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.
  • I take it back

    Have been watching live coverage of the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing for the last two hours (on the local Chinese-language TV station in DC). Nice blue-sky day in town! Yes, they had the giant and threatening-seeming military displays I mentioned earlier.

    But they were intermixed among mass pageantry of every imaginable campy Rose Parade-type variety. For each deployment of tanks, there has been a Farmers' Coop float. For each regiment of goosestepping female soldiers, all exactly the same height and with skirts exactly the same length, there has been a group of Clean Energy workers, accompanying a display of wind turbines and solar panels -- or a group of athletes from the Phys Ed university. Plus some pompom group whose ID on the screen I couldn't understand, and miscellaneous other celebrations. And a float from each province or region, with waving local beauties! This is becoming truer to the randomness of China as I think of it.  Happy 60th birthday.

  • Emptying the obesity-and-class mailbag

    I will say goodbye for now to this topic, which began with an offhand mention that America didn't seem as fat as I "expected" after three years away. An unprecedented amount of mail came in; below and after the jump, samples of some of the themes I hadn't previously gotten to. Thanks for the responses.

    Eating as an available pleasure. From a reader in South Dakota:

    "An overlooked connection between obesity and class, I believe, stems from varying quantity of personal enjoyment and anticipation of enjoyment.

    "It is one thing for a successful, financially comfortable, socially accepted and respected person who has multiple things happening every day that are pleasurable (golf, driving a nice car, nice home, stylish clothing, success at work, interesting social events, kids doing well, planning vacations, etc) to take just one pleasurable aspect of life (overeating) and sacrifice some of that pleasure for the good result of losing weight.

    "Now, for people struggling financially and socially, trying to just get through the day and keep their lives together to varying degrees...their meals are often the only consistently happy and pleasurable events they can count on each day. 

    "Obviously, a generalization.  But, if one gets up and faces a day with a tedious and unfulfilling job, not much money to spend on anything but necessities, and no "fun" things ahead, how much more difficult it is for that person to also think ahead to a day of denying themselves the pleasure of their mealtimes...."

    The processed-food factor:

    "I was quite surprised to note the glaring lack of an obvious contributing major factor in your recent post on obesity: processed foods.

    "I was first struck by the weight of this factor (pun intended) during a trip to Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. During my stay, I was absolutely astonished to find such a small percentage of fat people given that:

    "a) the per-capita consumption of meat (in Argentina) is the highest in the world.

    "b) the vast majority of people eat their largest meals very late at night (9:00-12:00)

    "c) there are plenty of carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods consumed along with the meat

    "d) a very large percentage of the people who live in the vast city are relatively poor

    "So, how to account for this? No, it's not that the residents of Buenos Aires get far more exercise than their American counterparts, nor is it likely that they have far superior genes. The only possibly explanation that I can come up with is that they eat a small fraction of processed foods relative to their American (and, to a lesser extent, Western European) counterparts..."

    The rural-urban food gap:

    "If you are in a strange place as a traveler, think about where you would go to eat and what would you eat?  If you are here in Oakland [Calif], you would find all kinds of good food (fresh, well-prepared, etc) available at an entire range of prices.  If you are where I just was (Orleans, CA - population 630 back whenever they put up sign), unless you bring all your own food you get badly fried frozen chicken or badly cooked (frozen) steak or hamburger, heated up frozen diced carrots and peas, reconstituted mashed "potatoes", all covered with your choice of "country gravy" or "brown gravy".  Not only unhealthy but also atrocious tasting.

    "There are beautiful farms along the Klamath river in that area - but I guarantee you that they are selling to Redding and Eureka or beyond and not to the folks in Orleans.  

By contrast - in the smallest town in Japan you can find a nice little noodle shop of some sort that will sell you a healthy and delicious meal, often with fresh made noodles, and at least some pickled local vegetables if not fresh ones!  


"This is an extreme example (Orleans being a very remote place), but on road trips we prepare for the simple fact that only bad food is available in most of America outside the major metropolitan areas.  I'm not sure exactly what the causal relations are - but the correlation is strong I'm sure.  Where you have high obesity you also have bad food.  

    "So my big question - how much does the lack of availability of good food (due to the better profits from selling to big cities) influence the food culture in those areas - and how much do the food preferences cause those economics?

In the middle of Kansas you can't get fresh vegetables or good meat - go figger..."

