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.
  • About those Chinese tires

    I keep putting this off, so before it finally disappears into the mists of time, here is a bullet-point summary of what I would have said at greater length when the Chinese tire tariff first arose.

    1) There is not now, and there never was, a serious possibility that this would escalate into some sweeping, self-intensifying, global-recovery-threatening "trade war."  The many publications and commentators who raised their hands in "Oh no! It's Smoot Hawley again!" horror need to calm down -- and to have their tendency toward over-reaction noted for the record. Yes, I'm talking about you, Economist magazine cover-designers (last week's cover image, below), but you had tons of company.
    EconomistTyre.jpg 

    There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute -- contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the  boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

    2) Larger point about the nature of this reaction, by analogy to Al Sharpton. Not to pick on him, but why did Sharpton's reputation as a careful, precise commentator on national affairs suffer during the 1980s? Especially after the unfortunate Brawley case? I would say it was the magical combination of predictability, exaggeration, and tendentiousness. His reaction to any news event was predictable (it was always about racism); it was exaggerated (it was always really terrible racism); and it was tendentious, in being uninterested in the details of the specific case. On the other hand, he was witty! I often think of the bad, non-witty side of the Sharpton of that era when I see the mainstream reaction to any trade dispute. It's predictable (oh no! Trade war!); exaggerated (oh no! Smoot Hawley!); and tendentious, in not being interested in any contextual point other than the evils of unions and protectionism.

    3) What's the context that does matter? Usefully, two people with whom I often disagree on trade questions -- the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, and Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post -- have both pointed out that there is a more important issue here than whether one agrees on the merits of the tire decision. They both criticize the decision  -- but as the headline on Samuelson's column puts it, "Bad Policy, Right Message." (My own view would be: Maybe bad policy, certainly right message.)

    The right message concerns the historic transformation of the Chinese economy that began a year ago, when demand from its biggest overseas customer, the United States, dried up all at once.  This story, which I wrote from China six months ago, discussed the magnitude of the adjustments China was trying to make -- and also emphasized the parallel that Michael Pettis, an economist at Peking University, drew between China's situation in 2009 and America's 80 years earlier. The details are laid out in that article, but the main point was this: Like America in the 1920s, China in the 2000s had been the dominant "global surplus" country, manufacturing and selling to everyone else and piling up big surpluses. When customers suddenly stopped buying -- America's because of the Great Depression, China's because of this recent freezeup -- the surplus countries lost disproportionately many jobs, because they'd had more than "their share" to begin with. That happened to America in the 1930s, and it is happening to China now.

    This kind of loss is painful for any country under any regime. In terms of human suffering, it's all the worse for China, since so many of the displaced workers are so hard-pressed to begin with. In the long run, everyone agrees that both the Chinese and the U.S. economies need serious adjustment: the US toward more savings and investment, China toward more domestic consumption and less reliance on export markets, so that its own, still-poor population can enjoy more of the fruits of their own labor. But in the short run, the adjustment is difficult -- for each country. And the drama that Pettis foresaw six months ago, and which provides the proper background to the tire dispute, is the Chinese government's (natural) attempt to resist the inevitable and keep its trade surplus up as long as it can.

    That's the significance of stories like this, which I've mentioned  (eg here and here) over the months.
    IMG_7448.jpg

    This is not at all a matter of "blaming" China. Moralizing has no place in these sorts of economic adjustments -- whether we're talking about the Chinese government's currency-management to keep the RMB's value artificially low (details here), or the US imposition of tire tariffs. The real question is how the economies can manage the complementary adjustments each of them has to make, with minimal damage to their own populations and to world business as a whole. These are big, woolly, complicated, world-historical processes underway. There are a lot of useful things to say about them -- not including "Oh no! Trade war!"

    Now I see why I put this off so long.

    More »

  • By popular demand: Volokh on frogs and slippery slopes

    Recently I made an oblique allusion (last line of this item) to an article by Eugene Volokh, of UCLA Law School, in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning.

