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.
  • This is churlish of me, but....

    ... it's an opportunity to mention one of my favorite parts of The Internet.

    A reader wrote a while back asking where he might find a full copy of my 1987 Atlantic article about the Philippines, called "A Damaged Culture." It was extremely controversial in the Philippines for a long time, so even though it was from the magazine's pre-internet era I thought it was worth putting the text on line -- and did so a couple of years ago, here.

    I thanked him for his interest and sent him the link. But I at least thought of directing him to this site: http://tinyurl.com/yfthl99.

    Spoiler alert: if you already know everything about "Let me Google that for you," no need to click. Otherwise, worth checking out.

  • Let me say again: Good for Evan Bayh

    In one previous entry, I urged Evan Bayh to use his lame-duck Senate seat through the rest of the year as a giant megaphone to talk about what's wrong with the place; and then congratulated him on his first clear step in that direction.

    I will confess that most of the reader messages I received boiled down to: "Don't get your hopes up, he has never rocked the boat." OK. But in keeping with the "today is the first day of the rest of your political life" philosophy, I'm going to judge by the evidence as long as it's positive. Now we have another encouraging step from Bayh. He has a prominent op-ed in tomorrow's NYT talking about the dysfunctional Senate in general and making detailed recommendations about the filibuster in particular. For instance:

    "[T] Senate should reform a practice increasingly abused by both parties, the filibuster. Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose -- to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business.

    "Last fall, the Senate had to overcome two successive filibusters to pass a bill to provide millions of Americans with extended unemployment insurance. There was no opposition to the bill; it passed on a 98-0 vote. But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters....

    "[F]ilibusters should require 35 senators to sign a public petition and make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory. Those who obstruct the Senate should pay a price in public notoriety and physical exhaustion. That would lead to a significant decline in frivolous filibusters."

    It's worth reading the whole thing -- and, more importantly, rewarding and encouraging politicians who decide to head in this direction. Keep going, Sen. Bayh! Visual inspiration* to keep in mind:

    mr-smith-goes-to-washington.jpg
    _____
    * Yes, I realize that the drama of Mr. Smith turns on Jimmy Stewart's character carrying out a marathon "real" filibuster. But the larger point of the movie was a challenge to coziness and corruption in the Senate, a message that lives through the years.

  • Beer updates from all over (updated)

    1) From a recent trip to Ohio, a beer whose cheeky name I really admire  -- not to mention really admiring its hoppy taste. Here it is: Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Co.

    BurningRiver_BottleGlass.jpg



    OK, I realize that Kids Today might not recognize the puckish elegance of calling a Cleveland-brewed beer "Burning River." Details here. Dennis Kucinich would be able to explain.  (UPDATE: I am remiss in not having mentioned Randy Newman's famous song on the same theme, "Burn On," his tribute to the mighty Cuyahoga.)

    The picture above is from the web site. Below, the beer last week in situ at a Holiday Inn near Dayton:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8378.jpg

    2) From a recent trip to Northern California, the solution to a "dividing by zero" paradox in the beer world. In math a dividing-by-zero problem is, of course, one that is unsolvable by definition. In the beer world, I have always thought the counterpart would be the concept of "adding too many hops." Skimping on hops? The bane of cheap, weak lagers the world round. Throwing hops in by the ton? The more the better! You couldn't possibly use too much.

    But I have now found the exception: Hopsickle Imperial Ale, from Moylan's brewery of Novato, in

    1) From a recent trip to Ohio, a beer whose cheeky name I really admire  -- not to mention really admiring its hoppy taste. Here it is: Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Co.

    BurningRiver_BottleGlass.jpg


    OK, I realize that Kids Today might not recognize the puckish elegance of calling a Cleveland-brewed beer "Burning River." Details here. Dennis Kucinich would be able to explain.  (UPDATE: I am remiss in not having mentioned Randy Newman's famous song on the same theme, "Burn On," his tribute to the mighty Cuyahoga.)

    The picture above is from the web site. Below, the beer last week in situ at a Holiday Inn near Dayton:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8378.jpg

    2) From a recent trip to Northern California, the solution to a "dividing by zero" paradox in the beer world. In math a dividing-by-zero problem is, of course, one that is unsolvable by definition. In the beer world, I have always thought the counterpart would be the concept of "adding too many hops." Skimping on hops? The bane of cheap, weak lagers the world round. Throwing hops in by the ton? The more the better! You couldn't possibly use too much.

