming problem: our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. Fixing it—without resorting to a constitutional convention or a coup—is the key to securing the nation’s future.

  • Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year 2010

    There are many items in the queue, but I've just turned in an article, have Christmas Eve duties, and am then leaving town. I am grateful to all for attention and suggestions through the year; apologies for moments of choler or many things left undone. I send good wishes of the season to readers from whatever country or background. And I will be away from this space until the first few days of next year. 

  • Another moment to note, for Liu Xiaobo (updated)

    The trial and impending sentencing of Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), in China, is a dark moment for him, for his country, and for the prospects of expanding liberties for ordinary Chinese people.

    I have no information to add to the extensive Western news coverage of his case, just a voice of support. In brief, Liu is a prominent long-time advocate for the expansion of civil society, rule of law, and individual liberties in China. He was jailed twenty years ago, after Tiananmen Square, and is now being tried for "incitement to subvert state power." By all reports, he will be sentenced tomorrow, while much of the Western world's attention is distracted on Christmas Day. The charges apparently arise mainly from his role last year in promoting "Charter 08," a manifesto for civil society in China. There is nothing about his life, work, or efforts that a truly confident government should fear. That the Chinese government cannot tolerate his views speaks volumes.

    There is much to admire in modern China, and even more to sympathize with in the aspirations and efforts of its people. But this is a reminder of what is wrong with the way it is run, and is a moment that friends of China and of Chinese people should note, regret, and deplore.

    Resources: from New York Times; Washington Post; Human Rights in China; English text of Charter 08; Chinese text of Charter 08. 

    UPDATE: Just now -- Christmas Eve in the US, Friday morning in Beijing --  Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "subversion," the harshest such sentence in a very long time. This is a very sobering moment.

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