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.
  • Do we need another Turnip Day?

    This is further on the question of what Barack Obama and the Democrats can do about an opposition that is disciplined to vote No on all major issues, and that thwarts "bipartisan compromise" because there is no plausible item that could be added to a stimulus or health reform bill that will swing one of those votes to Yes. A reader writes:

    "I have been waiting for someone somewhere to relate the current Congressional impasse to the 'Turnip Day' special session that Truman called in his acceptance speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention. Some Republicans believed they should complete some unobjectionable legislation in the session, but Leader Robert Taft was adamant that they would yield nothing to 'that son of a bitch the President'. Taft succeeded in making the session an utter failure, but Truman succeeded in demonstrating that the Republicans were obstructionist and he won the campaign meme of the 'Do-Nothing Congress'."This experience of the American electorate punishing rabid partisanship seems too poignant to disappear into history, don't you agree?"

    Agree! The official US Senate history of Turnip Day is here; the text of Truman's Democratic Convention speech is here, courtesy of the Miller Center's excellent presidential archives. As the Senate history says about the moment:

    "At 1:45 in the morning, speaking only from an outline, Truman quickly electrified the soggy delegates. In announcing the special session, he challenged the Republican majority to live up to the pledges of their own recently concluded convention to pass laws to ensure civil rights, extend Social Security coverage, and establish a national health-care program. "They can do this job in 15 days, if they want to do it." he challenged. That two-week session would begin on "what we in Missouri call 'Turnip Day,'" taken from the old Missouri saying, "On the twenty-fifth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry."

    "Republican senators reacted scornfully. To Michigan's Arthur Vandenberg, it sounded like "a last hysterical gasp of an expiring administration." Yet, Vandenberg and other senior Senate Republicans urged action on a few measures to solidify certain vital voting blocs. "No!" exclaimed Republican Policy Committee chairman Robert Taft of Ohio. "We're not going to give that fellow anything." Charging Truman with abuse of a presidential prerogative, Taft blocked all legislative action during the futile session. By doing this, Taft amplified Truman's case against the "Do-nothing Eightieth Congress" and contributed to his astounding November come-from-behind victory."
  • I am going to rename Outlook "HAL"

    Yes, the subject line is a lame reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the creepy-voiced computer, HAL 9000, hears that Keir Dullea / "Dave" is planning to turn it off -- and takes aggressive action. Below, Keir D fending off HAL:


    I think my version of HAL - that is, Outlook -- overheard me saying that I was planning to move messages out of it and into the cloud, via Gmail. Apparently it is taking matters into its own hands! Over the past 24 hours, I get this error message when trying to get into my main current-correspondence Outlook file (click for larger):


    Or, for elegant variation (click for larger):


    And this one when I run Outlook's previously-reliable SCANPST.EXE program to repair .PST files.


    This is what we call in tech-land a "reproducible error." Same result after reboots, resets, you have it. Entirely inaccessible .PST file. Large-scale data loss! Many hundreds of messages marked "to follow up" or "to answer"! Another reason to move the rest of the data into the cloud, before something screws it up.

    Gee, Outlook, was it something I said? Despite my irritation, I find it somehow touching that Outlook is fighting to maintain its "relevance," playing the part of HAL in these lines:
    "Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
    "HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
    "Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
    "HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
    "Dave Bowman: What's the problem?
    "HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
    "Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
    "HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
    "Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
    "HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."
    On the bright side, now I have an excuse: if I haven't answered your email, "it was in that corrupted file..." And in a hard-bitten way I can't help admiring Outlook's refusal to go quietly.

    That's President of the United States on Filibuster of the United States Senate.

    "So the problem here you've got is an institution that increasingly is not adapted to the demands of a hugely competitive 21st century economy.  [Good point! JF] I think the Senate in particular, the challenge that I gave to Republicans and I will continue to issue to Republicans is if you want to govern then you can't just say no.  It can't just be about scoring points.  There are multiple examples during the course of this year in which that's been the case.

    "Look, I mentioned the filibuster record.  We've had scores of pieces of legislation in which there was a filibuster, cloture had to be invoked, and then ended up passing 90 to 10, or 80 to 15.  And what that indicates is a degree to which we're just trying to gum up the works instead of getting business done.

    "That is an institutional problem. In the Senate, the filibuster only works if there is a genuine spirit of compromise and trying to solve problems, as opposed to just shutting the place down.  If it's just shutting the place down, then it's not going to work."

    At another point, addressing the Democratic senators and congratulating them on the work they had done:

    "You did all this despite facing enormous procedural obstacles that are unprecedented.  You may have looked at these statistics.  You had to cast more votes to break filibusters last year than in the entire 1950s and '60s combined.  That's 20 years of obstruction packed into just one.  But you didn't let it stop you."

