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.
  • One more on scholars, career paths, and Wall Street

    While waiting for one last installment on the Obama-in-Asia front, here is one last installment on the "does it matter that bright young things go to Wall Street" front. This is from a reader I know, American by background but living overseas for many years, on postings in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He went from a high-prestige academic track to the financial world, for reasons explained below and after the jump.

    Heart of his argument: the problem is not so much the financial rewards of Wall Street, which had not begun their stratospheric ascent when he made the switch 20-plus years ago. Rather it was the scarcity of other work for people trained and interested in international work -- and, as he puts it, the distinctive role of business-based experts in American public life.

    "Please allow me to give a view on the "Rhodes Scholars take the path to Wall Street" topic -- as I think my own experience sheds light on a fundamental fact which might be missing in the author's dismay that young US students in Oxford might lower their moral standards by pursuing a get-rich career in Wall Street: we need to understand the heavy weight of business pervading many segments of American political life and society, and to appreciate the lack of alternatives available to young American professionals if they wish to create a respectful career with an international background in non-business areas (diplomacy, journalism and/or academic). That in a nutshell is how I wound up in a Wall Street job coming out of a traditional university environment.
    "I arrived at a Wall Street kind of job and witnessed many of the excesses bemoaned in the article, but I entered down this path not in the search of the Holy Dollar but rather due to a search to apply my expertise in international affairs and could not find an acceptable alternative to business. I was always fascinated by international affairs and had a real passion to understand the reasons for Marxism and world revolution. I wound up being a specialist in Soviet studies. I first sought to make my calling in the university as a professor, feeling that this would be an area where people following a sincere quest for higher learning would be able to make a contribution for society. I found however that young academics in American society tend to have few choices given the weak pay found here compared to many other professions in American society. US society seems to give lower priority to the teaching profession than is the case for many other countries. This was in the 1970s when the US economy showed a lot of weakness and had little interest in Soviet specialists (despite the rising threat of Brezhnev's USSR).
     
    "As I became dissatisfied with the lack of choices available to a teacher in the US, I began to explore alternatives hoping to find a more satisfying way to make a living in which I could continue to make a contribution to society while also being able to pay my heating bills.  Unless I were willing to become a spy and work for the CIA, I found few areas where I could convert my Soviet expertise into a non-teaching job. Unlike scholars I knew from Europe who enjoyed the prospects of the respectable alternatives of diplomacy or journalism (where expertise in foreign languages and local histories have been highly valued), I found a different story in the US: that the US State Department and major US newspapers tended to look down on being a "country expert". The State Department in the 1970s made a deliberate shift toward generalists (so a Soviet specialist would be sent first to Guatemala to work stamping visas and then to Kenya to follow agricultural projects) and the Washington Post and NY Times preferred to send to Moscow a reporter who had spent a few years following the police beat in Chattanooga. Meanwhile I noticed that among the people of influence in Washington and in the US embassies, there were many seniors coming from the business world. In the US, the path to contributing to international affairs is often through the business network.
     
    "Hence despite my university-nurtured prejudice against businessmen, I eventually found to my surprise that there were intelligent people "even in the business world" and that in the business world overseas it was actually VALUED to have US executives who learned the local language and knew about the local culture and history of a country where you were working.  I eventually chose a banking career, NOT because I wanted to be a banker or reach for a stratospheric salary, but rather because I found my skills could have greater outlets for appreciation than in the "higher" types of calling such as diplomacy or journalism.
     
    "Looking back now to that career choice taken years ago, I see a mixed bag in which international banking certainly witnessed the excesses leading to the global financial meltdown of 2008, but it also led to the creation of social benefits which deserve more respect than is usually the case. The financing of power plants or aircraft deliveries or  semiconductor fabs might not appear to be an obvious case of "doing public service", but with the financial meltdown of last year we see the perverse consequences to the world economy when bank credit for even basic goods and services gets withdrawn from the economy.
     
    "My point here is to illustrate a fact about American life which sets us apart from Europe and Asia, namely the unique role of business within the fabric of American society. The commentary on the Rhodes Scholars seems to scoff at the idea of US students leaving Oxford to enter the business world -- a choice which might be found less frequently among the Oxford Dons but whch is not really startling if we appreciate how business dominates American society. Read Tocqueville and you'll find it wasn't that different when America was a younger country. Wall Street and Main Street are much more intertwined in the US than in Oxford, Paris or Heidelberg."

