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.
  • Unemployment and airplane crashes

    A man in Florida sends what may be the ideal example of reader mail, combining as it does aerodynamic theory, politics, economics, and presidential rhetoric. If only there were a China- or beer-related angle...  Seriously, his critique of how the Obama team has explained the continuing collapse of the U.S. employment base is insightful. Although it is obviously too late to adjust the rhetoric with which the Administration launched its economic recovery plans, arguments like this reader's could help shape the ongoing discussion.

    "I'm really confused by how the Obama administration has handled the narrative and voter expectations for this recession. I clearly understand that they had to carefully balance early 2009 dire warnings against economic pessimism, while making a case for the stimulus package, etc. But once the stimulus was passed, I believe that they should have boldly stated how bad things really were, how their economic policies were the correct choices (even acknowledging Krugman's critiques of "too little"), and emphasizing that even the best possible management of the 2008 economic trainwreck would see significantly increasing unemployment as a lagging indicator.

    "One analogy I've thought of often, aligned with your interests, is an economic analogy of an aerodynamic stall. When commerical credit froze and consumers reduced spending, the prevailing economic "lift" was gone. Stall! Conservative knee-jerk reactions for tax cuts were the equivalent of "pulling up" on the stick- intuitive but deadly. Obama's expert advice was to gain speed by spending (diving), even at the cost of altitude (deficit/debt). High unemployment was destined from the moment the stall occurred. Only when sufficient airspeed/angle of attack (spending) had been reached could the economy begin to pull up, and the unemployment would be analogous to the altitude lost even after the decision to finaly "pull up" had been made. Passenger relief (consumer confidence) would follow long after the immediate recovery (i.e., GDP), and no one would be "satisfied" until the plane came in for a (economic) "soft landing."

    "There are probably numerous logical errors with this analogy [JF note: seems pretty good to me], but the simple point is this: If "Joe six-pack" clearly understands that Obama saved his economic life, while Conservatives would have driven the plane into the ground, he's more likely to appreciate and reward the unpalatable choices that Obama made. His appreciation would be enhanced if he understood all along that the pilot had no choice but to lose altitude, and the pilot explained that altitude (jobs) would take a long time to regain. This administration sorely needs a narrative that citizens can grasp and accept, otherwise the cynical partisan naysayers will continue to fill the void....

    "I came across this, published online by Irwin M. Stelzer on 12/19/2008 in the Weekly Standard (hardly a liberal apologist):
    'Bush knows that Obama is inheriting a very difficult economic situation indeed. So does the president-elect. Economists with whom I have spoken--and these are the people listened to at the highest levels in both parties and at Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve Board--believe that the unemployment rate, now at 6.7 percent, will hit double digits sometime in 2009, and stay there well into 2010. They expect house prices to drop another 15 percent and share prices at least another 10 percent before finding a bottom.Worse still, they are predicting an extraordinarily sluggish recovery. Since unemployment is what economists call a lagging indicator--job creation doesn't start until a recovery is well under way--the unemployment rate might remain high well into 2011.'
    "None of this is news to you. But if the Weekly Standard could articulate this in late 2008, why hasn't the Obama administration made sure that average Americans understand the "pre-destination" involved with unemployment?"

    As an answer to the final question, my guess is that a combined message of uplift and caution is among the most difficult for leaders to convey. Obama and his economic team had to keep sounding optimistic, since so much of a recovery is affected by "animal spirits." But they also needed to acknowledge that for a long time ahead more people would be losing than gaining jobs. The dual message is not impossible, but it's tricky, and as the reader suggests the proper balance has not yet come across.

  • Lavar Arrington: the new Will Shortz

    One of many media discoveries about the USA of late 2009 is Lavar Arrington on the radio. (This is a good media discovery. A bad one: the McLaughlin Group is still on the air!!!! Jeesh.) When we left town in 2006, Arrington was a big talent just ending a troubled run with the Redskins. Now, he turns out to be a surprisingly charming and erudite sports-talk host. I find it easier to listen to him when running, in the gym, and otherwise sweating than to absorb the latest news from Afghanistan. (Lavar, left; Will, right.)

    arrington_lavar0723.jpg

    willshortz.jpg














    Just now, on his show (with co-host Chad Dukes), Arrington was talking about Gregg Williams of the Saints, who was the former defensive guru for the Redskins. He said that even though Williams was gone from DC, his influence remained because he had left behind "his prodigy, Greg Blache," now the defensive coordinator.

