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.
  • Map crazy!

    Following the recent series of thought-experiment maps about how America's internal borders should be withdrawn, this note from a reader in Shanghai:

    "I always enjoy the maps by Danny Dorling at the University of Sheffield, resizing areas based on all sorts of variables, including wealth, life expectancy, etc.  http://www.worldmapper.org/
     
    "Sobering "income animation" here.  It certainly lives up the its tagline "The world as you've never seen it before".

    From the income animation -- first, how the display looks when showing countries "sized by people living on less than $2 per day":
    ThinWorld.png


    And when sized by those living on more than $200 a day:
    FatWorld1.png

    I won't go on forever with alternative maps -- though this a good occasion to re-mention Toby Lester's wonderful book on the history of maps, The Fourth Part of the World -- but they are useful jogs to conventional thinking. And, a further note on the "what New England" should be called question, from a one-time resident of our smallest state:
    "As a native Rhode Islander, I have to note that our state is the Ocean State, and it seems too proprietary to apply to all of Southern New England. Also, while I'm not a sports fan, the Red Sox are mighty popular here in RI and southern Mass and CT, so moving that northward doesn't make sense either. How about just Southern New England, which is used a lot anyway, at least by our weathermen, and the Northeast Kingdom?"
  • Moving .PST files into Gmail: you can try this at home!

    Challenge was announced last week, here: how to get many years' worth of email stored in old Outlook .PST files into an online Gmail account.

    Main reason for change: wanting to have email archives searchable and available from any computer, rather than worrying about which .PST is on which machine. They'd also be searchable and usable from mobile devices with Gmail apps -- which I know first-hand includes BlackBerry and Android/Nexus One, and which I believe now includes iPhone and SideKick. Other motives discussed in the original post.

    Promising-sounding solution that's not right for me: 
    Google offers its own "Google Email Uploader" (left) available for free download here. Uploader.pngIt sounds as if it exactly fills the bill: "It uploads email and contacts from desktop email programs (like Microsoft Outlook® ) into your Google Apps mailbox. It preserves information such as sent dates and sender/recipient data, as well as the folder structure used by email programs." Unfortunately, it doesn't work with normal, free Gmail accounts. It requires a different "Google Apps" account. These cost $50 per year (details here), and while that's hardly prohibitive, for the same money I could buy 200 GB of online storage from Google (see here). And this approach would defeat my purpose of concentrating my mail in one, main, existing Gmail account.

    Conceptual basis of the real solution. It involves IMAP accounts. If everything about IMAP and POP3 is already obvious to you, skip to the step-by-step list further down. If not, read the next paragraph.

    Outlook (and other email handlers) can interact with online email services, like Gmail or Hotmail, in two main ways, via POP3 or IMAP. (There are others, which we'll ignore for now.) Fundamentally, POP3 is a way of collecting messages from Gmail or Hotmail and transferring them to your computer, whereas IMAP is a way of mirroring what's in your online account on your own computer. Here's the practical difference: With a POP3 account, what you do to messages on your own computer has no direct effect on the versions of those messages stored online. You can collect all your Gmail message into Outlook and save or delete them there, but the originals will still be sitting in your Gmail account. But if you've set up an IMAP connection between Outlook and Gmail, what happens to a message in either place affects it in both. If you delete a message in Outlook, it also disappears from Gmail. And if you add a message to an IMAPed Outlook folder, it will also be added to the corresponding Gmail account. That's the key to the .PST -> Gmail transfer.
        
    Step-by-step procedure: This is all you have to do. It's easier than it looks. If you have a lot of messages, the full transfer takes some time -- but it's mainly "the computer is thinking" time, rather than "you have to pay attention" time.
     
    1. Load Outlook, and create a "New Email Account." Procedures vary with different releases of Outlook. For instance, in Outlook 2007 it's Tools / Account Settings / E-mail / New. Give this new account the settings (user name / pw) of the Gmail account in which you want to store your old .PST messages.