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  • Rhodes pushback

    Yesterday I mentioned Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post, which said that a shift in career choices for Rhodes scholars -- before, mainly politics/academics/writing; now, increasingly Wall Street -- was one more illustration of how outlandish pay in the financial world was distorting American incentives. For a Chinese perspective on this same point, see the thoughts of Gao Xiqing in my article last year, here

    A current Rhodes scholar at Oxford writes in defense of today's students:

    "Although I'm [from a country other than the US] and so outside of Mr Gerson's jurisdiction, I'm friends with many American Rhodies and I think it's worth noting one or two things about his article. It was an interesting and thought-provoking piece, but...

    "First, it should not be assumed that Rhodes Scholars are leaving Oxford for business in overwhelming numbers. The most convincing evidence Mr Gerson cites is that 6 (presumably 6 out of 32 American Scholars) went into business "recently". While 6/32 is a lot more than the 3/320 in the 1970s, it hardly signals that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation or the Scholars involved. The road from Oxford High Street to Wall Street is far less well travelled than the road from Oxford to law school in New Haven or med school in Cambridge, MA.
    "Second, it should not go unsaid that there is a lively debate in Oxford among Rhodes Scholars (of all nationalities) as to what is an 'appropriate' career path for those who have been fortunate to be given this tremendous opportunity. There is ongoing heated debate over the 'appropriateness' of professional work, non-profit work, academic work, and, yes, business work. To the extent that Mr Gerson's piece implies that we are all unquestioningly interested in, or tempted by, obscene earning differentials, this is unfair, inaccurate and offensive.

    "Third, it was a curious decision indeed for Mr Gerson to focus on this aspect of the Rhodes program. Why, on the day that 32 new [U.S.] Scholars were elected, should we focus on the minority who go into business? Why not focus on the overwhelming majority who work in higher education, medicine, law or public service? Mr Gerson opened his piece by noting that "For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service." Mr Gerson's own statistics, and my own experience, confirm that Rhodes Scholars continue to overwhelmingly choose these paths.

    "Fourth, it should not be forgotten that while the scholarships are important in the United States, they are overwhelmingly an international scholarship. More than two-thirds of each class come from outside the 50 states. Mr Gerson's data sample is limited.

    "Mr Gerson may well have an interesting point to make about earning differentials and the undoubtedly obscene levels of pay in many businesses today. He struggles to make the point convincingly by using the data relating to Rhodes Scholars."

    For what it's worth. The point of the article really was about today's grotesque pay differentials rather than this select group of American youth, but it's fair to hear pushback at their being used as data points this way. That's the end of this discussion, for my purposes. Consistent with my ongoing points about coverage of American diplomacy in Asia, we'll wait to see in a generation or so how this crop of students decides to spend its time.

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  • Manufactured failure #5: views from China

    I won't go on in this vein forever (previously #1, #2, #3, #4), but the topic is important enough to bear a little more elaboration, IMHO. Part of the importance: there is no country with whom America's interactions are more consequential, or perpetually more complicated, than China. Another part of the importance: how the American public understands these interactions makes a big difference, in recognizing the points of disagreement and the areas of possible cooperation. Tomorrow, one more installment from the US government official who participated in important meetings and whom I have quoted twice before. For now:

    This morning on the Chris Matthews show I mentioned earlier, a White House reporter for the Washington Post said that the Shanghai town meeting was another item on the disappointment/failure docket for America. Her argument was essentially: the Chinese outsmarted the Obama team and kept their countrymen from seeing it. I don't remember whether she said it was not broadcast at all or only on one "local" network; as mentioned yesterday, that one network reaches 100 million households.

    So to a member of the traveling press pool, viewing the session mainly as a campaign stop whose advance work went either well or poorly, this looked like a bust. Here is how it looked to a foreigner who has just written me -- a person who has lived in China for two decades, still does business there, and speaks Mandarin:
    "In your series, you touched on the Shanghai town hall, quoting from President Obama's opening and his response to the Twitter/Great Firewall question, and gave voice to a White House insider as to the power of his words and their likely reach inside China. There's been some buzz among western journalists about how the town hall "reached no one".

    "I've been monitoring the China internet in the wake of the town hall and, based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:
    'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time.  I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hearIt forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'
    "Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."
    After the jump, two other reader responses, one with an additional Chinese perspective and one with a historical comparison.
    ______

    A reader writes:

    "We were watching the Bejing dinner highlights on cable at home (CT state), via CCTV network [China Central TV, state controlled] and saw a very close friend among the group of musicians/artists performing. My wife woke me up to tivo it, then she called our friend in Shanghai (he had already returned the next early morning).
    "He apparently accompanies the bigwigs when they travel and/or entertain foreign guests, etc. For instance, he was in Moscow last year when Hu saw Putin. So unlike other performers, he gets to see the leadership withforeign dignitaries on a routine basis.