    That didn't sound right, and I realized after a second that the word he was looking for was "protege." But if Blache was good enough, "prodigy" could also make sense, which leads to the Will Shortz-like question Arrington could have been setting up: I can't at the moment think of another situation in which three words with different meanings that sound very much alike -- prodigy, protege, and (even) progeny - could all sort-of work in the same sentence.

    Yes, it's cheating that they sound alike, since they all come from the same pro- root. And yes, progeny is a little different -- but you can imagine it working figuratively. Still it's interesting to me -- and is the kind of thing that occurs when trying to avoid thinking about the team itself, or the next lap on the track. Watch out, Will Shortz!
  • Ongoing TSA / Security Theater watch

    The monthly "Airport Policy News" reports by Robert Poole, of the Reason Foundation, are a steady source of nuggets about economic, technological, and political developments in the aviation world. I would send a link to the latest report I'm about to cite, except that what's online, here, is routinely a few weeks behind what's come out in the newsletters.

    I am not a full adherent to the Reason Magazine/Ayn Rand view of the world (I loved her books when I was 14, though!), including some specifics about aviation. But we are as one in dismay about the combination of authoritarianism, empty symbolism, and undiscriminating clumsiness that makes up much of our current TSA policy. See my Atlantic colleague Jeff Goldberg on this point too.

    Poole's latest nugget is a GAO report on how the TSA is doing. Links to the full 75-page report and summary highlights are here. The cover page gets across the essential point, which is that years and years into its existence, the TSA is still not basing its screening plans, its strategy, or its technology on assessment of relative risk. That is, if you wonder why the two-year old in a stroller is getting the full pat-down and why so many TSA procedures fail the basic-logic test, it turns out that the GAO wonders those things too.

    129_2986.JPG

    From its summary:

    "TSA completed a strategic plan to guide research, development, and deployment of passenger checkpoint screening technologies; however, the plan is not risk-based. [My emphasis.]...

    "Since TSA's creation, 10 passenger screening technologies have been in various phases of research, development, test and evaluation, procurement, and deployment, but TSA has not deployed any of these technologies to airports nationwide.... In the case of the ETP [ a new scanner], although TSA tested earlier models, the models ultimately chosen were not operationally tested before they were deployed to ensure they demonstrated effective performance in an operational environment. Without operationally testing technologies prior to deployment, TSA does not have reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended."

    Much more from the full GAO report, here in PDF form. I realize that there are bigger emergencies in America right now. But the ongoing impossibility of applying logic to this situation really is discouraging -- or, more positively, is an opportunity for someone in government to address.

  • Two notes about Nien Cheng

    From Kevin Chambers. of West Peavine, Oklahoma, on the death of Nien Cheng:

    "I was sorry to hear about her passing.  Four years ago, after reading her book, I wrote to her and she invited me over to her apartment near the Washington Cathedral.  I was just finishing up Chinese language training in DC and was about to be posted to Shanghai.  I was surprised by how lively and sharp she was.  She was 90 but appeared to be 70.  She was very well informed about life in Shanghai even though she had been gone for decades.  When I asked her if she would ever return she said she had been invited by the Chinese government but she would never return to be used for propaganda purposes.  Besides, she said, it would be too painful.  She loved Washington.

    "After living in Shanghai a couple of years I wrote to her and shared with her my view that Shanghai was a relentlessly materialistic city.  She replied that she had been told by her friends that it had become a city without a soul.  I offered to send her photos of the places she described in her book but she asked me not to.  She didn't want to look back."

    From another reader, in response to my comment that over the years I had recognized Nien Cheng several times on the street in northwest DC but had never felt as I should interrupt her to say hello and say that I had been moved by her book:

    "I did have the pleasure of meeting Nien Cheng and having a pleasant chat with her in her apartment in Washington.  She sent several Christmas cards to me over the years.  And yes, she was an elegant lady.  You've got that right.  It will have to be one of those things you always regret (and we all have them) because I can assure you, she would have appreciated your comment about how much you liked her book.  She would not have minded at all. She would have been deeply touched by you telling her so.  She exhibited surprise that anyone still remembered her book after so many years when I told her that very thing.  But being a person of faith, myself, I would like to tell you that I sincerely believe she is in a place where she knows how you feel.  She was a Christian of strong faith.  So hold your memories of seeing her dear to your heart.  I only got to see her once."
  • The meaninglessness of shootings

    One consequence of having been alive through a lot of modern American history is remembering a lot of mass shootings. I was working at a high school summer job when news came over the radio that Charles Whitman had gunned down more than 40 people, killing 14, from the main tower at the University of Texas at Austin. I was editing a news magazine during the schoolyard killings in Paducah, Kentucky in 1997 and sent reporters to try to figure out what it all meant. I can remember where I was when the live-news coverage switched to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, and the shootings at the one-room schoolhouse in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, and the Virginia Tech shootings two years ago. And all the rest.