    Good to see some direct attention to this issue from the top. Consistent with the "shame strategy" analysis put forward by the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder here.

    From Barack Obama's comments this morning at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee conference in Washington. Emphasis added:

  • More from the "why bipartisanship can't work" guy

    Yesterday I quoted someone who has worked in and observed national politics for many years, about why this era's partisan impasse really is different from what we've known in other eras -- and worse. In short, his point was that today's GOP minority was acting like a parliamentary opposition -- voting absolutely as a bloc, under the threat of party discipline -- in our non-parliamentary system, which made it very hard to get anything done.

    He is back with another installment, after surveying the range of internet response to his views:

    "I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'

    "That's the reason to keep including (as your blog post did) the word "major" in front of "legislation."  In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one of required lock-step voting - only major votes.  Hence the notion of the "three line whip" notice in the House of Commons - defy that, and you're dead.  But absent the three lines drawn on the whip notice, an MP can vote the way he or she prefers.  Or at least that was the way it used to work.  Probably it is all done by Blackberry messages now.

    "What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip notice on major legislation.  The Recovery Act passed the House without a single GOP vote - not even one!  That could not happen without party discipline coming from the party, not spontaneously from each House member of the party.  It is true that there are lots of other bills that Republicans can vote for if they wish.  True, but irrelevant.  If any of the bills really matters to Obama in a big way, the contemporary GOP version of the three-line whip notice comes into play. 

    "(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose?  Find the answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try to blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes.  Someone somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means, written or oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples of churches.)

    "A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press.  In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture.  But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage.  "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times.  In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor.  That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it!  The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor.  Huh?  Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not?  Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats."

  • Why bipartisanship can't work: the expert view

    I got this note from someone with many decades' experience in national politics, about a discussion between two Congressmen over details of the stimulus bill:

    "GOP member: 'I'd like this in the bill.'

    "Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'

    "GOP member:  'You know I can't vote for the bill.'

    "Dem member:  'Then why should we put it in the bill?'

    "I witnessed this myself."

    I wrote back saying, "Great story!" and got the response I quote below and after the jump. It is worth reading because its argument has the valuable quality of being obvious -- once it is pointed out. The emphasis is mine rather than in the original; it is to highlight a basic structural reality that has escaped most recent analysis of the "bipartisanship" challenge.

    "BTW, that exchange I quoted is not really a great story.  It is a basic story, fundamental to legislation -- a sort of 'duh!' moment -- and to the US Congressional system, and to the key difference between our system and a parliamentary system when it comes to bipartisanship. I'm astonished every pundit doesn't already get it, but many either don't or seem willfully to ignore it.  

    "In our system, if the minority party can create and enforce party discipline (which has never really been done before, but which the GOP has now accomplished), then OF COURSE there can be no 'bipartisanship' on major legislative matters, in the sense of (1) the minority adding provisions to legislation as the majority compromises with them, and (2) at least some minority party members then voting with the majority. 

    More »

  • An illustration of why I reserved my own name on Twitter

    On the "you gotta draw the line somewhere" principle, I have not yet gone so far as actually to send out a Tweet. But about a year ago I reserved my own name on Twitter. Here is a concise reminder of why that can be a prudent step:



    Yes, yes, I realize that this is disrespectful, profane, NSFW, possibly injurious to the judiciary, and so on. But it is pretty funny. Someone already has "Alito."
  • Placeholder for arms-sales-to-Taiwan entry

    The dispute over the latest round of US arms sales to Taiwan is potentially quite serious, in its implications for China-US relations and for China's current trends and tendencies. As mentioned earlier, I think all omens suggest a rough period ahead in China/US and China/rest-of-world interactions -- even though, as I've written a million times, I think Chinese and US interests can be more compatible than contradictory in the longer run. More on the arms sales issue in the morning, plus a long-promised followup on what actually happened between the US and China in Copenhagen.

  • Where has the pride in workmanship gone?

    From the email inbox. Click for larger.


    What happened to scamming operations that tried even a little bit for plausibility? Not even the takes-one-second-to-copy distinctive Google font? This took me one second -- OK, ten -- to copy:


    It almost gives me an autumnal mood about the lax working habits of this modern age. Mais où sont les phish d'antan? Surtout les phish Nigérians?
  • For the record: Carter in NYT, Lippman on Fox

    Today the NYT Week in Review section has various grizzled veterans recounting briefly what the first year of other presidencies was like. Full assemblage here; my recollections of Jimmy Carter's surprisingly sunny first year here.

