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.
  • Festival of updates #2: China business!

    Recently I mentioned an enjoyable discussion session at the Motley Fool, which is available in this podcast. Today there was a followup analysis here, at the Fool's site. The low-road reason I mention it is that it's very complimentary about my assessment of life and business in China. But there's a high-road reason too, which involves an aspect of making sense of China that, IMHO, needs to be stressed again and again, even if you've already stressed it a lot -- as I certainly have.

    This aspect, which indeed can never be stressed strongly enough, concerns the chaos, diversity, internal contradiction, unknowability, and general "many different countries and cultures coexisting under one name" nature of today's China. It's harder to keep track of such a confusing reality than it would be to say, "We must be afraid of China" or "The Chinese want XXXX" or  "With its new power, China will do YYYY." But it is certainly more interesting and stimulating to embrace all this contradictory reality than to stick to a monolithic view of one big, "rising," potentially menacing power. It is also much truer to life. In any case, I am glad to see the Motley Fool analyst underscoring this point. And I think the author of this item, Sean Sun, has added a very interesting born-in-China perspective. As he says:

    "I was born in China and raised in its countryside in a small, mountainous village. I've worn a suit and tie in tier-1 metropolises, donned hard hats in tier-2 and 3 cities, and marveled at the rapid growth in rural areas like my hometown. When someone wants to ask me about China, I ask: Which one?"

    Worth reading, as part of your holiday weekend fare.

  • Holiday festival of updates! #1 in a weekend-long series

    Labor Day Weekend wouldn't be the cherished American ritual it is, without cookouts, beer, one last beach weekend frequent updates on past technical, political, and aviation matters. To kick off this special all-weekend series, an airline industry insider's account on why the Transportation Security Administration condones class-war in the airport security system: Shorter lines for high-mileage passengers (like me! until my China-travel miles time out), all the longer waits for everyone else. Here's the inside view:

    "You might have already gotten this from other sources, but as a 25-year airline industry veteran, the discriminatory TSA lines are easily explained.

    "They exist because the Legacy Airlines cut a deal with senior-level political appointees in the early days of the TSA, and no one has ever challenged them, and it is set up so no one can challenge them. The airlines are, of course, not actually paying anything for the privilege of deciding which taxpayers have first-class/second-class access to federally mandated security screening. The "justification" is that airline rents and fees "pay" the costs of the airport, therefore they have the right to control how "public" spaces in the terminal are used. Neither airports or the TSA gets an incremental dollar for allowing this discrimination.

    "The floor space used to sort passengers into different queues is officially controlled by the airlines, and is separate from the space (just behind it) that is controlled by the TSA. Thus the situation is quite different from discriminatory queues you might have experienced in London and other overseas points, where the airlines actually paid money to fund separate "business-class" airside access points. All that money you paid United to earn Platinum status pays for the lounges and upgrades you get. But your preferential TSA access is a gift from the government, and a "wealth" transfer from all of us in steerage to all of your friends in business class.

    More »

  • Three updates: Hudson River, "false claims," origins of Iraq

    Catching up on a variety of previous reports:

    1) The FAA responds in a sensible, proportionate way to last month's tragic crash above the Hudson River. Following the lead of the NTSB, as mentioned here, it will soon propose clear, common-sense rules of the "road" to keep airplanes and helicopters safely separated in the busy Hudson River corridor. For instance, it will require -- rather than just expect -- that northbound traffic stay on the east side of the river, and southbound on the right; and that helicopters stay at a lower altitude than the airplanes; and all pilots stick to the same radio frequency; and other steps.

    Why this matters: because it's a targeted, non-panicky response directed at the specific problem that has been revealed, rather than a sweeping exercise in TSA-style "security theater." It will no doubt create complications of its own, mainly through increased work for controllers. But overall, this is a victory for common sense.

    2) Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, whose previous reporting about the health-care debate has been noted (in different ways) here and here, has a very strong story today about Elizabeth McCaughey and her role in these discussions.

    Why this matters: the story straightforwardly does something that goes against the nature of mainstream coverage. It notes the influence that Ms. McCaughey's claims have had on public discussion, while also flatly saying that those claims are often false. It's worth recognizing what a step this is for the Times, prefigured in this story from three weeks ago. The natural reflex of mainstream publications is to finesse such disagreements with the "some critics claim..." approach. It seems more "objective," and it certainly is safer for the reporter and the news organization. And when we are talking about differences of opinion, judgment, or political creed, of course that's exactly the right approach to take. ("Is the Administration's approach to Iran likely to work? Some critics claim...") But there is a such a thing as plain misstatement of fact, and it is good when the press can point it out.