    In the saturation coverage right after the events, the "expert" talking heads are compelled to offer theories about the causes and consequences. In the following days and weeks, newspapers and magazine will have their theories too. Looking back, we can see that all such efforts are futile. The shootings never mean anything. Forty years later, what did the Charles Whitman massacre "mean"? A decade later, do we "know" anything about Columbine? There is chaos and evil in life. Some people go crazy. In America, they do so with guns; in many countries, with knives; in Japan, sometimes poison.

    We know the emptiness of these events in retrospect, though we suppress that knowledge when the violence erupts as it is doing now. The cable-news platoons tonight are offering all their theories and thought-drops. They've got to fill time. I wish they could stop. As the Vietnam-era saying went, Don't mean nothing.

    RIP.

  • Nien Cheng

    My wife just alerted me to something I had missed in the paper today: news that Nien Cheng had died in Washington this week, at 94.

    NienCheng.jpg

    Life and Death in Shanghai, her memoir of her life in China in the pre-Communist era, and then her daughter's murder and her own imprisonment and torture by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, was one of the first notable accounts of those years and remains a powerful work of modern non-fiction. Although it has been two decades since I read it, many of the scenes are still vivid. Soon after it was published in 1987, my wife and I were in Shanghai and traced the neighborhoods she had described.

    Nien Cheng never returned to mainland China after she got out in 1980, and over the past twenty years she lived mainly in Washington DC. Several times while walking my wife or I had the amazing-each-time experience of passing on the sidewalk a tiny, increasingly frail, but elegant Chinese woman whom we knew to be her. I never dared to say hello or thank her for writing the book, which I now regret all the more. None of her family is left, but her book will endure.

    Update: she had a MySpace page, which is here.

  • Doing Business in China: Who Holds the Purse?

    In Chinese families, women drive economic decisions more forcefully than men.

    You can probably guess the answer to the question above, explored in this next clip from the Doing Business in China series. But I do love the way this clip gets to the answer, via both its pre-Communist era documentary and movie footage and also its exploration of special role of the "Shanghai woman." I think you will see what I mean.

     

  • The Prius of the sky

    A contest for fuel-efficient small airplanes has a winner: a modified VariEze that gets 45 mpg at over 200 MPH with two people aboard, and nearly 100 mpg at a lower "maximum range" speed.

    fuel-efficient-plane-modified-VariEze-photo1.jpg

    Details from Wired here, Tree Hugger here, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association last year here. Just as I've always said: to get America moving again, including on the fuel-efficiency front, we've got to get more people up in the air.  (Thanks to Michael Ham.)
  • Alexander Hamilton hip-hop tribute

    Because Alexander Hamilton has always been my favorite Founding Father; because I am in the "actually writing" mode and otherwise away from the internet; because no one else on the Atlantic's team has yet called attention to this; and because it is a very diverting four-minute interlude, here is Lin-Manuel Miranda's tribute to Hamilton from the "White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" this past May. In case you have missed it.
     
    For more, you can't go wrong with Ron Chernow's great 2004 biography. Now back to, ahem, work.

  • Doing Business in China: An Eastern Perspective

    The western quest for precision is often futile in China, where facts and figures never tell the whole story.

    This clip is about numbers, and the varying ways to make sense of them in China. At one extreme the power of numbers is of obvious and unignorable importance. The opening scene of the clip, on a winter day in Shanghai, give a glimpse of the sea-of-people effect of many Chinese cities. On the other hand, neither Shanghai nor Beijing nor any other city in the mainland seems as densely packed as either Tokyo or Hong Kong. The difference with mainland China is that there are so many multi-million person cities across so huge a landmass, plus plenty of well-populated rural areas too.