    Apparently it was a little too oblique, so in response to a number of queries let me come right out and say: Eugene Volokh has written in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning here, in a Legal Affairs article with David Newman from 2003, and here or here, in versions of a Harvard Law Review article that same year. I think these pieces do a reasonable job of showing why the slippery slope may be useful as a legal concept, whether or not the phenomenon exists in the natural world.* (Sort of like the legal concept of the "reasonable man." Never mind, just a little joke.) Stay tuned for more reader nominees for most plausible real-world example.

    And while we're on the legal-concept theme -- ie, slippery slope as a rhetorical device, not a reality -- here's another related entry:

    "I think there are some good uses of slippery slope arguments. One example is the general constitutional idea of safe harbor, which I became acquainted with while reading the transcripts and decision in Reno v ACLU, where it became clear that the law was written in such a way that there were large number of sites which would not be considered to be pornographic under the normal understanding of pornography but which the statue would allow to be prosecuted. The prosecution (in Reno vs ACLU) essentially argued, "Oh, we don't intend to prosecute those cases" and the court in effect said, but the law doesn't allow anyone to be sure they are doing the right thing."

    Back to the search for real-world examples soon.
    ___
    * Volokh unfortunately lards his argument with specious boiled-frog references, but at least in the Harvard Law Review version he redeems himself by admitting -- as Paul Krugman recently did -- that he's referring only to fictional figure-of-speech frogs, since real ones would probably try to save themselves.

  • Two views of SECDEF Gates

    In response to this item yesterday, noting Robert Gates's mention of John Boyd as one of the "transformative figures of American air power," two reactions. The first is from a relatively recent product of the Air Force Academy (whom I don't know). The second is from a long-standing friend who is a quite experienced veteran of the defense business. First up:

    "I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002, and while I was there Boyd was taught in our Military Strategic Studies courses as though he was the latest in a line of military theorists that stretched from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mitchell, Liddell Hart, Boyd, and Warden.  In fact, Boyd's OODA loop was taught with such reverence that I distinctly remember making light of it with my classmates.
    "I am a few years to junior for such an assignment, but were I on the the staff of Secretary Gates assisting with the preparation of speeches, I would not have batted an eye at the inclusion of Boyd among that line up, and I doubt any officers from my cohort would either.  If anything, LeMay strikes me as out of place and far more controversial in today's Air Force."

    Now, from Charles A. Stevenson, a friend and former professor of mine who has written a book, SECDEF, about the "nearly impossible job" of running the Pentagon:

    "I share your surprise and satisfaction over the performance of Bob Gates...  I fully expected him to follow the Laird model: wind down the war in Iraq, cut deals with the senior military on other issues, end-run the White House types on issues that mattered to him. From his long government service and membership on the Iraq Study Group, that seemed likely. His appointment by Obama suggested that the new team liked his style and welcomed the political cover he provided as a Republican.

    "Now I think his closest model was the first SecDef Gates, Tom Gates, who had served several years in the Pentagon under Eisenhower before being elevated to SecDef.

    More »

  • I keep waiting for SECDEF Gates to do something really stupid ...

    ... and I'm sure his time will come. (Most likely occasion of error: Afghanistan.)

    But for the moment, he keeps offering surprises in the opposite direction. Including last week, with this speech to the Air Force Association convention, the ending of which is exemplary in two ways.

    For one thing, it ends with what used to be known in speechwriting land as an "ending," rather than the boilerplate that has become standard in presidential addresses. The ending is nothing special, but at least he tried. (And he didn't take a shortcut with "God bless the Air Force.")

    More important is this peroration, which starts with an appreciation of Billy Mitchell and goes on to say:

    "It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell and his travails was not that he was always right. It's that he had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed, understood the implications of that change, and then pressed ahead in the face of fierce institutional resistance.
    "     The transformative figures of American air power - from Mitchell to Arnold, LeMay to Boyd - had this quality in varying degrees. It is one I look for in the next generation of Air Force leaders, junior and mid-level officers, and NCOs who have experienced the grim reality of war and the demands of persistent conflict. These are men and women we need to retain and empower to shape the service to which they have given so much."