    3) James Gibney of the Atlantic also has a very strong, short item about revisionism now being practiced by some of the architects and enthusiasts of the invasion of Iraq.  In particular, the writer Max Boot and the former DOD official Paul Wolfowitz, the latter of whom I have written about here and here.

    Why this matters: The edge to Gibney's argument will be evident to anyone who reads it. What most people would not realize is how particularly trenchant a judgment this is, coming from him. As a one-time Foreign Service officer (and former executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine), James Gibney is no one's idea of a hothead. He is more gentlemanly than most people who express views on this site (not to mention on the whole untrammeled web), and less known for harsh opinions. These words have weight.

  • More than you probably want to know about Snow Leopard

    Leopard.jpg

    I expect to have a Mac OS X 10.6 / Snow Leopard install disk on hand for amusement over the Labor Day weekend. Between that and getting TV service re-connected -- after a month, we finally gave in -- it should be a full and satisfying few days.* What is this program they talk about, called "The Daily Show"?** And this man "Conan"?

    On expository as much as purely technical grounds, I have to say something complimentary about the new 23-page-long review of Snow Leopard by John Siracusa at ArsTechnica. It has technical analysis that should satisfy anyone so inclined. Eg, this diagram and accompanying discussion of Snow Leopard's use of the LLVM approach (Low Level Virtual Machine) and more generally the explanation of how the operating system is designed to do "more with more," that is, making use of the vastly-increased processing power of modern computers.

    ArsTechnica1.jpg

    But the review also includes much more accessible discussion of the difference this system will make to ordinary users. The Go/No-go advice, which comes on page 23 of the review, is that for most users of Intel-based Macs it's an obvious Go, even though there will certainly be some bugs in this initial release. My main point for the moment is not to give advice one way or another about software upgrades but to note an impressive piece of technical writing.

    UPDATE: Install disk was there when I got home; applied to one computer, MacBook Pro; finished in about 40 minutes with no problems or complications and appears to have freed up many Gigs of disk space.

    UPDATE 2: After repeated attempts, the new OS has not installed on the MacBook Air, after easy handling of the MacBook Pro. This is no doubt due to the fundamental design compromise built into the MBA. To make the system unbelievably light and elegant, a lot of "basic" features were left out, like its own DVD/CD slot. So it installs programs or plays music only from "remote" discs, namely those on other machines in the same local network. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. I'll try tomorrow with hard-wired rather than Wifi connections.

    UPDATE 3: Well, it looks like the failed-install to the MacBook Air had a silver lining. Have tried out all my normal programs and utilities on the Pro; all seem to work without problem on the new OS. Except, I just now learn, the beloved "K4" -- the Adobe-based production software we use to edit, lay out, and put together every article in the magazine. Hmmmm. Maybe I'll pretend I did get Snow Leopard installed on all my computers, so I have an excuse to miss the next few deadlines. Or not bother to install it on the MBA, and stick with that for actual work.
    _____

    *For the record, Snow Leopard will go on the household's three Macs, which are also running Windows XP under VMware Fusion; the poor ThinkPad T60 that was blighted with the original, unworkable version of Vista will be left in tech hospice to sputter out its last days; and my wife's new HP laptop, replacing one that died on our very last day in China, not only has the much-less-objectionable latest release version of Vista but also an upgrade certificate for Windows 7, which will be applied in due course.

    ** Just a little joke. I know it's on summer hiatus; even in China I could see it on computer, though boy does the Great Firewall slow down video feeds.


  • A very simple question about the 'public option'

    No one I have ever met who is eligible for Medicare would dream of turning down its coverage.

    And therefore the "public option" would be so terrible because.... ???
    ____
    Medicare is of course a "public option" in spades. I remember the debates before its enactment in the 1960s, about how the coming of "socialized medicine" would be the end of the American way.

    Of course now we have a system that is taken for granted as a central part of the American way. Yes, yes, I am aware of the arguments (as laid out here, here, and elsewhere) about the distortions and cost pressures within Medicare. Still: as a matter of politics I have always thought that the route toward health-coverage reform in America would be steady expansion of the eligibility standards for Medicare. First down to age 60, then 55, then... 

    I know that "logic" tells us only so much about health policy debates. But, seriously, how can people with a sound mind and a straight face take Medicare as part of the landscape but consider the "public option" an abomination? Just curious -- but genuinely curious.