    "Anyway, long story short, from his local chinese perspective, it was obvious to him that the Chinese leadership were clearly enamored with Obama. They sincerely enjoyed our President's company, it was obvious from their body language of some connection with Obama.   Obviously the state press wouldn't show that.....hopefully this visit established some mutual 'trust'.  We'll see...."

    Another writes:

    "One of the things that struck me when I was reading one of the NYT's stories on the President's visit to China was their odd way of contrasting it to past presidential visits.  As I remember, the reporter(s) writing the story as much as said that Mr. Obama had not "gotten" any concessions on this and that unlike how it used to be in the good ol' days. [WaPo story to that effect here.]

    "You remember those days right? when the U.S. President could helicopter into China and come back with the RMB exactly where we want it, no more internal censorship or repression, all political prisoners freed, China ready and willing to impose sanctions on country A and help invade country B, and of course solid enforceable contract law appearing by magic all around the country, and whatever else comes up in these silly articles."

    I am most certainly not saying that all the coverage was negative, nor that all the negative coverage was wrong. Nor that all of the coverage was misinformed. Pretty soon, out of fairness, I will do a compliments-list compendium of enlightening stories from the trip: one that instantly comes to mind is Jason Dean's in the WSJ about the mysterious half-censored interview Obama conducted with Southern Weekend newspaper. If, as I'm saying, we should judge the trip on its long-term results, it could turn out to be a failure when we see what China and Japan actually do over the next year on contentious issues. But my very strong impression is that the overwhelming tone of coverage was campaign-like and unnecessarily negative, and that the resulting bias is worth noting. If you haven't gotten the point yet!

    Bonus update!
    My friend and occasional Atlantic contributor Adam Minter writes from Shanghai in partial defense of the MSM:

    "I remain sympathetic to the traveling press corps and their coverage, in part because I think the White House did such a lousy job about conveying its goals for the trip during and in the immediate aftermath of the visit. Put differently, I've learned more about the administration's hopes from the mission from your post-facto interview with  the un-named gov't official, than I did from any statements given to the media by the White House during the mission. Why couldn't the un-named official have briefed the press corps in the same way that you are being briefed while everyone was crossing the Pacific? Clearly, they didn't. So, to some extent, I think the blame for negative coverage - and, true, I'm sympathetic to some of it - must be laid at the feet of the White House and those responsible for getting the press corps up to speed."

    More tomorrow.

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  • Manufactured failure #4: more on Obama's trip

    Things are warming up on this front. Previously here, with backward links. Today's points:

    1) Many people have forwarded me a posting from my friend and former colleague Chuck Todd, saying that people who criticize the press's horse-race, instant-analysis coverage of Obama's trip are guilty of the same horse-race, instant-analysis thinking themselves. Ie, Hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable -- mon frere!

    With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign "pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an announcement is a "failure."

    2) Many people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip. (Distillation of my complaint in an On the Media segment here; also, it was one theme of my All Things Considered discussion with Guy Raz yesterday.)

    2A) As a bonus, here is what the Post's page showed yesterday for discussion of Obama's trip: was it a success or "an embarrassment"?

    obamaasiaWP.jpg

    3) Below and after the jump, more comments from a US government official who was on the trip and knows first-hand about many of the meetings with foreign dignitaries. Earlier from this person here.

    About the "humiliating" bow to the Emperor of Japan:

    "Obama's attitude was, this is an elderly gentleman in a country where this kind of greeting is customary. It does not seem extraordinary to show this kind of gesture to him. The Fox news poll said that 67% of Americans thought it was a good thing for him to have done. When the president heard that some people had complained, I'd characterize his reaction as: The notion that the United States is somehow humbling or humiliating itself by showing respect for a local custom, when it is transparently the most powerful country in the world, leaves me speechless."

    On what Obama "got" from China on climate/environment issues:

    "We closed some of the gap but not all of the gap. The Chinese do not wish, three weeks out of Copenhagen, to be seen working hand in glove with the US to impose a "G2" solution to the G77. They have their own reservations about how far things should go. But they also don't want to be seen as the stumbling block or odd man out.

    "We kept making the argument, We're the #1 and 2 emitters, so we have a special responsibility, a special role. We got some movement. They are taking substantial mitigating steps, which they didn't enumerate but we know what they are. As best we can tell, they are prepared to submit those as their "target" in Copenhagen, and of course we want them to be "commitments" rather than targets. There is still a stumbling block on the issue of accountability, which is always a hard one with the Chinese. We'd like to have an independent peer review of whether doing what you said you would do.  There are lots of different ways to do that... But we haven't closed that part of the gap yet.