    Whoa! To have John Boyd -- fighter pilot, theorist of combat, unbelievably persistent thorn in the Air Force establishment's side from the late 1960s through his death a dozen years ago -- become part of an offhand, last-name-only allusion to the "transformative figures of American air power" is something like the moment when establishment economics began including "Keynes" in their list of major figures.* Gates had done homage to Boyd before, for instance as discussed here. But this is a further, interesting, and deserved step. The Gates-misstep watch perforce continues.
    ______
    * For as much more as you would like to know about John Boyd, you can follow the links in this previous item, or of course read Robert Coram's wonderful biography Boyd. On the Keynes comparison, I don't mean that Boyd ideas have affected as many people in as many countries through as many decades as Keynes's have; but the vindication of ideas previously considered total heresy is comparable.

  • I love this on so many levels

    It turns out that the "Chinese site" with dramatic photos of rehearsals for the 60th anniversary commemorations in Beijing on October 1, which I mentioned this morning, is a straight-ahead, flat-out, unblushing rip-off of this "The Big Picture" feature three days ago from the Boston Globe's site. I don't see any mention of the Globe on the Chinese site, either in English or what I think is the Chinese version (Boshidun Huanqiu - 波士顿 环球 ?).

    I should have guessed. (Why would a Chinese site have bothered to include translated English captions? Why was there a semi-edgy photo of a lone man and a tank?) My reflexes must be going. I'll have to re-sharpen them with a visit soon. Thanks to C. Wang and others for the heads-up. Apologies to the Globe.

  • Book list: Repeat After Me

    Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing -- a memoir of her unlikely career as a vampy soap opera star on Chinese TV in the 1990s -- is deservedly on the list of books that expats in China tell new arrivals they should read for a pop-culture feel of the place. My own reaction, when newly arrived, here.

    file_528.jpg

    DeWoskin's new book, Repeat After Me, is different: novel rather than memoir, set half in New York and half in Beijing rather than all on-scene in China. But the voice and nervous/sassy sensibility are similar, and similarly memorable. When I was reading it this summer, I marked a few passages that made me miss Beijing (no small achievement, just after I'd left) or that rang particularly true. The book's not at hand at the moment, so I'll just say: a book worth finding out about for yourself.


  • The 60th anniversary celebration is almost here!

    From this Chinese site, with English translation, some appropriately amazing pictures of the preparations and practice runs for the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, on October 1. (Previous mention here.) A few samples:

    Nightime practice drill last month.
    PracticeMarch.jpg


    Tank practice parade two days ago
    Tanks.jpg

    An unintentionally evocative picture of a lone man and a tank.
    ModernTankMan.jpg

    And a photo of a women's militia unit that is more in the spirit of the way I usually saw soldiers (and people in general) carrying themselves in China.
    ChineseWomenSoldiers.jpg

    This should be interesting. Very sorry I won't be there to see it in person. (Thanks to various readers in China.)
  • More slippery slopes

    This is not the only subject on my mind at the moment (eg, the Redskins' unimpressive victory over the Rams just now, Barack Obama's more impressive TV fandango this morning, the ever-interesting Chinese tire tariff question, etc)  but it's the one with the biggest backlog of worthwhile incoming material. From reader BJ in Florida:

    "Three thoughts on your "slippery slope" dialogue:

    "1) As your reader Webster Marquez hinted, the frequency of a slippery slope argument actually bearing out seems to be quite rare. In fact, if a scientist or statistician was looking at this question, it seems to me that they would be comparing the number of times that a "slippery slope" argument did NOT bear out, versus the number of times that one actually DID bear out. When looked at this way, history is seemingly littered with thousands of failed "slippery slope" arguments, versus a precious few arguments that may have been considered true.
     
    "2) One good, general recurring slippery slope argument may be the drawing of colonial boundaries that ignored the indigenous geography of ethnicity, language, culture, religion, etc. Once formalized, the results appear to inevitably be tragic whether it's Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, etc.
     