    But I have now found the exception: Hopsickle Imperial Ale, from Moylan's brewery of Novato, in Marin County. Very good, and "Triple Hoppy" as the label says. But... for the first time in my life, the following words entered my brain: "You know, this might be too bitter." Next, let me at those math problems.

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8336.JPG

    3) From a recent trip to Southern California, welcome news that the Hangar 24 Brewery has gone from a shoestring startup to a big recession-defying success. Two years ago, I learned in faroff China about my ideal fantasy business: a craft brewery, at a small airport! And in my hometown to boot. On several visits since then I've seen it expand. Now -- you can hardly get into the place.
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8384.JPG

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8391.jpg

    Branded capital goods for a little startup:
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8392.JPG

    I take my good news where it's available, which often tends to be in the microbrew realm.

    More »

  • Bad week in small-plane news

    A crash in East Palo Alto two days ago after an early morning take-off apparently in fog, killing three employees of the Tesla electric-car company; the notorious suicide/murder/terror crash in Austin yesterday; a landing in the wee hours this morning at LAX by a 23-year old student pilot who stole a Cirrus SR-22 airplane and flew it erratically all over the place.

    The stolen plane, Cirrus N443CP*, in happier times:

    Thumbnail image for 443cp.jpg

    These are completely different situations -- weather-related accident; psychopathic crime; extremely reckless joyride/misconduct putting the joyrider himself at dire risk, respectively -- but they are sure to be linked in news stories by the rote/reflexive "this comes one day after an incident in which..." faux-logical connector.** There is nothing more to say about the Palo Alto crash than condolences to all affected. More tomorrow, when I am again at a computer, on the "security" and "terrorism" implications of the other two cases.
    ___
    * Why are Cirruses often in the news? Over the past ten years, they have become the biggest-selling model of small single-engine piston plane in the world. Something like 5,000 of them are now in operation, so if there is news about small airplanes, it often is news about a Cirrus.

    ** I made that sentence up, but sure enough, here is what the LA Times story says about the LAX case: "The incident comes one day after a 53-year-old pilot, who had been battling the Internal Revenue Service for decades, plowed his single-engine Piper Cherokee into a Texas building housing IRS offices, killing at least one worker. "

  • Going to hell #7: a different way to choose the Congress

    Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Many correspondents have argued, as I did in my original article, that something basic in the structure of government has made it hard or impossible for national officials to concentrate on real national problems. (As opposed to score-settling, posturing, fund-raising, and so on.)

    Sol Erdman, of the non-partisan Center for Collaborate Democracy, and his colleague Lawrence Susskind of MIT, wrote in with a proposal to change the nature of Congress by changing the way Congressmen are elected. Before you ask: they argue that the changes they propose would not require a Constitutional Amendment, and therefore are in the realm of "things that could actually be done."

    Their whole paper is now online as a PDF here. It is long but worth reading. A few representative quotes:

    What's wrong with Congress now (may sound familiar, but stay tuned...)

    "U.S. elections are organized in such a way that each lawmaker gets powerful incentives to act against the public interest. To begin with, a typical member of Congress can win reelection just by convincing a majority of his or her district's voters that the other party is more untrustworthy, incompetent or corrupt than his own. And any politician knows how to make that case in graphic terms that voters can easily grasp.

    "Voters today have equally perverse incentives. That is, in each congressional district, every voter -- every young single, middle- aged parent, senior citizen, truck driver, teacher, salesperson, lawyer, business owner, conservative, liberal and moderate -- has to share the same representative. These diverse groups of district residents have distinct -- often opposing -- needs, values and political beliefs.... So, if a member of Congress advocates a detailed solution to a controversial issue, several large blocs of voters in his or her district are likely to oppose his stand, perhaps even enough to want to throw him out of office. The typical lawmaker therefore avoids proposing real solutions to the most controversial issues.

    The behavior current incentives reward:

    "The members of Congress have found that there are far safer ways to stay in office [than dealing with the nation's real problems]. The safest tactics include:

    "1) Reducing hard issues to simple slogans.
    "2) Passing measures that seem to address major problems but which put off the hard decisions into the future.
    "3) Blaming the country's direst problems on the other political party.