  • My visit to the Motley Fool

    A week ago, when for unrelated house-reconstruction reasons I was comatose from no sleep, I had a very enjoyable hour-long visit with the staff of the Motley Fool, at their stylish HQ in Alexandria, Va. This was part of their Motley Fool Conversation series. A podcast of the result is available here. I realize that I may have been snarkier-sounding about the future of Twitter than reasoned analysis would support. But, hey, I was only half awake! And it was at the Motley Fool. Most of the talk was about China, with side notes about Microsoft, speechwriting, the Future of the Atlantic, and so on.

    Seriously, most TV and radio talk shows could take useful interviewing tips from these guys. A very enjoyable exchange, at least from my point of view.

  • The right kind of college rankings

    As a one-time staff editor of the Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.

    As a one-time editor of  US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News. But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too. For more on this theme, the classic source is this 2001 article -- as it happens, in the Washington Monthly -- by Amy Graham, who came to US News on my watch to try to clean up the rankings, and Nicholas Thompson, who has a wonderful new joint biography of (his grandfather) Paul Nitze and George Kennan coming out soon.

    The practical solution to ranking mania is not to try to eliminate them -- it's too late -- but instead to crowd the field so that no one "Best Colleges" list has disproportionate influence. Toward that end, the Washington Monthly's latest iteration of its college rankings is valuable simply for existing and adding diversity to the ranking field. It's more valuable than that, because of the way it carries through its analysis about the traits we really should value in universities, plus letting people tailor their own rankings based on the qualities that matter most to them. Here's a glimpse at its "National Universities" ranking, which is quite different from the familiar list in US News (this shows just a few of the elements on which schools are rated).

    TWMCollege.jpg

    The introduction to TWM's approach to college ranking is here; a description of its methods is here; the interactive ranking system is shown here. As I've stressed time and again when reporting from overseas, America's vast and diverse university system is (along with its openness to outside talent) one of the advantages hardest for any other country to match, and therefore most important to protect. Among the threats to protect it from is a bogus and simplistic concept of quality. I welcome the Washington Monthly rankings as another step away from the brink of bogusness.

  • Last aviation post of the day: the world's biggest fire truck

    Quite amazing footage from Fox 11 in Los Angeles of a specially modified 747 serving as a fire-fighting tanker today. The plane is flying extremely low-and-slow to dump retardant in an attempt to contain the LA-area wildfires. From this site.


    For the first two or three minutes of this video I found it hard to believe it was live footage of an actual airplane, rather than a computerized simulation. Better use of local-TV live cams than following cops in a standard highway chase! (Thanks to Joseph Musco.)

  • Rounding out our "love for the TSA" theme

    Don't know how to explain it, but over the past week I've received a large amount of correspondence all with the same gripe about the Transportation Security Administration: its role as enforcer of class-inequality among the airborne traveling public. (Previously on the TSA here.) For instance, this sample note, from a military official with whom I've usually corresponded about Iraq policy and so forth:

    "My big puzzle/complaint with TSA:  how can they enforce and man discriminatory lines in the airport check in?  If someone is paying United more for a first class seat they can enjoy better service and seating on United--but in going through gov't run, TSA-manned security, how can there be a first class line with faster security checks?  It's a clearly wrong, illegal practice.

    "I protested it once--going through first class line with my cheap seat ticket, and refusing to go back, pointing out that this is a government security service, not the airline, and its illegal for gov't to discriminate for a business.  They called security police, I continued arguing for 10 minutes, got escorted through, then subjected to thorough bag searches despite having waved my military ID around.  I had plenty of time to waste on this, and it did no good apparently (unless they've stopped this practice at Las Vegas airport).  They may argue that its the airport folks who man the front part of line, but that's often not true, and it is always TSA folks at the security end of the line--they are illegally discriminating."

    Thanks to my travel back and forth from China in recent years, I have a million-zillion miles on United and therefore am in favor of any class inequality that might favor high-mileage customers like me. But I recognize that having public officials doing the favoring is unseemly. This is the next-to-last straw in judging the TSA an experiment that desperately needs to be rethought. The last straw comes from Patrick Smith, of the always-excellent "Ask the Pilot" site on Salon, who asks pointedly whether the intrusive and expensive TSA checklines are doing any good at all. Read his whole column for details, but here is the gist [my emphasis added:

    "The novelty of the Sept. 11 attacks notwithstanding, the primary threat to commercial planes is, was and shall remain the smuggling aboard of explosives, which is what happened on Pan Am 103 [the Lockerbie explosion twenty years ago whose instigator was recently set free]. The bomb came onboard in a suitcase. The hijack paradigm changed forever on 9/11, rendering the inflight takeover concept unworkable for a terrorist....

