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.
  • Mad magazine takes on the birthers

    I don't know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they're still around, here's an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

    A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its "Strangely Believe It! Strangely True" series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley's Believe It or Not. It concerned -- well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore. [Thanks to reader JS for title catch.]


    The punch line -- hardee har! -- is that news of the baby girl's birth had to be telegrammed to her mother, who had missed the plane on which the surprise birth occurred.

    What's the connection to the birthers? If Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya, then his mother would have to have been in Kenya too! I don't think anyone has dreamed of suggesting that his mother was other than the one he has always claimed, Stanley Ann Dunham. Presumably somewhere in the passport records of the United States or Kenya is information about whether his mother (a) left the United States, or (b) entered Kenya in 1961 when her son was born. If she didn't leave the United States, including the fully-fledged state of Hawaii, in the summer of 1961, then by definition her child has to have been a natural-born U.S. citizen.

    I recognize that if this were a matter of -- how do we say? -- "reality" or "facts," it would have been settled long ago, as it has been for everyone except the birther stalwarts. But this is an interesting additional angle worth considering; plus, it's great to see these detailed old Mad drawings. FYI, you can see a zoomable full-page version of the "Strangely Believe It!" illustration, by Wallace Wood, if you click on the smaller image below.


  • Press deadline detail (updated)

    The House passed the health-care reform bill last night at 11:15pm. I was watching (I mean, on CSPAN)! This morning, the Sunday New York Times that was waiting outside at our house in northwest DC had a headline about the passage and a wrapup of who had voted which way, and why.


    The Washington Post that was sitting alongside it had a story about the likely result in the vote, and a little box saying that the vote had happened too late to be covered in the paper.
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8136.JPG


    No major point here: just interesting that the newspaper of politics, the newspaper of Washington, apparently has an earlier deadline for events in the capital than the out of town paper does. May just have been a fluke and signifying nothing, but mildly a surprise.

    UPDATE: Thanks to reader J.M., I see that the Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, has recently commented on the effect of earlier deadlines at the Post. Unfortunate effect that he highlights: gap between the quality and polish of articles on the web site and those that make it into the paper. Alexander said:
    "[A reader] put his finger on a primary cause [of grammar errors]: tighter deadlines. It's the same problem I wrote about last week in explaining why up to 185,000 Post readers were no longer getting late game coverage of the World Series, the Redskins' Monday night game or the Wizards' exciting season opening victory in Dallas.

    "The need to cut costs forced The Post to close its College Park printing facility some months ago and consolidate operations at its other printing plant in Springfield. That, coupled with the need to deliver papers to subscribers who now begin their commutes earlier due to worsening traffic congestion, has resulted in deadlines being moved forward."
  • West Point, Phillips Collection: two very different YouTube clips

    West Point: Over the decades I have sung the praises of defense thinkers broadly associated with or inspired by the late Air Force colonel John Boyd. More on this general outlook to national strategy here. One prominent figure in this group is Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and prolific author. Recently he was invited to West Point, his alma mater, to address cadets on the realities of military life and military thinking. His full address, broken into a series of YouTube clips, starts here.

    Mostly for specialists, but for those interested in the effort to shape a sustainable U.S. military strategy, this is worthwhile. Macgregor's latest book is here.

    Phillips Collection: This very elegant small museum/gallery near DuPont Circle in Washington now has has a display by the sculptor and artist Barbara Liotta (a close friend of my wife's).  This brief clip she shows how she installed her piece "Icarus" at the Phillips. This is interesting to me in showing the combination of elementary manual skills -- like tying knots around the small stones she is suspending -- with an original vision of how strings and stones can create a powerful 3-D structure. She has another gallery show in Washington here. Detail of suspended stone below; then, the YouTube clip.


    Meta point: the value of YouTube in showing two committed people from completely different realms of endeavor intensely at their work.

  • November 7

    This seems like ancient history and it seems like only yesterday, but it was one year ago that my father, James A. Fallows MD, died at his home in California. I can't help mentioning him, and my late mother Jean, today.


    I saw this picture, thanks to my siblings, only after his death. I think this is from his late 40s or early 50s. Thanks to many people who wrote a year ago, after I mentioned what he and my mother had meant to their small community and their children. For reasons of distraction, volume, and general life chaos I never responded to most messages, but I appreciated them.
  • In defense of the TSA

    On the "man bites dog" front, and in the spirit of fairness, here are two items on behalf of the TSA. Or at least in opposition to some lines of criticism (like this recent one from me).

    First: I can't believe that I've learned only now that the TSA has its own chatty blog, which takes up various criticisms, especially from web sites, and gives the TSA's answer. For instance, if you want to know their response to this famed cartoon from XKCD.com, check here.

    The wonderful headline on another item at the blog: "Response to 'TSA Agents Took My Son.'"
    I won't say that I am tremendously convinced by their rebuttals, but I do (seriously) admire the effort, and the flair. (I learned about the blog via Bob Collins of Minnesota.)

    Next, below and after the jump, a reader's message in response to the recent GAO critique of TSA, mentioned here.

    "While agreeing with the spirt of your attack on TSA, I'm not sure the jab is well centered. 

    "The GAO report is about TSA funding new technology.  Clearly that is a botched job -- the withdrawal of the "puffer" machines is a demonstration that TSA is not good at funding R&D.  But it has nothing to do with TSA screening tactics -- which I agree are not "risk based". And on the larger level, I'm not sure a blanket risk analysis is an effective tool for deciding where to put R&D dollars.

    More »

  • 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.)



    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.


    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.


  • 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.


    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.


    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. 


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