    "Prime Minister Rasmussen [Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark, with obvious involvement in the Copenhagen talks] has been saying that while a binding legal treaty by this December is not possible, he has been calling for a politically-binding accord at Copenhagen. Then there would be the task of turning it into a treaty over the next year. The Chinese have bought into that general framework. And we made a lot of agreements with them on clean energy [details here]. So on climate change, there were no miracles, but we moved them out out of the position of being blockers to being part of the game.

    On what happened regarding North Korea and Iran:

    "North Korea first. We announced that [Ambassador Stephen] Bosworth was going there on December 8. Essentially we want his talks to be followed by resumption of Six Party Talks before terribly long.  We told the Chinese that. In the joint statement, the Chinese did in fact commit to seeking resumption of Six Party Talks at an early date. They agreed to that principle, and they were pretty robust in their insistence that they care about the denuclearization of North Korea. In fact they more than anyone else have reasons to be troubled by the program.  The missiles may not be aimed at China, but they are right next to China. So our perspectives are not identical, but on North Korea, we're doing pretty well.

    "Iran has been more difficult, and will probably become a more sensitive issue. Iran itself is heading the wrong direction. By end of the year, we may have to go to the pressure track. We made a strong presentation, whose gist was: Time is running out, and if this situation continues, several other clocks are ticking. There's the Israeli clock. If Israel decides to do something, we cannot stop them. If it's an existential decision, you don't consult anybody else. And Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Egypt probably would follow with nuclear programs. What's the impact of that on security in the Persian Gulf and the international non-proliferation regime? And on Japan and Korea? It is profoundly in China's interest to stay close to the "P5 + 1." [Five UN Security Council permanent members, plus Germany.]

    "On the one hand, they get it. But as a matter of principle they don't like sanctions and are concerned about their energy supplies, and they always like to free-ride. If the Russians are on board they will be on board too.  At the end of the day, I expect the China will be on board. There may be some foot-dragging about specifics of a resolution, depending on how draconian it is. Russia is the bigger challenge, in the sense that if you get China.

    About judging the results of these talks - and those on economics [about which more in the next installment]:

    "Discussions with the Chinese just don't offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It's water on a stone. They don't reveal their Eurekas to you. While you're there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.

    "Judgments will be borne out over time. Will they cooperate or not on Iran? Will they be spoilers or not on climate change? On North Korea? Rebalancing their economy? None of those is a one-day story. The only fair way of evaluating results will be over time.

    "But I get the sense that many of our critics would not be happy unless Obama punched the Chinese leaders in the nose."

    More to come, from the official and also from sources in China, on the impact Obama's town hall may prove to have.

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  • Manufactured failure #3: insider's view of the Obama trip

    Late yesterday -- after I had recorded my On The Media complaints about mainstream coverage of Barack Obama's trip to Asia, but before I had seen Howard French's and Tish Durkin's similar complaints -- I got a call from a government official who had been on the trip. This person -- for convenience, I'll say "she" rather than "he or she" from here on -- wasn't aware that I'd already weighed in about the coverage, and was calling to say that I, as person who'd recently been living in China, might be interested in how different the events seemed to her from what she'd seen in the U.S. press.

    She agreed to have her views conveyed "on background," which I'll do here and in a few more installments over the next two or three days. Obviously these are the views of an interested party, who was involved in planning the trip and believes it should be seen as a success. But compare them with what you read and heard about the trip last week -- including about the "failure" of the Town Meeting in Shanghai.

    About coverage of the trip in general:

    "I don't care if someone criticizes us, I just would like it to be accurate and in context. I fear I am learning that is not the skill of some in the White House Press corps. They are experts on horse races, and so that is the way everything is cast."

    About what the Administration hoped for from the trip:

    "In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories. You've now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.

    "Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road. 

    "We've got Copenhagen [climate talk] coming up in mid-December. We have Iran heading increasingly likely toward Plan B rather than Plan A, pressure rather than inducements. North Korea. And the Copenhagen session is very far from a done deal. The countries we dealt with are all key players here. And on the economic side, you've got the whole issue of rebalancing the global agenda. None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game.

    "The other thing we had in mind, which has to do with the whole "rising China" phenomenon: we wanted to solidify the relationship with China. To show them that we're not going to have a fluctuating policy. That we know what we're doing, and understand that we are dealing from a position of strength. And at the same time, to all our traditional allies [Japan, Korea, etc], we wanted to reinforce their sense of comfort that our relationship with China won't be at their expense."

    About the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai: Why was it "censored" rather than streamed to anyone who wanted to see it in China?