    2. When setting up this new account, specify it as an IMAP account, not a POP3 account. (That's the choice Outlook will give you.) Note: this can be the same Gmail account that you're already using with Outlook, via a POP3 connection. There's no problem with Outlook having two of its own email accounts addressing the same Gmail account. For years I've collected my Gmail messages into Outlook via POP3. For the transfer, I just created a new IMAP connection to that same account. Outlook happily keeps both of those open at the same time.

    3. Follow very carefully the configuration instructions here and here for your new IMAP account. They're easy, but you have to get the details right. The first step is to enable IMAP within Gmail (see the first link); the second is to configure your new Outlook IMAP account, as explained in the second link. Mine didn't work until I was sure to put in the "993" / "587" port settings, below, on the "Advanced" tab:
    Imap2.png

    4) Open Outlook, where you will find a new folder that is IMAP'd (mirrored) to your Gmail account. Whatever is new and unread in your Gmail inbox will look the same way in Outlook. Here is the way the new account looks in my Outlook right now:
    Imap3.png
    It has the name "Gmail IMAP" because that's the one I chose -- you can call it anything. The important point to note here is the folder structure of this new email account. I didn't create any of the subfolders shown here -- Inbox, &Answer, etc. Those are all automatically created, as part of the IMAP process, based on labels in Gmail. A label in Gmail is exactly equivalent to a subfolder in an IMAP Outlook account. We'll see why this matters in the next step.





    5) Create a new label in your Gmail account -- let's call it "Transfer." OR, create a new subfolder in your Outlook IMAP account, like "Transfer."  Right-click on your Outlook account and choose "Update Folder List," and labels in Gmail will be synchronized with the subfolders in Outlook. You're almost there.

    6) Using Outlook, open the .PST file whose messages you would like to transfer to Gmail. Drag-and-drop those messages over to your new "Transfer" folder. You can mass-select a lot of messages and do this at one time. It may take Outlook a little while to get them all transferred, but it will happen.

    7) Go do something else.

    8) When you come back to the computer, all the messages that you added to your "Transfer" folder will now be in Gmail.  They will all have a Gmail label corresponding to the folder you created -- "Transfer," etc.  What I have done is to set up these folders by year. "Transfer 2003" etc. Once they're over in Gmail, you can do with them whatever you want. Remove those labels; add new ones; archive; and of course search. From any of your computers or mobile devices, you can rummage through whatever you've stored in your Gmail account.

    What comes next. For a future installment, what to do after you've gotten everything you care about transferred across to Gmail storage. One immediate step is to close that IMAP account you used for the transfers. In my experience, Outlook bogs down considerably when it is handling all the synchronization needed for an IMAP account. (That is worth it when you're making the transfer, but not as a standard practice.) Should you erase those old .PST files? No way! More backups are better. (But now you don't have to copy them machine-to-machine.) Should you still use Outlook as a mail-handler? If you want -- but without worrying about where or whether you've copied its archive of old files.

    More details on other fronts when I regain energy for this topic. (For instance: what about finding old messages in Gmail when you're off line? And how should you feel about having all your correspondence in this one new basket? Much more to discuss.) In the meantime, thanks and promised rewards soon on the way to those who were early on recommending IMAP.

  • While we're talking imaginary maps....

    Previously here. From one disgruntled reader:

    "I know they're not your names, but North New England and South New England are just terrible. I recommend "Ocean State" for the southern portion and "Red Sox Nation" for the northern portion."

    And from another, a reminder that this exercise has been carried out before -- including in an oddball (IMHO) suggestion in the 1970s for dividing the nation into 38 states of more or less equal territory -- though obviously not equal population. (Compare the 10+ million in teeming "San Gabriel" or "Hudson," on one extreme, with the scant ranks in "Seward" or "Bighorn," on the other.) The idea was that it would lead to efficiencies in governance, as explained here. Click for larger version.