    At the same time, just about any number concerning China is an approximation, from economic growth rates to literacy or environmental readings, or anything else. This clip mainly talks about the implications of that rough-and-ready statistical approach for businesses, but it has international and political implications too. 

  • A very good question

    A friend who has worked in and written about politics for nearly 40 years writes with this question about assessments of Obama's "disappointing" first year:

    "How can the MSM (what's left of it) not "get" that disappointment in Obama over "lack of change" is precisely the object of the GOP in blocking change?  Does no one remember Newt Gingrich and the GOP strategy from 1992 to 1994, which actually worked?  How can the GOP steal second and third in one play AGAIN and not get nailed this time?  I want to scream.  In any sensible society, instead of disappointment in Obama there would be intense anger at the GOP, and they'd be forced to knock it off." 

    The talk about "any sensible society" of course leads us into the realm of what is fancily known as counterfactual theorizing....

  • All-in-one, nearing the finale

    Three more views -- previously here, here, and here. Again the question is: are we going to keep carrying around a grab-bag of devices, each optimized for its own purpose? Or will convenience, technical improvement, etc mean more and more functions in fewer and fewer gizmos.

    From a tech-industry reader:

    "I think you're wrong; the vast majority of the device market in these kinds of segments will eventually go to all-in-one, "good enough" devices. Sure, people will still buy digital cameras, portable reading devices, etc., but the specialty devices will be for the 10% of uses or 10% of consumers who want special higher quality or particular features--for most people, the simple functionality in a lowest-common-denominator single device will be sufficient.

    "An anecdote: circa 1998, I was working on cryptography for mobile devices (my career also includes Apple, and I'm currently an engineer at [famous internet company]. I had a meeting with a number of very senior engineers at Motorola, and this convergence question came up. One engineer pooh-poohed the idea of convergence, and when I asked him explicitly, he asserted that yes, people would carry a cell phone, a pager, and a PDA to solve those specific problems (I envisioned Batman's utility belt).

    "You can't even buy a PDA anymore, as far as I know--it's a feature integrated into phones. Pagers are rare and for particular on-call specialties. I now know a number of people who carry a Blackberry for email and a cell phone for calls, but I'm certain that bifurcation is also doomed. I regularly now check my email from my phone, rather than bother to open my laptop, even if it's in the same room."

    Another reader in New York writes:

    "I agree with you (mostly, as I think that some convergence is inevitable) that no device can be everything to everybody. But here is another counterexample I'm not sure you mentioned - phones and GPS devices: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/technology/companies/29gps.html

    "I'm not a big GPS user (I don't even have a car here in NYC), and I am a big Google maps fan, but here I do have to wonder.  If the Google Maps for Mobile is going to depend on a good data connection, then I don't really see how it can match a dedicated GPS device which only needs "sightlines" to satellites (assuming of course that there is no brownout... hey, convergence of two of your tech threads!).  When we were camping in Acadia National Park this summer, my wife's Google phone had no phone signal, never mind 3G....

    "I think Maps for Mobiles is great in densely populated areas, but if I were planning a long trip with lots of detours in rural areas, I don't see how this could be a dedicated GPS with the maps data downloaded previously to the device."

    _______
    After the jump, one more very long but detailed and interesting pro-convergent case.

    More »

  • Are we naked in the cloud?

    A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against "unreasonable search and seizure" apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read -- or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party -- Google, Yahoo, et al -- is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

    As that post describes, the legal comparison-drawing goes in many directions. Is "giving" an email to Yahoo like putting a package in a public storage locker? Is it like putting an envelope in a regular mailbox? Does it matter if the message is encrypted? Etc. But the reader's point is less about the ins and outs of this ruling than about the broader legal/privacy implications of storing information "in the cloud." When you're working in Google Docs, as opposed to using a spreadsheet or document that lives on your computer, have you essentially surrendered custody and control of that information? What if you rely on online "cloud" systems -- Carbonite, SugarSync -- to back up or sync your files? Have you given up custody of those files too? The reader writes:

    "Based, in part, on your fondness ["your" referring to me, JF] for storing your documents in "the cloud" via third-party services like Sugarsync, Google Docs, etc., I thought you would this link interesting. [It concerns an opinion] concluding that email messages - even if they are entitled to 4th Amendment protection - can be retrieved by federal law enforcement authorities WITHOUT NOTICE TO THE SUBSCRIBER. The court's rationale - that the ISP is a "third party" rather than a file cabinet inside the target's "home" - would seem to apply perfectly well to documents stored in the cloud.