    "These strategies succeed so often because of how congressional elections are organized today. Typically, one Republican competes against one Democrat for each district's House seat. Any lawmaker can therefore stay in office just by convincing most voters that the other party is more incompetent than his own."

    Could a change in Congressional election procedure be Constitutional?

    "Fortunately, the Constitution doesn't require that members of the House represent districts. The Constitution doesn't even mention districts. It lets each state decide how to elect its own Representatives, with Congress having the right to supersede the states' decisions."

    More in their paper, including an elaboration of a new election system they have in mind. Worth checking out.

  • Obama meets the Dalai Lama (updated)

    On the road and changing planes, let me take four minutes on Boingo to refer readers to an op-ed yesterday by Jerome A. Cohen, who has been involved for decades is the campaign to expand citizen rights and the rule of law in China, in the South China Morning Post. You have to register or subscribe (worth it!) to read the whole thing, but the headline and subhead get the idea across.

    His article is called "Fight the Good Fight: As China rises, foreigners need to keep protesting against cases of injustice on the mainland." It argues that the United States should continue the same contradictory-sounding but strategically sensible policy toward China that it has more or less maintained throughout the past 30 years. This involves looking for areas of cooperation wherever possible -- on financial and business matters, on environmental challenges, on strategic measures like those I discuss at the end of this article. In general, that means that the United States should treat China as a potential partner unless compelled to do otherwise.

    But American leaders should also resolutely speak up for values the country is supposed to believe in -- individual liberties, religious tolerance, due process, freedom of expression -- and not be afraid to criticize Chinese policy when these issues are at stake. Thus the Chinese government will complain every time an American president meets the Dalai Lama -- but the United States must continue those meetings in consonance with its own beliefs*, despite the protests, and continue to complain when Chinese dissidents are locked up, as in the Liu Xiaobo case. Why make gestures like these? According to Cohen:

    "Despite the regime's censorship, [such protests] boost the sagging morale of those in mainland China who hope for freedom and due process of law, as the country's beleaguered rights lawyers and activists emphasise [sic -- Cohen is American but the SCMP is in Hong Kong!]. Moreover, they give the world a fuller picture of contemporary China than that provided by the Olympics, the Confucius Institutes that the government has established abroad and its mind- boggling economic accomplishments. China's quest for "soft power" - international influence based on more than military and economic coercion - will always be frustrated as long as there are continuing foreign protests against abuses suffered by dissidents, religious figures, criminal defence lawyers and others.

    "Finally, if stated with requisite humility, public reaffirmation of the basic human decencies that every government should accord its own citizens as well as foreigners reminds all countries, including the US, of the importance of practising what we preach to China."

    As is evident from this last line, Cohen is not blind to America's deviations from its own ideals. Anyhow, this is what to think about today's meeting, as I sign off and run to the next plane.
    __
    * To be clear, those legitimate American beliefs do not involve support for "splittism," the main Chinese government charge against the Dalai Lama. Rather they involve respect for him as a spiritual leader, a view 100% rejected by the Chinese government but accepted in most of the rest of the world.

    UPDATE: Jerome Cohen's full essay is available here in English with links to versions in both simplified and traditional Chinese. Thanks to ESZ.

  • Going to hell #6: revenge of the Boomers

    Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Part of my original pitch was that America's economic, cultural, and intellectual resilience was strong, but that our basic governing institutions were proving to be worse and worse matched to the challenges of these times. Thus:

    "When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed "a government as good as its people." Knowing Carter's sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb--and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can't fix what's broken [in our system of government], we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away."

    A number of correspondents wrote in to say that this was pandering -- indeed, of the sort I thought Carter was indulging when suggesting to audiences that problems all originate somewhere else, and certainly not with the good, fine American folk. A really honest jeremiad, some of these messages suggest, wouldn't blame some abstract American "system" for our failings; it would tell Americans that they were being so spoiled, ill-informed, short-sighted, and in other ways non-civic that they deserved just the government they/we now have. Here is a sample, which argues that one generation (my own) is the place where the trouble really starts:

    "I've been reading the proposed structural fixes to our political system posted in the blog and have been getting exasperated because I know that any proposed structural fix must pass through the same broken political system. That's not going to happen, no matter what the fix is.