    38states.jpg


    A reader's note introducing this map:
    "I thought I would bring to your attention a feature in Slate from November 2009 about the book Strange Maps by Frank Jacobs.  The article has a slide show that features a map by C. Etzel Pearcy created in the 1970s that redrew the United States into 38 regions...

    "The maps by Neil Freeman use at least six of the same names contained in the Pearcy map for very similar locations - Susquehanna, Wabash, Chesapeake, Cumberland, Bitterroot, and Erie (OH in the Pearcy map while upstate NY in the Freeman map)  It appears the Freeman maps may have been inspired by the Pearcy map. ["Inspired" in the positive rather than derivative sense of the term, I think -- JF.] I received Strange Maps as a Christmas gift and it is an entertaining cartographic adventure."
  • .PST -> Gmail solution revealed ... soon!

    A week ago I solicited help, and offered a reward, for the easiest way to move many years' worth of old Outlook .PST files over to Gmail. The reasons for wanting to do so were spelled out in that earlier post.

    I got a lot of good suggestions, and have had time to try them out. Handy instructions later tonight (or at least I so intend), plus a discussion of a few cautions or pitfalls. Thanks to all who contributed. UPDATE: Actually, tomorrow. "Real" work for the moment...

  • Update on the "thought experiment" state map

    The wonderful imaginary map from FakeIsTheNewReal, showing how state boundaries might look if they were drawn to have more or less equal population (while retaining as much coherence as possible), that I mentioned two days ago here is up now in a new version. The site is the same, but some of the borders have been tweaked, the names of some new "states" have been changed, and the colors are a little different. For instance, "Rocky Mountain High" has become "Bitterroot," and "Washlaska" has become "Olympia." Compare-and-contrast versions below; in each case, click for larger.

    Previous version:
    reform_gis_main_map_800.jpg

    Current version:
    electoralreform_map_800.jpg



    I mention this because I have gotten some puzzled (and two huffy/accusatory) messages from people asking why I "altered" the state names and layouts from what is on the FakeIs.. site. Hey, I'm just a neutral reporter! The thing changed when I wasn't looking! Both versions, by Neil Freeman, are very nice and a public service.

  • Today's filibuster update

    In two parts. First, a useful Wikipedia chart showing how recent and a-historical the current Senate practice of filibusters for everything really is. The blue line, on the top, is the significant one: it is a gauge of how often bills or nominations were subjected to the need for a "supermajority" vote, rather than a regular Constitutional majority. The goldish line, on the bottom, indicates how often the supermajority prevailed -- how often they "broke the filibuster." As a reminder, there is nothing in the Constitution about this practice. (Supermajorities for certain situations, like impeachment or ratifying treaties or passing Constitutional Amendments, yes; as a general practice, no.) Click on graph for larger view.

    ClotureWikipedia.png


    Also, my On the Media interview on this topic, with Bob Garfield, here. (Previously about filibusters here and passim. Very good omnibus piece by Tim Noah in Slate, here. To round things out, yesterday's All Things Considered discussion with Guy Raz, though not about filibusters, here.)
  • Are professors born pinkos? A new way to test

    Patricia Cohen's article in the New York Times last week got a lot of attention, because of its explanation of why academics generally had liberal political views. University life didn't make them that way, according to evidence discussed in the article; they were that way before they arrived. Ie, according to this theory nascent liberals start out* more interested in academics than young conservatives are, so the professoriat naturally ends up on the left.
     
    A reader originally from China who now teaches at a major US university wrote about a way to test this "born not made" claim:

    "While I can agree that some conservatives are turned away by the notion of a liberal academia, it seems to me that this hypothesis can be tested out on foreign nationals studying in the US. For example, many Chinese nationals have become professors in the U.S. Few of them had serious exposure to western liberalism before coming to the U.S., and certainly few of them chose academia because of its alleged left leaning ideology. Many of them, while studying as graduate students in science and engineering, probably cared little about ideology and politics. Therefore it would make sense to study this group, especially those who are just beginning their academic careers.