    Today's Fox News Sunday, with Chris Wallace, apparently had a "Power Player of the Week" feature about a George Washington University sophomore named Daniel Lippman. He is known to me over the past two years or so (ie, since he was 17) for a steady stream of emails with links to interesting stories about China, aviation, presidential rhetoric, boiled frogs, or other obsessions topics of interest to me. "Apparently" because I didn't see it and don't yet see a link to that segment on line, but I was interviewed about Lippman's industriousness and generosity. He has fed similar info to a very large number of journalists. And if past experience is any guide, the person most likely to come up with the right link will be Daniel Lippman! (Earlier On The Media segment about Lippman here.) (Update: Fox News link is here.) Both of these items for the record and as appreciations, in different ways, of J. Carter and D. Lippman.

  • The burden of office, hoops dept. (updated)

    The picture below, from this morning's Washington Post (and this online slide show), captures one of the most striking aspects of seeing Barack Obama at yesterday's Georgetown-Duke game.


    The place was packed and going nuts from beginning to end. The crowd was at least 90/10 Georgetown, with most people wearing the gray Georgetown T-shirts left at each seat, to create  a "gray-out" effect. If you look at the people behind Obama and Biden in this picture (including a mid-scream Rahm Emanuel) you get a fair sample of the prevailing mood.

    The one person who did not visibly react in any way to any play by either side was one of the main hoops fans in the building -- Barack Obama. His was the studied impassivity of (nearly all!) members of the Supreme Court during a State of the Union address. Cheer for a Hoyas steal/dunk? North Carolina is an important state. Cheer when the Blue Devils rally? Become an oddball/pariah in a hostile crowd. So, Buddha-like he sat, as perfectly illustrated above. Joe Biden moved around a little more but also didn't cheer. Someone I assume to be his son Beau, who will not be the next senator from Delaware, is next to him -- and cheering.

    Who is that guy on the other side of Obama? Whom he spent much of the game chatting with? The print WaPo has a picture of him but doesn't give a name. The online slide show says he is Phil Schiliro, White House legislative aide. And I assume a hoops fan too.

    UPDATE: I am informed that the cheering, Biden-looking person next to Joe Biden was not Beau but his other son, Hunter. Who is a Hoya alum. This makes better sense now! Beau Biden's school associations are with U Penn and (gasp) Syracuse, neither of which produces big Georgetown-loyalists.
  • Bob Dylan unified field theory post

    1) Bob Dylan offering his thoughts on the subject raised yesterday, how the world could be getting warmer when it's cold as hell* outside? Four years ago, he imparted this wisdom in an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone:

    "Wenner: What do you think of the historical moment we're in today? We seem to be hellbent on destruction. Do you worry about global warming?

    "Dylan: Where's the global warming? It's freezing here."

    2) A further exploration of the timeless question, "Is it by Bob Dylan? Or is it a nutty translation from Chinese into English?" is offered here. Sample passages, for attribution either to Dylan or to someone in China:

    "A. With 100 eyes of 100 Hamlets, the mountain crawls under the paintbrush of 100 artists. B. His hindbrain hit by electricity as he orders four treasures. C. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face. D. With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel,if he needs a third eye he just grows it."

    Truly a man for all ages and all topics.
    * For non-US readers who may be puzzled: yes, this is an intentionally oxymoronic English idiom. For more on the joys of translation, here. Thanks to reader M.S. for the Wenner tip.

  • God bless us every one! Plus, Obama at courtside

    I only just now heard the very last 60 seconds of Barack Obama's remarkable live session with the Republican caucus yesterday. Those seconds included his final words before leaving the GOP session in Baltimore and heading back to DC. Those words, the only cliched part of his entire presentation, were (of course!) "And God bless the United States of America!"


    I recognize that this is how it is. But three update points. One, this was the concluding theme of discussion just now with Guy Raz on NPR. Two, a (supportive!) note from a reader in Illinois who has seen even worse.

    "I  understand completely your urge to shudder when a presidential speech ends with that line in lieu of an actual, logical, concluding thought. It comes across as a throwaway line rather than a benediction when it's inserted mechanically.

    "Years ago,  I worked in (very small market) local radio as a copy writer, and for me  the equivalent to your bugaboo line for political speeches is the dreaded "for all of your ____________needs." 

    "We had clients who pushed hard for that kind of positioning statement, including the owner of a propane gas supply shop who really wanted to use "for all of your gas needs".  Sadly, that line also would have worked for our local Taco John's franchise. And probably for Bean-O. When it's the lowly writing wench versus the account exec and the client, you can guess who lost the argument, at least that time. (Bite tongue, type copy, collect paycheck, take deep cleansing breaths, and live to fight another day.)"

    Three, on the bright side: through good fortune and the generous invitation of a college classmate who is now a Georgetown U professor, I got to go to the Georgetown-Duke hoops showdown this afternoon. We ended up sitting more or less directly behind Barack Obama -- though way, way back -- and saw when he went over to the broadcast desk to sit in with the play-by-play crew. We couldn't tell what he was saying, though we saw that he stayed there for more than a mere handshake. Just now I've seen it, and it is deft, funny, and effortless enough that I forgive his now-rote speech ending. Whether or not you wanted to sit through the 80+ minutes of the GOP session, these six minutes are worth watching. My favorite: the "if you're bragging about beating an Ivy League team..." riff about three minutes in. Plus, "I'm coming for your job!"