    What makes US obesity different:

    "I think the really big difference between the US and the rest of the world is the relative frequency with which you will encounter people who are excessively overweight and not just "large" or "fat".  It's been a while since I was living in France, but between the three visits that I made since 2001 and the many years preceding, I would suggest that I have never seen 1% as many truly obese individuals as I encounter in any given month in the US..."

    The mystery of rural obesity:

    "There's a conundrum here that I can't untangle.  How in the world is it possible for rural people, especially lower-income, to have higher obesity rates than city people when rural life is so very much more physically demanding and junk food so much harder to come by?

    "I live in rural Vermont, having moved here some years ago from suburban Boston, and one of the most striking differences between living in the suburbs and the country is the much greater amount of physical work involved in just day-to-day life.  Walking to the bus stop or the corner store doesn't even begin to compare.

    "And as for poverty-- the less disposable income you have, the more of that work you have to do yourself rather than hiring someone else to do it.

    "Small-scale family farming involves an enormous amount of hard physical labor.  An obese farmer is pretty much an impossibility.

    "Lower-income rural folks who don't farm don't have to do as much work, but still a considerable amount.  Between just keeping my little two-acre property in respectable condition, managing my large kitchen garden, and most especially the firewood that, like most people around here from pure financial necessity I use to heat my home in the winter, I'm involuntarily in the best physical shape of my life.  The clothes I brought with me from my soft suburban life no longer fit.

    "On the intake side, rural people aren't shoving large amounts of junk food into their mouths, either, for the simple reason that it isn't easily accessible.  Here, the nearest McDonald's is 15 miles away.  There's only one small lunch counter that sells pizza anywhere in the area.  The general stores sell their share of potato chips and other snacks, the store is a special trip, not a casual daily drop-in.

    "So how come the obesity in rural areas?..."

    The last bastion of unashamed class snobbery. The link included in this last message reinforces the point of the message very strongly:

    "In recent posts you or your readers have mentioned the differences one might encounter walking around Wal-Mart versus Harvard Yard.  If you aren't already aware of the site, take a look at People of Wal-Mart. It's a pretty ugly display of behind-the-back classist name-calling [JF note: no kidding], but it's out there for all to see anyway.

    "Your readers aren't the only to have associated a certain class/shape/personality type with Wal-Mart. Seems like it's generally acceptable to have these sorts of prejudices. 
    It's not inconceivable to think of a website whose premise is to look and make fun of overweight people.  However, except on the very fringes of the internet, I couldn't imagine a similar website making fun of a particular race or ethnicity. [Depends how you define "fringes."]  Obesity and class, though, seem to be fair game in the mainstream."

    I agree on the "fair game" point; the other prejudice that is generally penalty-free in the media is against Southerners. (This was a big in-house theme back during the Carter years, and to a slightly diminished degree in the Clinton's era. That's a whole question for another time.) As with a lot of other social functions, there is a careful balance to be maintained here: recognizing that obesity, like smoking, has become one more marker of lower class status, without sneering or snickering about that fact.

    Upcoming: similar "clean out the queue and move on" summaries about slippery-slope rhetoric and, of course, a replacement for the boiled frog. 

    More »

  • Beijing, 3am

    Well, we're going to see a lot of these shots in the next 24 hours out of Beijing, as the 60th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People's Republic take place. This is from a reader looking down Xidawang Lu, not far from our former home, at 3am local time October 1-- a few minutes ago as I write.


    This item, "China's Looming PR Disaster," at the Interpreter site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, makes the point I've made frequently (including once on a live Chinese government TV show in Beijing) since the plans for a gala military parade were announced this spring: In showcasing endless seas of Chinese soldiers and weaponry, the regime may make itself look stronger to its people -- at the cost of looking threatening to everyone else. (Versions of this argument here and here.) As Alistair Thornton says on the Interpreter site:
    "I have a sinking feeling that this could turn out to be the worst PR stunt of all time. To me, it screams, 'Hey! You in the West! How's the recession? We just nailed 9% growth. Scared of a rising China? Check out all of our tanks and never-seen-before missiles'. It's not really the vibe you want to give off in the midst of unprecedented shifts in geopolitical power."
     But the other obvious point is that all politics is local, in China as well as anywhere else, and impressing the home crowd will always outweigh the hand-wringing concerns from the diplomats. So, the show begins. I will leave most further photos to the news services, but thought it was worth kicking off the observations with this pic.
  • A nice tool for envisioning rhetoric

    At this IBM research site, an interesting way to assess the themes in presidential inaugural addresses. The researcher, Jonathan Feinberg, uses fancy math to analyze which words in an address are most similar to those other presidents have used -- and which are most distinctive. The larger the words in the diagram, the more often a President used them in a given speech -- and the bluer they are, the more unusual their use is, compared with other speeches. The pink words are ones "conspicuously absent" from a speech -- ones showing up in other inaugural speeches but not this one.