    "We negotiated endlessly against a very difficult Chinese government on the issue. Their intransigence tells me several things. It was the day before the meeting with Hu Jintao, and there were uneasy about what might be said in a live format. ["Surprise" = "unacceptable risk" in many official Chinese dealings.]  This was also a townhall format of a type they had never had before. [What about Bill Clinton's? That was a roundtable plus a speech, not a town hall.] We wanted to have 1000 or 1500 people. They said No. Security problems, and so on. So, we got to 500. We insisted on live streaming. Endless fights on that. Then live TV. Endless fights. And questions from the internet. Huge fights over who would pose them and who would screen. There wasn't  a single aspect of the meeting that wasn't hard fought.

    "It was tortured enough that we thought about pulling the plug. At the end of the day we decided to go through. The point is that on the Chinese side, this showed more than the usual anxiety. I think there was a genuine anxiety about the possible... force of Barack Obama. I would say a word short of "subversive" or "destabilizing." But something profoundly disturbing to their system of government and control. The anxiety was a tribute to the kind of inspirational force he has.

    "What they actually did, was to put the live streaming part on Xinhua.net. For the opening portion, we studied very carefully Ronald Reagan's speech at Fudan in 1984. It began almost identically: Here is who we are, and these are our values. But Reagan's ended with a poem from Zhou Enlai. Can you Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had ended up with a poem by Zhou Enlai?

    "We know there were tens of millions of hits on Xinhua.net.  And more than two or three tens of millions. Some people complained that this was carried 'only' on Shanghai TV, but that reaches reaches 100 million households.  Of the top 10 Chinese web sites, nine carried news and commentary. Thousands of user generated messages and blog posts.  Tens of millions people in the first instance saw it, and by the time it's over the number is going to be staggering. Whenever we had a discussion about, Should we pull the plug, we thought, if there is an opportunity to talk to tens of millions of people, that is an opportunity we should take. People can draw their conclusions about China and America from the event."

    More to come tomorrow.

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  • Signs of the apocalypse from an unexpected angle, #13,287

    In case you haven't seen it, check out Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post today, offering an unexpected measure of what has gone wrong with America's economic and social structure. Gerson is the American secretary of the Rhodes scholarship trust, and his data track follows... what Rhodes Scholars do with their lives once they come home from England.

    Precis: in the olden days, they wanted to be big shots, a la Bill Clinton. Politicians, professors, writers, people paid in part or full in currency other than plain cash. Now, they want to be rich. And Gerson has a theory about what that change shows.

    There is a reverse-backflip aspect to this shift that Gerson is certainly aware of but doesn't have the space to mention: Over the past 20 years or so, the selection process for Rhodes scholars has shifted to place less emphasis on Clinton-style BMOC traits and more on expressed or proven commitment to "service." So a group that starts out being more interested in social service ends up being more likely to go to Wall Street. Read and reflect.

  • Manufactured failure #2: the press, Obama, Asia

    It's not just me. Two colleagues with different perspectives -- from each other's, and sometimes from my own -- marvel at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama's just-ended tour of Asia.

    First, Howard French -- long of the NYT, now of the Columbia Journalism School, friend of mine in both Tokyo and Shanghai. He has a new online Q-and-A with the Columbia Journalism Review, here, in which he says that the traveling press covered Obama's meetings with Asian officials as if this were a bunch of stops in a presidential campaign tour, and as a result missed or misrepresented what was going on. Read the whole thing, but here are two samples:

    From the set-up to the interview, by Alexandra Fenwick:

    "In almost every analysis of the trip, Chinese officials were portrayed as optimistic and newly emboldened to stand up to American interests and Obama was cast in the role of the meek debtor, standing with hat in hand. The line is that little was achieved and Obama was stifled, literally by state television and figuratively by the Chinese upper hand in the power dynamic."

    Howard French goes on to say that these assumptions were flat wrong. He offers many explanations, including this:

    "I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can't be an expert on every question, and so you're part of the Washington press corps and if you're really good and really diligent, you're going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China."

    If you have seen Howard French's coverage over the years, including the five years he was based in Shanghai, you will know that no sane reader has ever put him in the category of "soft" on the Chinese leadership or China's faults. Yet his wonderment and exasperation at what he reads is palpable.

    Tish Durkin, who has written for the Atlantic from Iraq and elsewhere, arrived in China recently. The subhead on her new column for The Week gets across the point:

    "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    While I'm at it, here's one more: a story quoting the new US Ambassador to China, former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman (a Mandarin speaker), to exactly the same effect.

    "Washington's ambassador to Beijing hit out on Friday at negative US media coverage of President Barack Obama's visit to China, saying it failed to take into account important progress on many issues...

    "The trip was the top news story in China, drawing strong interest from the mainland public who, surveys suggest, are largely positive in their view of the American president.

    "However, much of the US media coverage was strongly negative, accusing Obama of failing to gain concessions on key issues such as Iran's nuclear programme and climate change, as well as being weak on human rights."