    "3) I'm almost ashamed of myself for suggesting the following, but not ashamed enough...If there was ever a valid "slippery slope" in politics (albeit not policy-related), it surely must be (literally and figuratively) the initiation of an extramarital sexual relationship. Once that "little step" is taken, the results are almost universally predictable:

    More »

  • Harmonic convergence dept: frogs, China Daily, etc

    I realize this may be more interesting to me than to the public at large, but: Somehow I feel fulfilled to find my favorite newspaper, the China Daily, taking my favorite factually-erroneous cliche, the boiling frog, and putting it to excellent and unexpected use. Today's China Daily illustrates the frog problem -- but, for once, in an accurate way! As the water is getting hotter, the little froggies are jumping right out. Just like in real life, except for the tiny backpacks. (Parachutes?)

    FrogChinaDaily.jpg

    The editorial is about universities in Australia making things "hot" (get it?? ho-ho!) for international transfer students, including those from China. Great headline too:
    FrogHeadline.jpg
    Well done all around. Let's learn from Asia! Thanks to numerous informants.
    _____
    Harmonic convergence part deux: Article six years ago in another of my favorite publications, Legal Affairs, that melds boiling frogs and slippery slopes in a less factually scrupulous way.
  • Thomas de Quincey on slippery slopes

    Profundity from the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:

    "If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta-that's my rule."

    Principiis obsta -- resist the first inklings, "nip it in the bud" -- is of course the slippery-slope concept with a college degree. Thanks to J. Stein, even though this one does not win the "most convincing real world example of a slippery slope" award. More to come.

  • Slippery slope updates

    A few more from a very nice array that has arrived. Original post here.

    Serious:

    "With the exception of the birth-death sequence of life, our notion of free will tends to negate the unavoidability of the slippery slope - to our great benefit, I would have thought."

    Serious in a different way:

    "Trying is the first step towards failure."
    Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

    A powerful real-world example:

    "The birth-to-death suggestion is not a valid example of a "slippery slope," in that it is not so much "slippery" as perfectly smooth. Mortality is an inevitable straight-line progression missing the essential element of choice. There is no option to "back up" the slope, to pause, or to go faster. In principle, the reader's example is no different than that of striking a match in a windless room, something that will inevitably turn the match to ashes. Nothing slippery about that, although matches flame out quicker than lives.
     
    "The best example of a "slippery slope" in the realm of public policy may be the American journey toward racial equality. It's taken more than 100 years. There have been pauses along the way, with some temporary backtracking. We've gone from the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Anti-Slavery Amendments, to the Jim Crow era of "Separate but Equal," to Brown v. Board of Education, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to improvements in these statutes, to the Supreme Court's abolition of antimiscegenation laws (Loving v. Virginia). Focusing only on the "de jure" aspects of this, African Americans have traveled the complete journey, beginning as the lawful property of white men and ending with full legal equality. "

    I think there is a lot to this last point. (Indeed, to all of them.) In American history the  slippery-slope Cassandras whose worst fears have been most vividly realized were the segregationist hard-liners of the pre Civil Rights-legislation era. They warned that once you blurred the racial barriers you'd have race-mixing of all sorts, including intermarriage. And once you headed down that road, you'd have these mixed people all over the place... in the extreme nightmare version, even at the White House.

    More in the queue. And later today, a long-promised update on whether slippery-slope thinking applies to the Chinese tire tariffs.

  • Early "slippery slope" contender

    Many fine entries in hand; keep them coming.  One line of reasoning predominates, well illustrated by this submission:

    "Birth consistently leads to death.  There are often events of interest to someone between the two.  Aside from fairy tales, I know of no more reliably consistent slippery slope.

    "More pop into my head, but following on their heels are exceptions.

    "Here is a chain of events for you:

    "Birth leads to toilet training.  Toilet Training leads to puberty. Puberty leads to adulthood.  Adulthood leads to death.  Of course, it isn't entirely consistent given that some do not achieve all steps."

    More later.

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