    For instance, this is the graph of GW Bush's Wilsonian-sounding Second Inaugural Address, with its commitment to "the expansion of freedom in all the world." Blue words are those distinctive to this speech; pink ones, those strikingly missing.


    Disappointingly, the tool is not yet sufficiently honed to track the Reagan-era-onward emergence of "God bless America!" as the unvarying conclusion of presidential speeches. (In fairness, Obama left it out of the prepared text of his address this year.) And it's not set up to let you feed new rhetoric into it for analysis -- for instance, the tantalizing possibility of sluicing in newspaper columns, to depict the phrases a writer stresses and avoids. That's why researchers must still toil on. Thanks to Henry Farrell.
  • Update on McCaughey and tobacco

    Yesterday I reported this exchange with a representative of the Manhattan institute, where Betsy McCaughey was based when she wrote her "No Exit" attack on the Clinton health reform plan:

     "I wrote back to Lindsay Craig asking which of these options the Manhattan Institute was saying:
    "A: The Rolling Stone contention that tobacco companies collaborated with Ms. McCaughey and M.I. is totally false; there was no such contact or collaboration.

    "B: We are confident that Ms. McCaughey's opinions were not influenced by tobacco companies, even though she may have worked with them.
    "Her immediate response:
    "A.   Betsy never worked with Phillip Morris." 

    As a followup, I asked Ms. Craig whether there was any significance in the distinction between "tobacco companies" in the question and "Phillip Morris" in the answer. She said: No.  Her flat denial applies to "Tobacco companies (plural -- though the document in question is from Phillip Morris)."

    Clear enough. So we now have documents, reported in Rolling Stone, in which a tobacco lobbyist claims in detail to have worked with McCaughey as she put together her articles -- and a categorical denial from the Manhattan Institute that she worked with tobacco firms. Yet again it would be helpful to have Ms. McCaughey address the specifics of the lobbyist's claim.

  • Local boys make good, China version

    In an article this spring about China's recovery from the world slowdown, I mentioned a visit to the BYD company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, where a materials-science PhD named Wang Chuanfu was leading the development of advanced battery powered cars.

    IMG_5920A.jpgOn that trip I also visited the nice-but-nothing-fancy dorm-style quarters where Wang and the rest of the BYD management lived. Here's the punchline from that article (with a shot of Wang from the press conference in December announcing his new cars):

    "The company's official goal is to be the biggest automaker in China by 2015, and the biggest in the world by 2025. Wang's unveiling of the car in Shenzhen coincided with U.S. congressional debate about emergency aid to GM and Chrysler. I asked Wang if he had any tips for the U.S. companies. He is a quiet, nerdish man who seemed to blanch as he heard the question translated. "For 100 years, nothing has changed in Detroit," he finally said (through the interpreter). "I think they need to reconsider their product lines."

    Now, according to this report, Wang has become the richest man in China, thanks to a rise in BYD stock and a stake from Warren Buffett. That is a volatile distinction, with people's fortunes rising and falling, but impressive as an up-from-nothing manufacturing success story.

    And in this article in 2007, I discussed the amazing Chinese "reality" show Win in China, which was a kind of super-capitalist version of The Apprentice. One of the finalists in the show was an earthy,  non-college-grad character named Zhou Yu and generally known as the "Lone Wolf."  Ole Schell, who has made a great new documentary about Win In China, has just posted an online report about the Wolf and his lingerie factory in Shandong province. Congrats all around. 

    The moment of truth on the show, as the Wolf dutifully claps for the just-announced winner, Song "Social Conscience" Wenming, who raises his hands in victory.

  • A nice offhand allusion in the NYT

    The third paragraph of Sharon LaFraniere's story today in the NYT, about the Chinese government's obsessive over-preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic, on October 1 (background on the celebrations here):

    "China's government at times resembles an exasperated parent trying to rein in a pack of rebellious children. Its edicts are persistently flouted by censor-dodging Internet users, wayward local officials and rioting Uighurs."