    "I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. "I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings," he said.

    I wasn't in touch with Howard French or Tish Durkin (to say nothing of Amb. Jon Huntsman) before we all expressed the same amazed and negative reaction at the way our colleagues had missed the main point of what just happened in America's relations with a very important part of the world. We're all familiar with one "crisis of the press," the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based "horse race." As you can tell, this really bothers me.

  • Manufactured failure: press coverage of Obama in Asia

    I have what I think is some interesting new info coming on this front over the weekend; stay tuned, starting Saturday afternoon. For the moment, two more installments in my argument, previously here and here,  that Barack Obama's recent swing through Asia was a relative success, and certainly nothing like the disaster that most U.S. coverage implied.

    Installment one: me talking with Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media just now, about why American fantasies of an omnipotent, rising China may have distorted American press reaction to what Obama said and did.

    Installment two: the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

    November 11, just before the trip:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China on 16 November will produce positive rhetoric, but achieve little on a range of issues from North Korea to economic rebalancing. Washington and Beijing will continue to highlight areas of mutual cooperation and interests, but domestic political agendas will pose serious constraints on the extent of near-term progress....

    "Little to be expected on economic rebalancing and trade... Obama will likely raise the currency issue as part of a broader economic rebalancing framework. But the Chinese will continue to reject greater emphasis on the rebalancing issue, because Beijing interprets it as Washington shifting more of the blame on China for the global recession....

    "No bilateral agreement will be reached on emissions reduction targets that might precipitate an ambitious global climate change treaty next month in Copenhagen. Obama's more modest task is to prevent China from aligning too closely with the G77 developing country bloc in global negotiations, although he has limited bargaining chips to encourage cooperation from China." [emphasis mine]

    November 20 (today), post-action assessment, which boils down to, it went just as expected, and maybe a little better:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China met the modest expectations set by the White House, making some progress on creating a more expansive relationship and on clean energy and climate change cooperation...Obama appears to have effectively reassured Beijing that the US does not intend to contain China's rise, creating a framework for mutual assurance that could augur a more mature relationship in the longer term.

    "The US-China presidential summit involved a genuine attempt by both sides to push toward closer cooperation -- producing a robust joint statement that highlighted a range of common interests. In particular, Obama's first visit to China saw deliverables on clean energy and climate change cooperation, as expected. By dampening Copenhagen expectations in Singapore, Obama avoided a potential collision with China at next month's meeting... But Chinese domestic politics prevented Beijing from publicly discussing contentious issues such as currency and economic rebalancing during the trip...

    "While policy disagreements and trade frictions will continue in the near term, Obama took an important step with a very public reassurance for Beijing that the US does not seek to contain China's rise. Beijing's receptiveness to this appeal indicates the intent of both countries to reduce the mutual distrust that has colored aspects of the relationship -- from currency, military engagement, and Taiwan to human rights and climate change. The Obama administration's more public approach, if successful, can promote longer term stability by engaging China on a broad range of issues within the context of a more mature and pragmatic relationship -- and in preventing specific, contentious issues from defining the relationship."

    Why bring this up? Because it's bad all around when American press coverage makes people feel that perfectly predictable results constitute a shameful failure for the country and its leadership. More on this theme tomorrow.

    (Update: later in this series, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6)

  • RIP, D-N-I.net (updated)

    After an outstanding ten-and-a-half year run, the website "Defense and the National Interest," better known as d-n-i.net, will close down next Monday, November 23. Chet Richards, who with his wife Ginger has run the site through that time, says that for various logistical and practical reasons he is ready to move on to day-job concerns.

    chet.jpg

    Chet (shown here), a retired Air Force colonel and math PhD, has been one of the most committed and effective proponents of the ideas of combat developed in the 1970s and 1980s by another retired Air Force colonel, the late John Boyd -- background here and here. Chet is an original thinker and strategist himself and has written about theories of conflict as they apply to modern business, technological innovation, "soft power," and so on.

    There's an immediate reason for mentioning the site's pending close, apart from an appreciation of Chet and Ginger Richards, William Lind, Chuck Spinney, and others who have contributed to d-n-i's success. This is the main online repository for a lot of Boyd's briefings and papers, so if you think you might ever be interested in them, set aside a little downloading time over the weekend. Handy shortcut to some downloads here. Thanks to all involved.

     Update: more on d-n-i, Richards, Boyd, and maintaining the archives here and here


  • Having complained about Google Checkout...

    ... because of its opaqueness in certain circumstances (and more to say when next I am at a computer), let me mention a different Google project notable for its transparency. That is the "Chromium OS" -- a new operating system optimized for "netbooks," which was announced yesterday as an open-source development project. Google has made the source code available free, along with some design documents and results of early user testing. First video below is the hour-plus announcement session. At the bottom is a three-minute product intro.