    "My bet is that the outcome of the study will show that most of them are not conservative in the Fox News sense. I believe that overwhelmingly people who can think more critically are not conservatives in the Fox News sense. It is very hard for me to imagine someone who can think critically could be enamored with Sarah Palin and view her as a serious presidential candidate, for example. For the very same reason I do not believe Jesse Jackson has much support in academia either. The problem in the current political environment is that almost anything not religious right is viewed as left."

    Yet another reason to keep welcoming in those foreign graduate students! A reason apart from my long-standing pitch that they are part of America's biggest advantage over the rest of the world (that we can attract a disproportionate share of the world's talent). Now we learn that, as a bonus, they provide a control group for our socio/political experiments.
    ____
    * Whether or not it applies in academia, I am sure this is true of journalism. People drawn to this line of work aren't mainly interested in maximizing their "net worth" -- the ones who are, soon realize their mistake! Though we're all happy to earn as much as we can, and I feel grateful every day to be making a good living -- really, to have stayed employed -- doing something I love.

  • Ec 101 versus the real world, ctd.

    In response to this post about the exchange in which Chief Justice John "l'etat la loi, c'est moi" Roberts asked whether it wasn't "extraordinarily paternalistic" to think "that shareholders are too stupid to keep track of what their corporations are doing," and therefore the market would correct any excessive corporate involvement in political affairs, one reader asks:

    "Didn't we just learn that most investors are 'too stupid' to know about their investments BECAUSE there were many and completely hidden risk- taking ventures going on??????  And weren't some people also duped into ridiculous mortgage arrangements when there was no follow up to their ridiculous applications that showed no or insufficient income????"

    Another reader writes:

    "Regarding your comments on John Roberts's view resembling 'the idiot-savant faith in flawless markets that we all recall from Introductory Ec class.' I am a 38-year-old who is now in law school after pursuing a career in the arts, and I find that the Roberts/Econ view is (shockingly, to me) presented as dogma by law professors and barely questioned by law students. In my first year, a torts professor explained to our class how you could price the value of a lost child by seeing how much the parents spent on safety equipment and discounting by the percentage the equipment would save the child's life, with no ancillary discussion of how parents are pressured by marketers, wealthy parents are more able to buy silly pseudo-safety devices, or the conspicuous consumption issue. Seeing how lawyers are trained to look at the world, I am not in any way surprised at Roberts's view. He is a very smart man who has been institutionally taught that the world of theoretical economics ("assume a can opener") is a good model for the real world. It is sobering to see, but not surprising."

    These offered for the record.

  • Thought experiment

    What states might look like if, as with Congressional districts, their borders were periodically redrawn to reflect population changes. Click for larger version.
     reform_gis_main_map_800.jpg


    This map is by Neil Freeman from FakeIsTheNewReal.org. It's based on a division of the country into 50 state units with more-or-less equal population -- 5 to 6 million apiece -- and preserving existing boundaries where possible. (As with the new state of "Missouri.") I love many of the other state names -- Lincoln, Joaquin, Tombigbee. My childhood home would have been along the border of Coronado and Mojave. In a reapportioned Senate each of these units would have two votes.

    In the same spirit of "zero-based governance," also consider H. Res. 1018, introduced this week in the House of Representatives, calling on the Senate -- please! -- to drop the recent aberrational practice of applying the filibuster to all legislation, and instead to reserve it for rare, emergency use. Or, as its authors put it, "Requesting the Senate to adjust its rules to reflect the intent of the framers of the Constitution by amending the Senate's filibuster rule, Rule 22, to facilitate the consideration of bills and amendments." Worth a shot!

    UPDATE: Please see follow-ups here and here
  • Impressive journalism

    For a "let's look on the bright side" moment, here are several items I've noticed in the last two days that have nothing in common except illustrating what journalism can do. Having been complaining about many things on many fronts recently, I wanted to distribute some compliments.