    Two things strike me about this. First, it's good to see correspondents flat-out saying how things look to them, rather than having to rely on "Some observers say" or "Mr. X of YY think tank observes..." Second, this little context-setting aside is so much more realistic than the standard Western press references to a big, omniscient, all-powerful Chinese regime effortlessly working its will on the populace, whether in a good way by installing green technology or in a bad way by squashing dissent.

    Over the past three years, I've emphasized maybe a million times how diverse, churning, individual-minded, and generally resistant to control much of today's China seems. If I were writing LaFraniere's sentence myself, I'd say "often resembles" rather than "at times resembles," and I'd replace the reference to the Uighur uprising (an exceptional, real emergency) with something about one billion rule-evading ordinary citizens. But this is a worthy step toward a sane perspective on China -- worth bearing in mind as we prepare to see the (deceptively) precise and orderly displays on October 1.
    Photo from the NYT about the kind of precise pageantry we'll be treated to. Don't be misled.

  • More on Ls and Rs in Japanese

    As mentioned yesterday, the risk in correcting others is that you get exposed to correction yourself. So it turns out to be -- sort of -- with my comments about the L and R sounds in Japanese. Major point: it remains correct to say, as I did, that Japanese speakers do not "lallate" -- use Ls in place of Rs, and vice versa. Minor refinement! It's not quite right to say, as I also did, that the Japanese phonetic system "has no L sound." Its writing system has only Rs instead of Ls (when represented in the western alphabet), but the sound is more complicated. Representative messages:

    "I think it is more accurate to say that Japanese has a single sound that is somewhere in between English 'l' and 'r'.  The Japanese 'r' is certainly not standard US retroflex 'r'.  Say the name "Richard" and feel where your tongue goes (it's back towards the roof of your mouth).  Now say "baseboru" with your best shot at a Japanese accent - you'll find that your tongue is further forward in your mouth and just taps the ridge of your gums.  Now say "Lilly" - your tongue will be even further forward.  The 'r' in 'baseboru' is somewhere in between  "Lilly" and "Richard". " [JF note: this corresponds to my experience in coping with Japanese.]

    And, from someone raised in America whose husband was raised in Japan:

    "Yeah - they use "R" when they write those syllables in Roman alphabet.  I've learned though that my pronunciation is somewhat less comical to the listener if I pronounce it closer to the English "l" sound.  As best I can make out, the tongue position makes it something of a cross between our "r", "l", and "d".

I believe there is research showing that a newborn is able to "hear" most any of the sounds you can make, but by the time you are 3 or 5 (or somewhere in there) your brain has specialized for the sounds you normally hear.  My husband simply cannot hear the difference between the spoken "l" and "r", because there just aren't those distinct sounds in spoken Japanese.

    Also, from someone raised in Taiwan:

    "I agreed that in Japanese, they spelled both English "L" and "R" with "R". But it will be incorrect to say that they have trouble to pronounce "L". It is actually the other way around, that is, they have trouble pronouncing "R". They simply don't curve their tongues.

    "I contribute this mix-up to the mistake they made when they Romanized their language. The ra / ri / ru / re / ro sounds you mentioned actually should be pronounced closer to la / li / lu / le / lo in Japanese. This is the same problem as people in Taiwan called 台北 Taipei instead of Taibei, with the later closer to the Chinese pronunciation and the same with calling 高雄 Kaohsiung instead of Gaohsiung. I am from Taiwan and I still don't understand why they did this....
    "PS. By the way, I did have a Korean professor who actually "reverses" his L and R every single time."

    More »

  • The obesity / class / region express rolls on

    In response to a reader's comment that a pack of buffed-up CPAs "built like lumberjacks" took on construction workers and held their own, plus another about slimmed-down med students, this reponse:

    "I agree with many of the observations from your med student correspondent. I work for a mid-sized management consulting firm comprised almost entirely of former Big Four consultants. We employee many CPAs and MBAs. Other people have different higher degrees. Though we have offices all over the Midwest as a group the employees are not merely trim but fit. Just in my office in Kansas City (traditionally considered one of the fattest cities around) we have several triatheletes, lots of marathon runners and long-distance cyclists. Having a personal trainer is not consider out of the ordinary.

    "It is assumed that everyone has an athletic hobby. To be unfit would be a career-limiting trait. To be obsese would be career suicide. No one munches chips at their desks.