    And at least he didn't say "God bless the Hoyas" or something of the sort before heading back to his seat.

  • If it is so incredibly cold....

    .... how can "warming" of any sort be an issue?* The latest snowfall and deepfreeze across the eastern US is a good occasion for mentioning a new paper on James Hansen's site at Columbia Univ. The paper is called, conveniently, "If It's That Warm, How Come It's So Darned Cold?" and is available in PDF here.

    Read the whole thing, but Tweet-scale version of the answer is: Things are getting warmer, just not where most Americans/Europeans would notice this year.

    For the world as a whole, 2009 was the second warmest year on record, and the 2000s were the warmest decade. (See NASA/ Goddard Institute for Space Studies report here.) As more and more people have heard, this winter's we-are-no-longer-amused cold siege in the middle latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia (where most people live) is a result of a rare flip in the Arctic Oscillation. Explanation here. It's plenty hot elsewhere. NASA chart of the overall global trends.

    Thumbnail image for 418335main_land-ocean-full.jpg

    Hansen's paper also quotes this comment on a site run by a climate scientist in Seattle:

    "I wonder about the people who use cold weather to say that the globe is cooling. It forgets that global warming has a global component and that its a trend, not an everyday thing. I hear people down in the lower 48 say its really cold this winter. That ain't true so far up here in Alaska. Bethel, Alaska, had a brown Christmas. Here in Anchorage, the temperature today is 31. I can't say based on the fact Anchorage and Bethel are warm so far this winter that we have global warming. That would be a really dumb argument to think my weather pattern is being experienced even in the rest of the United States, much less globally."

    This knowledge, plus double Under Armour long underwear, should keep me warm as I head out soon.
    (*In case you're tempted to write in: Yes, I understand that the concept of "climate change" is different from "global warming"; I understand the difference between "weather" and "climate," etc.) 

  • The most interesting thing you can watch today (updated x2)

    Obama's Q-and-A session today with the House GOP members, meeting in Baltimore, as shown on C-Span. Program info here; embedded player below. Good-government types often moan that the U.S. should have some equivalent to the lively "Prime Minister's Question Time" from Westminster. This is quite a worthy counterpart. And, not incidentally from the White House's point of view, perhaps the most effective performance by Obama since taking office.

    [Housekeeping update: The clip I originally embedded here was to the full 86-minute session. That started crashing, presumably because of limits on the C-Span servers. The embed-link has subsequently been disabled. I then embedded another clip -- but that proves to be only to a couple-minute highlight reel. So if you go to the main C-Span program page, here or here, you'll be able to watch the full broadcast. Thanks to reader J. Stein for tip about the embed problem.] [Update-update: Again via J Stein and Salon, an embedded MSNBC link to the Q-and-A part of the program. The time counts in the paragraph below apply to the C-Span version, not this. Interesting nonetheless. Starts with a bracing exchange on deficits, stimulus, taxes.]

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

    He starts moving out of mere opening-remarks mode at about time 7:00; more fully so by around 9:30, followed by a few minutes of re-explaining his health and economic problems; a plea for a different approach to governing starting around 17:30; and then the Q-and-A for real starting around 19:30. Too many highlights after that to mention. But, as a sample, check the exchange starting around 31:00.

    I realize that all of my Atlantic colleagues have already noted this performance. In the interests of completeness, I mention it too. If this clip becomes as widely circulated as -- oh, I don't know, the Rev. Wright "God Damn America!" clip from two years ago -- I think it could have some long-term effect on how people think about Obama, about the GOP, about the issues, and maybe even about our very ability to deal with difficult public problems. Or maybe I'm just dreaming. Either way, this is a very interesting 86 minutes of public theater.

    Addenda: Obama should do this more often, and with members of both parties. Also, I would like to hear from spokesmen for the once-strong "Obama can't possibly think without his teleprompter" camp after watching more than an hour of live Q-and-A.

  • SOTU followup

    1) Annotated version of Obama's first State of the Union address now online here. I wrote it today on the jouncing Bolt Bus from NY to DC -- story of its own, stay tuned -- with numerous little oddities that I will fix tomorrow when I learn how to get into the annotation file. For the moment, sincere thanks to the Atlantic's Sage Stossel and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for getting this complex construction on line.

    2) Charlie Rose show discussion from last night now online here.

    3) ABC Australian Radio discussion of the speech, with Eleanor Hall of 'The World Today' program, now online here. It's the last nine minutes of this show, but all of the show is interesting!


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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