    - "Bail Burden" special on NPR. Late yesterday afternoon I was trapped in traffic, but I barely noticed while listening to an absolutely riveting 20-minute (!) segment on All Things Considered, by Laura Sullivan, about abuses in the bail-bond system. This is an issue I had never spent one minute thinking about before, let alone 20. I will certainly think about it from now on. It's the first of a three-part series; based on part one, it's a combination of reporting and analysis applied in a very effective way. If there is any justice in the world (separate question), it will make a difference in law and policy.

    - "The Listener," by the Atlantic's own Tim Lavin in our current issue (subscribe!). The issue is full of historical and analytical pieces, which are part of our bread-and-butter and, I think, work out well as a collection. But for as long as the magazine has been around, it has also featured the lovingly-detailed narrative about a person or development that is, just, interesting, and this profile of the successor to Art Bell as king of the overnight airways is a wonderful illustration. By the time you get to the part about the hotshot physicist Brian Greene appearing on the show, you'll know just what I mean.

    - A news-analysis piece by Alec MacGillis in yesterday's Washington Post, about Senator-elect Scott Brown's actual views on health care reform. The phenomenon MacGillis had to explain was this contradiction: Brown had campaigned against all Obama proposals including health care reform, but as a state senator he had voted for the Romney plan that is very similar to Obama's, and one reason he opposed Obama's plan is that Massachusetts people don't need it, since they already have something similar. The standard newsroom way to handle this issue is the "sources say" approach -- quoting people who point out the tension between the views. Instead, the story clearly explained the complication and what it might mean for Brown's future positions. It was way inside the paper but was next to another very good explanatory story, by Steve Mufson in Beijing, about the non-obvious effects of internet censorship in China.

    - "System Failure," by Christopher Hayes in the Nation last week. His perspective in this story -- political, generational, journalistic -- is obviously different from mine, but I felt this was the missing cousin to my own effort to answer the "Is America Going to Hell?" question in the current issue of the Atlantic. Again given the difference in starting perspectives, I was struck that we ended up in a very similar place on the "what is to be done?" front. Last month Hayes also did a very good, non-credulous story after his first trip to China.

    Meta point: there is lots of value that "crowd sourcing" and spontaneous citizen journalism bring to the world. But I think each of these works illustrates the value of trained observers and analysts who can get their views out through existing channels -- and therefore illustrates the value of keeping these channels alive. Read, listen, enjoy.

  • In defense of Roberts as "umpire"

    In response to this earlier comment about John Roberts, a lawyer from Ohio writes:

    "Actually, I like the analogy.  Remember in the old days, then the American League umpires all wore their huge bulky chest protectors outside and the National League umpires had smaller ones on the inside of their shirts?  It was said that the AL umpires called more high strikes and had a higher strike zone because they could not get down as low as the NL umpires.  Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn't.  But that was the perception among the players, the ones most affected by the strike zone.
     
    "Likewise, I remember in 1997 when Eric Gregg, a very fat umpire, called an outside strike for Livan Hernandez in the ninth inning against the Braves.  From looking at the camera, the ball was a good foot off the left side of the plate.  But since Gregg was already pretty shaded to the left, it looked good to him.
     
    "Judges, like umpires, do call balls and strikes.  But like umpires, if they are too shaded to one side of the plate, they will call balls as "strikes" on the side they shade to, and will call strikes "balls" on the other side.  It is clear on which side of the plate Roberts shades.  And I don't know why no Dem followed his umpire analogy to its logical conclusion."

    The late Eric Gregg, who died four years ago, after a stroke at age 55:
    Gregg-Umpire.jpg


  • John Roberts: the difference four years makes

    Chief Justice-nominee Roberts, in his opening statement at his confirmation hearings in September, 2005:

    "Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.

    "The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.

    "But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

    "Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent, shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath."

    Chief Justice Roberts last September, questioning Solicitor General Elena Kagan, during oral arguments in the Citizens United v Federal Election Commission corporate-funding case whose decision was announced yesterday (as reported by Stuart Taylor here):

    " 'When corporations use other people's money to electioneer,' as Kagan explained, 'that is a harm not just to the shareholders themselves but a sort of a broader harm to the public,' because it distorts the political process to inject large sums of individuals' money in support of candidates whom they may well oppose.