    "Yet whether by virtue of incompetence or willful ignorance, TSA continues to waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious, zero-tolerance fixation with blades and sharps. This does nothing to make us safer, and in fact draws security resources away from worthy pursuits.

    "Yes, TSA scans most bags for explosives. Mandates were put in place after 9/11 that have greatly increased the percentage of bags that are run through high-tech detectors, with a goal of screening all of them. But eight years later, screening is still not fully comprehensive. It does not yet include 100 percent of luggage and cargo, and procedures remain inadequate at many overseas airports from which thousands of U.S.-registered jetliners depart each week. Neither is there widespread screening for explosive materials that somebody can carry on his or her person. Good luck getting a hobby knife through a concourse checkpoint, while a pocket full of Semtex is unlikely to be noticed....

    "There is a level of inherent risk that we simply must learn to accept. But, if we are going to have an airport security apparatus, and if we are going to devote millions of tax dollars to the cause of thwarting attacks, can we please do it smartly and at least improve our odds? Am I the only one who finds it maddening, and even a little scary, that we can't get this right? Is it not a national disgrace that TSA should spend its time confiscating butter knives from uniformed pilots rather than focusing on deadly threats with a long historical precedent?

    "Where are the voices of protest? As I've said before, the airlines ought to be speaking out and pressuring TSA to revise its policies. I know it puts them in a tough spot, liability-wise -- carriers don't want to be perceived as opposing security, even when that security isn't helpful -- but much of what people despise about flying pertains to the TSA rigmarole.

    "And passengers, for their part, are apparently content with, or at least resigned to, the idea of security theater in lieu of the real thing. Indeed, rather than demand or expect change, hundreds of thousands of Americans have paid good money for the chance to simply circumvent the hassle of TSA."

    Amen. Now, if there were only some way to channel the surplus emotion from anti-health-care-reform "town meetings" and direct it toward the excesses of "security theater."

    More »

  • Gmail down -- and now back up!

    This is broadly known in the tech world, but for the purposes of the Atlantic's site this will be the official announcement that: for at least the last hour, Gmail has been inaccessible through most of the normal means-of-access. OTOH, I am still getting Gmail messages on my Blackberry, since I have Gmail set up to bounce a copy of all incoming info there. So some of the lower-brainstem functions of Gmail are still intact. Depending on how long this takes to clear up -- next few minutes, another hour or two -- will no doubt set off various speculation about the vulnerability of cloud computing, about whether there are some aspects of scale too vast even for the unimaginably vast collection of Google servers, whether Twitter (now ablaze with reports) could be brought down in collateral damage, and so on. All of that in due course. Right now, it's like living through real-time tech history!

    5:14 pm EDT: It's back! At least for the moment. Will be interesting to hear this sleuthed out.
     
    (Updated official Google status reports here.)

  • The NTSB on the Hudson River crash

    Late last week the National Transportation Safety Board put out a "safety recommendation" letter about preventing accidents in the "VFR Flyway" above the Hudson River. For previous items on the August 8 airplane-helicopter collision that killed nine people, see here, here, here, and here. VFR = "Visual Flight Rules," in which pilots are responsible for their own navigation and for keeping out of other planes' way.

    The full NTSB account of the accident will take many months to complete. This interim recommendation, available in PDF here, is interesting in several ways. First, in contrast to some excitable "it's the Wild West up there!" comments by politicians and media figures, it notes that there have been no previous collisions in 30 years of operating under current procedures over the Hudson, and just one reported "near miss" in the past ten years. Thus, "The procedures in use to promote separation between VFR flights appear to have been effective in preventing collisions." [Full quote from this section, with caveat, after the jump.]

    Nonetheless, its recommendation for avoiding problems in the future includes something that makes obvious sense: keeping helicopters and airplanes at different altitudes, since helicopters can safely operate much closer to the ground than airplanes can. This recent collision happened at 1,100 feet -- the altitude at which airplanes typically fly through the corridor, since above that they get into controlled "Class B" airspace for New York's three major airports. The airplane was flying level at that altitude; the helicopter climbed to that altitude just before the crash. By the NTSB's recommendations, helicopters would not get that high.

    There are other observations about air traffic control procedures to keep a closer eye on traffic. (For the reaction from air traffic controllers' union, see this Washington Post item. More on the merits of this part of the argument later.) Worth checking out.
    ___

    More »

  • The Real China

    From pollution to unemployment, factory workers to churchgoers, a look at the real people and issues dominating the nation today.