     

    The idea behind netbooks, of course, is that they'll be stripped down to only and exactly those features needed for "cloud"-based work. The idea behind the Chromium OS is the same. According to this announcement, the cloud-centrism of the new OS will have two big advantages for users: speed, going from power-on to ready-for-use within a few seconds rather than a few minutes; and security, with both programs and data "living" in the cloud rather than on your own machine, and therefore subject to protection in more sophisticated ways. More on security features here. As the announcement says, "Chrome OS barely trusts itself. Every time you restart your computer the operating system verifies the integrity of its code. If your system has been compromised, it is designed to fix itself with a reboot."

    How well will this actually work? Obviously we'll have to watch as it unfolds -- the watching process being much easier because it will be open-source. Here's an early Network World look at strengths and apparent weaknesses. Google's related Chrome browser has had both pluses and minuses, about which more later. A beta version of Chrome (Windows only; Mac promised) has just been announced with bookmark-sync and further progress toward support of "extensions," which is one of the areas where Firefox is most obviously superior to Chrome. Will check it out, with reactions later on. (Routine disclosure: I have many friends who work at Google -- but, to my knowledge, none of them directly involved in this project.)

  • About my frozen Google account

    Well, at least I know what the problem was. It was China's fault! When I was living in Beijing early this year, I tried to reserve a domain name and pay for it using the Google Checkout system. Google's fraud-detection system flagged the transaction as likely fraudulent. It then canceled the deal and put a hold on my account.

    This happened to me all the time in China. Maybe once a week my wife or I would find that our Visa or Master Card account had been frozen, because any online purchase we tried to make from a China-based Internet connection would trigger all the fraud detectors. Then we would spend 30 minutes on the phone, via Skype, getting the cards re-upped. We should have remembered always, always, to fire up the VPN before trying to buy something online -- so that the credit card company would think we were logging in from San Francisco or suburban Washington --  but sometimes we forgot. I hadn't tried to pay for anything else by Google's system until this week, so I didn't know until now that my account had been put on the watch list. 

    A product manager for Google's Checkout utility sent me the following explanation, and said I was free to quote it:

    "I am the product manager responsible for fraud prevention on Google Checkout, and I want to follow up with you about the recent issues with your account.

    "The issue with your Checkout account actually begun shortly after you placed the first order on January 28, 2009 for domain [XXX] which was cancelled because the IP address that was used for the order had a high rate of attempted fraud. [The IP address was our apartment building in Beijing.]

    "Google's algorithms automatically review IP addresses when orders are placed on Checkout to catch attempted fraud with stolen credit cards.  Fraud is a pressing issue in the electronic payment industry, and merchants bear the financial risk associated with these transactions so Google (and most online merchants) collect additional signals to determine the risk of online orders. Where our algorithms see suspicious transactions, we will often ask for additional proof of identity.

    "While Google employs an advanced fraud detection system, it does occasionally catch legitimate user orders, which was what happened in your case. An error can occasionally arise when people share the same IP addresss on WiFi or VPN networks.  For more info about Checkout fraud detection, take a look at the Checkout Security Center and our recent blog post."

    Tomorrow some time, an elaboration on the security/usability trade-off in online commerce, which has surprising similarities to the comparable trade-off in air travel. The same Google official who sent the note above re-instated my account long enough for me to enter new credit card info and re-up my bona fides. Responding one-by-one to people who complain in public is obviously not a solution that "scales." But if I hadn't complained in public, I would simply never have used Google Checkout again: I am not about to send a scan of my passport or driver's license to some random email address, which is the only option offered for "verification." More on what this means anon.

  • Those tin-eared Americans

    I noted here recently, as I have since time immemorial, that Chinese government spokesmen can often seem deaf to the concerns and mindset of their potential audience overseas. A reader from France says that maybe my own ears need to be inspected for metallic content:

    "Put simply, I reacted myself mostly to the following phrase of Obama [in his Shanghai town hall presentation]:
          "We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,"

    "Read again slowly: 'We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation.'

    "My take: the disconnect is as old as the CIA, Mossadegh or Cuba... I would have not reacted strongly when told the same by Kennedy, Reagan or Clinton. But now it is different. And my epidermic intolerance is now quite wide ranging, not only relating this affirmation as concerns Iraq, but extending to the sermons about sclerotic European Market, Global warming [etc].      

    "I understand that Obama's task is among others to sell the American Brand, and marketing people have a tenuous obligation to stick to the product. Or if we want to be kind, they want to mold the public perception of a brand new product they are bringing to the market. Nonetheless: I suspect you didn't even react yourself to this sentence. Could you comment on the state of the American eardrums, as you did for the Chinese ones?