    "The reason it's not going to happen, imho, is because only the smaller part of our political problems is the gridlock-enabling senate and other governmental institutions. The senate and other institutions have their problems, but other generations have made them work, across a spectrum of political opinion as wide as the current one. The bigger part of our current problems is us, by whom I mean baby boomers like myself--currently (I believe) the largest demographic group of voters and office holders.

    More »

  • You can do it, Sen. Bayh!

    Yesterday I expressed my hope and dream that Sen. Evan Bayh would use the next ten months -- while he's still in the Senate and has both a vote and a public megaphone -- to do something about the things he says are driving him out of public life.

    Today, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, Bayh said flat out that he thought the filibuster was being abused and the rules should be changed. Even (gasp) that he might "lead" an effort to reform it! See the discussion in this clip, which starts two minutes into the interview:

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the

    Representative passage:

    "It's [the filibuster]just brought the process to a halt, and the public is suffering. So the minority needs to have a right. I think that's important. But the public has a right to see its business done. And not routinely allow a small minority to keep us from addressing the great issues that face this country. I think the filibuster absolutely needs to be changed."

    Who says dreams don't come true! At the very least, an encouraging dreamlet-scale start. Ten months to go, Sen. Bayh; nothing to lose; a lot of good to be gone; and a reputation to gain.

  • About cyber-fragility and the "pre-9/11" moment

    In my "Cyber Warriors" article in the current issue, I mention that a variety of internet-security experts contend that we are living in a "pre-9/11 era" on this subject. But this they mean not that thousands of people will be killed and everything about U.S. politics and policy will be thrown up for grabs. Rather, the image is meant to suggest that policy and public awareness will be divided into "before" and "after" phases. And "after" this happens -- whatever "this" turns out to be in the cyber-destruction field -- people will ask why we weren't more vigilant ahead of time. A story just now in the Washington Post uses just the same imagery, talking about an exercise yesterday that was "staged... to demonstrate to a complacent public the plausibility of an attack that could in many ways be as crippling as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes."*

    From Gary Chapman, of the LBJ School at UT Austin, who has been writing about the internet aspects of national security since the 1990s, an objection to mis- and over-use of the "pre-9/11" imagery. Later on, I'll post a contrary view, from another tech veteran who thinks that the warnings are perfectly appropriate. Chapman writes:

    "Concerns about cybersecurity and the potential for a national "catastrophe" initiated by hackers -- whatever their motivations or backing -- are reasonable; until people start using analogies to 9/11 or begin talking about a looming "digital Pearl Harbor." Admiral Mike McConnell [former NSA director, whom I quote several times in my article] has been raising such alarms, but count me as a skeptic. It is difficult to imagine the loss of any computer-dependent system comparing to the spectacle of 9/11, its implications for security for ordinary Americans, or the emotional impact of that event, particularly over the horrifying deaths that millions of people watched on television. Likewise, the significance of Pearl Harbor, which launched the country into the biggest war of all time, is not likely to be matched by a computer-related failure, even one that dramatically damages the global financial system. We should use the analogies to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor sparingly, if at all, and not for a possible failure of computer networks or digital transactions. Terrorists using weapons of mass destruction might qualify, but not computer hackers.

    "Admiral McConnell believes that nothing will motivate Americans to take cybersecurity seriously until a disaster happens, which is probably true. But unlike 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, Americans are likely to blame the managers of institutions that are the targets of hackers, not the hackers or their sponsors, who will in any case be obscure or difficult to identify. McConnell apparently believes that the cybersecurity of big banks is a matter of national security, but it would be hard to imagine an industry with lower esteem in the eyes of the public these days, and therefore one that is highly unlikely to "come clean" about their vulnerabilities to hackers. The public, in its current sour mood about large institutions in the U.S., would probably support the *dismantling* of a system that makes the U.S. vulnerable to computer threats rather than more government spending to secure the Wall Street firms that precipitated the financial crisis and the recession."
    In similar vein, a tech-policy veteran who asks not to be named writes:
    "The loose talk about "digital Pearl Harbor" and "equivalent to 9/11" is regrettable, in my opinion. We should learn how to calibrate cyberthreats, which are serious but not in the same league. Something bad happening to PayPal or even CitiBank is not the same as planes bombing Hawaii or crashing into the World Trade Center, I'm sorry. We should resist these kinds of analogies."
    By instinct and experience I am skeptical of "threat-inflation" sloganeering, whether about the cyber or the "real" world. (No doubt this point is at top-of-mind right now because I am sitting in an airport lobby where every five minutes the PA system delivers the news that "the current threat advisory as established by the Department of Homeland Security is 'Orange'." Tell me, please oh Lord, who on Earth is made safer or more secure, or which evil-doer anywhere is more hindered, by repetitive broadcast of this moronic boilerplate? What does the "current" level mean, if it never changes?** Why is it the same in Washington DC, which someone might want to blow up, and rural Mississippi, which is probably under less imminent threat? What am I supposed to do or think because it's "orange"? Is there any conceivable reason this system is still in place -- other than the fact that no political official dares take the risk of recommending that it be lowered? But I digress.)