    Starting this week and through the fall, the Atlantic's site will have a series of clips from the DVD series "Doing Business in China" in which I was involved before moving back to the United States. I'll have more to say shortly about the background of the project, and what I view as its potential importance. For now I'll just say thanks to: Bob Schapiro and Dovar Chen, who figured out how to get the original and quite startling video footage inside Chinese factories, bureaucracies, stores, etc over the past few years; Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who appears on the films in "what it all means" discussions with me after each segment; and Emily Chang, on-camera co-host. I'll also mention that when we were filming some of the narration in Shanghai, it was hot and humid beyond all belief, and we were standing in direct sun on a rooftop. More to come, and I will say that I learned a lot about China through the process of working on this project.

  • Karel van Wolferen on the Japanese electoral revolution

    I mentioned last week that the Dutch writer Karel van Wolferen was, like me, a devotee of "interesting" software for writing and thinking. His real metier, of course, is political analysis, most notably about Japan. On his site he has just put up a detailed post about this weekend's historic ousting of the Liberal Democratic Party from governing control in Japan.

    The LDP's name has unfortunately misleading connotations in English; as the hoary joke goes, it is neither "liberal" nor "democratic" but instead is the long-standing force of status-quo, favor-trading conservatism. And as Karel has argued in his many books and articles, its mere existence is misleading in a more fundamental sense, since it implies that Japan is a "normal" democracy, in which political parties compete for the power to control government policy. In fact, elected politicians from the LDP and all other parties have been relatively weak, compared with the permanent and powerful bureaucrats who distribute money, set policy, and in most senses run the country.

    To see that analysis applied to the current situation, check out his latest dispatch. He asks whether this election will make any more difference than the only other time the LDP was driven (briefly) from power, just after Bill Clinton's inauguration:

    "Will Japan's new government be able to do what the reformists could not possibly accomplish in 1993? Skeptics point at the  divisions within the [new ruling party]...

    "But my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a 'normal country'."

    The idea of Japan as a "normal" country -- one that takes responsibility for its own defense, one with a functioning political system -- is more significant than most people outside Japan usually recognize. I remember hearing Ozawa use that phrase when I interviewed him, in his role as an LDP potentate, twenty years ago while I was living in Tokyo. I have no idea whether this election really will signify, as the one in 1993 did not, the long-awaited historic emergence of Japan as a functioning democracy. But Karel van Wolferen's post lays out the stakes, and the reasons to think it might.

  • Offline

    Out of internet range until until the end of the month. Enjoy the rest of August, my favorite month.

  • More love for the TSA (plus actual good TSA-related news)

    Four ways of looking at the TSA (drawn from reader mail, following this and this item):

    As possibility for political symbolism:

    "Political experts will disagree, but the smartest thing that Gingrich and Co did back when they took over Congress was kill the federal speed limits. It told every American that they were serious about killing outdated government regulations and it gave some moral power to their deconstruction.

    "In another era, Miranda rights, repeated endlessly on TV cop shows, gave every American the idea they had "rights".

    "I remember an axiom, perhaps from Nixon, that every President needs to kill a government department on taking office.   Killing TSA, and saving $5 for every airline ticket sold, would seem to be an enormously easy venture. Going back to your 1977 article, What Would Jimmy Carter Do?" [Deferring comment on this last point for now.]

    As occasion for good news!
    A reader sent this positive account from a recent trip via BWI airport in Baltimore:

    "The last time we traveled through BWI in July, we noticed that TSA seemed a lot friendlier.  Someone near the area where you got screened was announcing a list of things that you had to take out of your bags to be screened separately. This list included some things that I considered fairly bizarre like an accordian. This made the TSA look a lot less humorless than they had been before. 

    "I do  agree with you that the shoe thing needs to stop.  There are some people trying to sneak through with their Vibrams or similar shoes.  These are still rare enough that they puzzle some TSA personnel."

    As it turns out, there is a reason why BWI seems less maddening/harassing than most other airports! A friend who works for IDEO, the famed design firm, pointed me toward a report showing what IDEO had done to reduce the going-crazy experience of passing through airport check lines. It's here, and it includes apercus like this:

    "It was clear that trying to observe the subtleties of hostile intent would be less effective in a chaotic environment filled with stressed passengers. IDEO was engaged to design a solution that calmed the environment of the checkpoint, thus making potential threats stand out."

    Good work! (Pictures from BWI below.)
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    More »

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