    "My background: French with (European) multi-countries experience...and close relatives living in the US. As I consequence, I lost my patriotic Innocence, and often smile at the overblown universal moralistic discourse of my Presidents or Intellectuals. You?"

    On the state of American eardrums, I've often explicitly compared the inward-looking nature of Chinese officials and much of the Chinese population to their counterparts in the U.S. These are both big, continental nations that are finally more interested in themselves than in how those teeming, confusing, often-touchy outsiders might feel, think, or act. This can lead to blunders and offense-giving, innocent and otherwise. Part of Obama's appeal in the outside world has been the sense that by background and mindset he should be more attuned to outside sentiments. And of course this very sense is what some Americans don't like about Obama -- that he seems "foreign," or "cosmopolitan," very much as John Kerry seemed "French."

    When I read the "do not seek to impose" line again, slowly, of course I understand the "hey, wait a minute" retorts that might spring up from half a dozen sites around the world. I suppose the reason it didn't strike me the first time is that I was also assuming the background that many Americans would: that Obama marked a change from the "seek to impose" policies of recent years, that he could say that line without taking responsibility for complications of the past and some in the present. But I see, and take, the reader's point.

  • On Obama's Asian diplomacy -- #3

    Last week some of Barack Obama's critics were upset that he ducked a question in Japan about whether he approved of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I cannot begin to say how short-sighted that criticism is.

    When I lived in Japan for several years in the 1980s, I learned about the various realms of the things you could say in public (tatemae) and things you actually believed ( honne). Although not strictly a matter of tatemae/honne, the atomic bomb decision is a particularly thorny and awkward one for Americans to discuss with Japanese. The normal way to consider the topic in Japan involves the country's status as the only object of an atomic attack in history, the suffering its people underwent, and the status it therefore possesses to talk about the importance of avoiding any such event again -- all of which is understandable. There is a lot of history the prevailing Japanese account leaves out, but that is a point better raised in internal Japanese debate than by American officials. Americans may believe that Harry Truman saved both Japanese and Allied lives by this decision. But there really is no mileage in a U.S. official saying that to people in Japan. Probably the worst thing I did in my time there was to propose that argument to a man who had been a doctor in Hiroshima in 1945. The conversation came to an abrupt and hostile end. And I was just a reporter, not the American president who has the power to order nuclear weapons used again.

    Here's the best analogy I can think of: suppose you were a sheriff who had gunned down a group of terrorists who were threatening to blow up a town. In the crossfire, some innocent children were killed. If you run into their parents long afterwards, do you say: "Tough luck, it was in a good cause! And I'd do just the same thing again!" Or do you recognize their great sorrow and loss and do everything possible to avoid rubbing it in?

    In avoiding a direct answer to the question from a Japanese reporter about whether the bombing was justified, Obama did what any American president or diplomat should do when this topic is raised in Japan. There is no answer that would have worked out better for him than his not answering at all.

  • More on Nine Nations of China (updated)

    I mentioned two days ago Patrick Chovanec's online Atlantic feature, "The Nine Nations of China."

    Chovanec.jpg


    He has just done a followup on his own site, about some preceding Chinese and Western exercises in the same spirit. Very much worth reading, here, along with this post on a related theme.

    Update: To be clear about it, any suggestion from the discussions above that Patrick Chovanec's map was in some way "unoriginal" is entirely unwarranted, from my point of view. The concept that big, monolithic "China" is better understood as a variety of diverse sub-units is a well-established, even obvious one. The plus of Chovanec's presentation is the execution, which makes the point interesting and accessible for people in a new way. And as he points out on his own site, in his initial (very long!) submission to the Atlantic, he catalogued a variety of previous efforts in this same direction. That history would have fit well into a long, print version of his analysis, but not so well into the kind of interactive online feature we have presented. So, congratulations to him for making an important concept interesting and vivid for readers.
  • On Obama's Asian diplomacy -- #2

    Previously here. A reader writes:

    "Relating to comments on the Shanghai town hall, enough of the parsing of what he said on issues and how he said them, I think the most significant sentence was "That's why I'm pleased to announce that the United States will dramatically expand the number of our students who study in China to 100,000." Even without details (per year (I hope) or over what period, college and/or high school students, how funded, etc), I am surprised you have not remarked on it (and that the NY Times did not even report it). It is of major significance."

    Good point. I did noticed this while listening to the speech, but have not yet tracked back to see exactly how, when, and through what institutions this will occur. It's worth following up -- as I will, soon. But in the meantime, it's welcome news.

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