    "My concern about such matters is one big reason I do not rely much on "cloud" services of which you are so fond. It's not that I have much about myself that is all that interesting to third parties. It's that, as a lawyer, I have an ethical obligation to protect client confidences. And - if [this] reasoning prevails nationwide - this becomes impossible to do if I were to receive no "notice" from the ISP that they had received a search (or already complied with) a warrant for my clients' personal stuff.

    "To be clear, my clients are mostly indigent disabled people rather than individuals accused of criminal conduct, but - still - these sort of "big picture" issues are what a lawyer thinks about when he or she is deciding whether to make a wholesale migration to Sugarsync or Google Docs. And, for what it's worth, it is why I think Google and Sugarsync would be well served in joining together to lobby FOR a federal statute imposing strict privacy protection on documents stored in the cloud.

    "There is no way I'm putting my business docs permanently online until this issue is clearly settled in favor of privacy. It would, in fact, be unethical for me to do so.... While having copies of all your stuff stored in the cloud may be vastly more convenient than having it in your home-office file cabinet - it is a vastly less safe "place" from a privacy standpoint."

    I am not equipped to say more about the legal aspects here. But as a matter of politics and policy, I think the reader's recommendation is exactly right. All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing -- Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name -- should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn't mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there's a big scandal or problem.

  • How I Survived China
    Ashley Cooper/Aurora Photos

    How I Survived China

    Our man in Beijing returns home, with lungs only somewhat the worse for wear.

  • Language politics: Germany, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire

    Following this item about how China and America had one attitude toward foreigners trying to speak their language, while Japan, France, and (arguably) the Ivory Coast had a different view, some assent, dissent, and elaboration. These are long but if you're interested in language, then the detail is interesting.

    About German speakers:

    "Vigorous agreement on the American attitude towards foreigners speaking English, as contrasted with (in this case) German-speakers. My mother, an Austrian, always used to watch as my dad, an American, inevitably got mocked in her homeland for his imperfect German accent, and, indeed, imperfect German (which was still pretty good). She notes this would never happen in America -- it is rare for Americans to actively mock a foreigner's accent. When they do, it's usually in a way that somehow includes the foreign speaker. (We have a young family friend who sometimes says a word or two in "Churman" to make fun of her -- but he doesn't know any language but English -- he isn't lording any linguistic superiority over her -- knowing 2-3 languages to him is like ESP, a genuinely remarkable capacity.) Mom always says that the most common American reaction to her accent is a genuinely curious and open, "You have such a nice accent -- where are you from?"
    "Those German-speakers aren't being malicious -- something about the relative difficulty of the language instills this attitude in them. It's just hard for a foreigner to avoid mistakes that every educated German-speaker learns to avoid at the age of five. Also, note that in German there is a sharp distinction between "Hochdeutsch" and the vernacular German that the unlettered masses speak, meaning that a fairly substantial percentage of the population isn't even really trying to speak German correctly. English doesn't really recognize any such division -- we're all speaking English, one way or another. (Also, it fascinates me that the dictionary in German is known as the "Fremdwörterbuch" -- the book of foreign words -- you know, those hard Latinate words that you sometimes need to look up -- everyone knows the core German words. Mongrel English treats all words the same, regardless of origin.)

    "My mother, whose English in the meantime is excellent (but with an accent), observes that the thing about English is that the first stages of learning the language are easy -- anyone can learn it. And then comes the huge chasm to true fluency. English's vast vocabulary creates endless nuance in expression, which is just damnably difficult to master. But the first stages are easy, a linguistic open-door policy."

    About Japanese:

    "I agree with your comments about the Japanese language. I am a 2-year resident of Tokyo with fairly strong Japanese skills. [After some university study in Hiroshima and London] I mastered the language not by learning it from textbooks, but doing it on my own will-power. So, by speaking to people in Japanese almost non-stop, by reading books and newspapers in Japanese, watching Japanese television programs and listening to Japanese music and the radio, and by making requests by emails and fax for work in Japanese. Dating a Japanese girl for 3 years who only spoke Japanese, helped too. (we're no longer together, but I am grateful to her for the hours we spend talking together) I'm still learning day-by-day, but I am approaching the upper-intermediate level."

    More »

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author

Just In