    Back to cyber-security: I think the 9/11 comparison is useful strictly in the terms mentioned above: That if there is some large disruption, the whole issue will be discussed in an entirely different way, and policies will change, in both positive and panicky overkill directions. Acting calmly right now would be preferable ... but so would a lot of other things that we not going to do.

    Next up: a reader's argument that 9/11 allusions are indeed realistic when it comes to the potential damage done by cyber-threats.
    ____
    * Update: I see that the Atlantic Wire is on this theme too. Escher-drawing style, it includes  a reference to my own Atlantic article on the topic.

    ** To be fair, it has only been at its steady "Orange" level for the past four and a half years, since the summer of 2005. So it's not that it "never" changes; it just hardly ever changes -- as wars begin and end, regimes rise and fall, world politics changes, terrorists are arrested or set free, etc.
  • Bayh pere et fils: the opportunity for Evan

    As my colleague T-N Coates has pointed out, Evan Bayh's very-last-minute decision not to run for the Senate is graceless by most normal measures. He didn't talk with the President or the leader of his party in the Senate, both of whom obviously had a stake in his decision. He caught his state's party organization so much by surprise that they may not be able to get a substitute on the ballot under the normal rules. 

    The puzzlement to me is how this fits with the previous 25 years of his political life -- rather, what retrospective light it sheds on that time. Bayh has held elective office since he was 30. He became Indiana's governor at 33 and U.S. senator at 43.

    If he really cared about his Indiana constituents and their problems through that time, great! But if so, how can he walk away with this kind of careless disregard about whether, in the style of his departure, he is smashing up things that had said were important to him. If, on the other hand, these issues and people never really mattered that much, and public life had been a kind of popularity contest -- well, that may be true of a lot of politicians, but they don't like to reveal it quite this bluntly.

    Here's a constructive suggestion: Do you really care about the partisanship that is ruining public life and that, as you said, has driven you from the Senate, Mr. Bayh? Then why not use the fact that you are still in the U.S. Senate for most of another year -- a platform 99.999% of Americans will never occupy -- and apply all the power you can to advance causes you care about. What is holding you back?

    Unlike everyone else up for election this year, you don't have to worry how this or that bout of truth-telling will look on Election Day. Let 'em bitch! You don't need an interest group to endorse you or a civic club to applaud you any more. Do you think hyperpartisanship is destroying the Senate? Why not call out people -- by name, by specific hypocritical move -- when you see them doing what they should be ashamed of? I guarantee that the press would eat this up. Why not a ten-month public seminar, through the rest of this year, on who is doing what, and how it could be different? Do you object to personal "holds" on nominations? Make it an issue! You have an idea of some issue where Republicans and Democrats might agree? Be specific about it and see what you can do. Again, if I know anything about the press and the melodrama of public life, I know you could turn it to your advantage -- and the public's, Mr. Smith style.

    Suggested role model:
    mr-smith-goes-to-washington.jpg

    Your father, Birch Bayh, became a senator even younger. He was 34 when he took office, and 52 when defeated by Dan Quayle. In between -- through three Senate terms, 18 years -- he acted as if he was using his office for something, rather than just occupying it. That is part of the reason he eventually became vulnerable, as someone too "liberal" for his base. His punishment was to leave the Senate involuntarily, something you're now doing by choice. What he tried to do, at some risk to himself, you can now do risk free. His reward is his reputation. Yours could be the same.

    (I can always dream.)

  • 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."

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