    "Roberts sharply challenged this line of argument. 'Isn't it extraordinarily paternalistic,' he asked, 'for the government to take the position that shareholders are too stupid to keep track of what their corporations are doing and can't sell their shares or object in the corporate context if they don't like it? ... ' "We the government have to protect you naive shareholders." '

    "Kagan responded that 'in a world in which most people own stock through mutual funds [and] through retirement plans ... , they have no choice. I think it's very difficult for individual shareholders to be able to monitor what each company they own assets in is doing.' "

    Of course Kagan's response is the practical and real-world one. Virtually all such "wealth" as my wife and I hold, apart from our house, is in low-cost indexed mutual retirement funds. I literally have no idea which specific companies I might have bigger or smaller positions in. By the prevailing wisdom of the day, I'm behaving rationally for a non-expert prudent investor. By Roberts' standard, I am "too stupid to keep track" of what every one of these companies is doing and shifting my positions day by day in response. Or maybe just too lazy.

    And even if Kagan were wrong -- and, she is right -- is it not breathtaking for one appointed Justice, on his own, to decide that he does not like the balance that elected legislators decided on many decades ago, and that many waves of his judicial predecessors have declined to tamper with?

    On the merits, Roberts' approach is like the idiot-savant faith in flawless markets that we all recall from Introductory Ec class. The cliched joke about this outlook concerns the economist's refusal to pick up a $20 bill sitting on the sidewalk: After all, if really were a $20 bill, someone would already have picked it up. But the merits of his argument aren't the point. It's the disjuncture between the person who presented himself with "humility" at the confirmation hearings and the man happy to legislate from the bench.

    The head of the nation's judicial branch was purposefully deceptive during his "umpire" testimony. Or he had no idea what his words meant. Or he has had a complete change of philosophy and temperament while in his mid-50s. Those are the logical possibilities. None of them is too encouraging about the basic soundness of our governing institutions.

  • More on Hillary's speech

    I have heard from many people who have a harsher view of Hillary Clinton's "Internet freedom" speech that I expressed earlier. Part of the explanation, and I say this respectfully but with an edge, is that these people may not have heard as many Secretary of State speeches as I have. Usually such utterances have no apparent architecture or thought-content whatsoever. The standard transition is, "Turning now to Africa..." To have as much structure as Sec. Clinton's speech did -- to emphasize the obvious-but-rarely-made-by-politicians point that the Internet is simultaneously an opportunity and a peril; to try to enumerate the specific areas both of opportunity and of peril; to attempt, at least, the rhetorical trope of "Four Freedoms" of the Internet age; and again to attempt to make the connection between political freedom of expression and long term development of a society -- this is not nothing. To anyone disgruntled by this speech, I say: show me a speech by a sitting Secretary of State in recent times that is substantially better or more logically coherent. (George Marshall's speech unveiling what became the Marshall Plan does not count.)  Graded in the only way that makes sense -- against other presentations of its kind -- it was an impressive piece of work.

    Now... did it say exactly what the United States would do about practices it objects to, in China or elsewhere? Did it resolve other contradictions? No. And, of course not.  Again, if you're unhappy about this, you need to be exposed to more sitting-official speeches! Is it likely to help Google's cause? No -- as I pointed out! But rather than go much farther down that path, let me cite a message from a "Chinese-American-Canadian" reader who heard the speech in Shanghai and makes some sensible points:

    "From my vantage point in Shanghai, I can say that the news of Google possibly leaving the country was briefly a topic of discussion several days ago but hasn't been brought up since. My prediction is that, if Google leaves, Baidu will temporarily monopolize the market before facing competition from a domestic startup. Yes, Google will take a lot of top computer science talent along with it, but top talent will continue returning to the mainland from overseas to make up for the brain drain. And I don't think Google's departure will significantly impact the ability of Chinese people to circumvent censorship or government repression, as there are dozens of sites and forums discussing Party mishaps and injustices that are officially censored in the state news organs.

    More »

  • 5 > 4, but 59 < 41

    Fifty-nine senators, representing (as explained here) some 63 percent of the American public, accompanied by a large House majority and a president recently elected with 70 million votes, cannot enact changes in the nation's health-care system that have been debated for decades.
    A 59-41 margin is not enough for a change of this magnitude.

    Five Justices of the Supreme Court, outvoting their four colleagues, can work a fundamental change in election law that goes far beyond the issues presented by the parties to the case. (Among many accounts, see these two on Slate, here and here, and National Journal here.) Courts always have the option of deciding cases narrowly or broadly. The breadth of this one, reaching far beyond the merits of the case so as to enact the majority Justices' views, is staggering even to a non-lawyer like me. A one-person margin* is enough for a change of this magnitude.

    In the least accountable branch of government, the narrowest margin prevails; in our elected legislative branch, substantial majorities are neutered. My current article strikes a somewhat optimistic tone, in concluding that the only truly broken part of our country is its system of government. (Everyone on Earth would like to imitate America's universities. No one is copying our current governmental machinery.) But that brokenness will require some creativity to repair, and soon.
    ____
    * Yes, by definition a nine-member Supreme Court will end up making some 5-4 decisions. But it is impressive how many Big cases, from Marbury v Madison (5-0) to Brown v Board of Education (9-0) to NY Times v Sullivan (9-0) to  United States v Nixon (8-0), have not been cliffhangers -- and how disturbing and friction-engendering a one-vote decision can be when, as in this case, it seems to turn not on any change in real-world circumstances but simply on who now sits on the court. For another time: how John Roberts' "Hey, I'm just here as a neutral umpire, to call balls and strikes" confirmation testimony in 2005 would seem if viewed again today.

  • A momentous 40 hours, leading to Clinton/China/Internet

    Apart from two obvious pieces of momentous news in the past day-and-a-half -- the new junior Senator from Massachusetts, and the new Buckley v. Valeo (by which I mean today's lamentable, straight-party-line Supreme Court ruling that removes limits from direct corporate underwriting of political campaigns) -- there is one other event today that will have big ripple effects. I mean SecState Hillary Clinton's speech this morning about "Internet Freedom," mentioned here and with a prelude discussion here.

    I'm not going to take time for a thorough gloss of the speech. Instead I highly recommend reading the full text, here, or watching the official video, here. And for now some of the main points while listening (and noting main points down in real time with the handy LiveScribe pen.)

    - In contrast to the dreamy Internet optimism of a decade or so ago -- I'm not naming names, but I remember! -- when many people imagined that info technology, by itself, would undermine oppression and bring the world together, Clinton started off with a very astringent reminder that this technology, like others, was neither good or bad in itself and is already being used in both helpful and destructive ways:

    "Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights."

    And a very nice pivot out of this section, effective because it's so blunt and plain:

    "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does."

    - Underscoring the "this is a big deal" tone of the speech, she enumerated the "Four Freedoms" that FDR proclaimed in 1941, as part of the struggle for the world's future, and said there were a comparable set of Four Freedoms for the Internet age. Check out the speech yourself for details.

    - The China surprise: the speech was a more frontal challenge to Chinese internet and overall censorship policy than I expected, and than I recall in other US-China interactions in a very long time. For instance, early in the speech, an itemization of the places where suppression is getting worse:

    "In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained." 

    Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt -- this is not the grouping of countries that the Chinese government, in its recent sense of rise to superpower status, is used to being lumped with. Compared to the US as a financial power, OK; overtaking Japan in economic size, yes; being a crucial player in environmental negotiations... all that is one thing. Bracketed in the same sentence with Tunisia and Uzbekistan is different. Sentences like this don't appear in formal, big-deal SecState addresses by accident.

    Other passages to the same effect:

    "As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history. But history itself has already condemned these tactics....

    "Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation...."

    And then the Google section itself.

    More »

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