    "Management consulting can be a bit of a macho world. Some guys compete, even place bets, when they participate in local charity runs. To lose is to invite gentle (or not so gentle) ribbing from other males. Our firm regularly competes in Corporate Challenge, which is taken quite seriously by the leadership. To win an event merits a mention at office-wide meetings.

    "I think fitness is seen by the leadership as a proxy for discipline, self-control, and health. We are forbidden by HR from asking certain questions during interviews so questions about excercise and visual inspection of candidates can be used to gather important data about perspective hires. All things being equal, a big fat guy would not be hired.

    "Most of us have to visit clients and it is believed that the appearence of fitness and vitality gives clients confidence in our skills, our ability to work long hours, our discipline.

    "Not all of this is class. Many of the partners and employees, including myself, come from working class, rural or near-rural childhoods in small towns thoughout the Midwest or South. Some come from extremely small towns in western Kansas. A few were overweight or obese earlier in life and have worked hard to overcome that. I guess a lot of this is self-selection but I think most is a by-product of ambition and peer pressure. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the idea that to rise in the corporate world you had to have a certain look. This look includes being trim, having no facial hair, having enough muscle to fill out a suit but not so much you're conspicuous, and having nice teeth."

    After the jump, a report based on compare-and-contrast observations in Kansas City and Chicago.

    A reader in the Midwest writes:

    "A few years ago my job, a white-collar desk job, transferred me from living and working in Chicago to the outer fringes of suburban Kansas City.  One of my first observations in the Kansas City office was how many obese people there were in the workplace and how many could be found standing outside in all kinds of weather on smoke breaks.  In the sea of humanity that is downtown Chicago on a workday I noticed very little obesity. 

    "The only conclusion I could come up with is if one is going to work in downtown Chicago most likely they will be taking a bus or train to and from it and have to powerwalk..and I say powerwalk because the freezing cold and damp winters do not encourage a leisurely stroll..several blocks to burn off those deep-dish pizza calories from lunch or the night before.  In Kansas City mass-transit (bus only) is minimal and in the suburbs almost non-existenet.  Meanwhile, Kansas City loves its barbecue and pork tenderloin, and has plenty of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, but if the most walking you do is from a parking lot to the door then the pounds will start adding on.

    "Afterhours activites may account for the difference too in the two Midwestern cities.  Chicago..similar to Denver, NYC, DC, SF, LA, etc. is a magnet for the ambitious, free-thinking, and energetic.  Friends and coworkers seemed to marry and have children, if they do, later in life; and spend the lengthy single years developing other interests which often included working-out and participant sports.  To me, few things were more enjoyable than bicycling along th e Chicago Lakefront on a summer day.  The suburban Kansas City coworkers usually get hitched by their mid-twenties, quite often to the same love-interest from high school or college, quickly have children, and their  lives then revolve around the spouse, children, and spectator sports.  Also, the stifling hot breath of a typical Missouri summer does a good job of discouraging outdoor activity unless it is necessary.

    "Finally, I make trips back to Chicago and Northern Indiana several times a year.  The differences in obesity between Chicago and Kansas City to my eyes are still holding true.  However, I do notice it more when visiting family in Indiana which I find is much more like Kansas City in the above comparisons save for the oppresive summers."

    More »

  • Manhattan Institute replies (re McCaughey and tobacco lobby) UPDATED

    In response to this item today, concerning Rolling Stone's claim that Betsy McCaughey worked secretly with tobacco lobbyists when preparing her 1994 New Republic article about the Clinton health reform plan, I have just received this note from Lindsay Craig of the Manhattan Institute:

    "Below is a letter to the editor of Rolling Stone from Lawrence Mone, president, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
    "In his article "The Lie Machine," Tim Dickenson asserts that former Manhattan Institute scholar Betsy McCaughey's work was influenced by Phillip Morris.  This conclusion is false.  Betsy McCaughey wrote two articles for the Wall Street Journal on the Clinton Health Care plan and an additional article for the New Republic which was solicited by its publisher.  At no time were her ideas influenced or controlled by anyone but the author herself."

    I have written back to Lindsay Craig asking for clarification on what, exactly, Mr. Mone is saying. The Rolling Stone documents say that Ms. McCaughey worked, in secret, with tobacco company lobbyists in preparing her articles. Mr. Mone's statement says that she was not "influenced or controlled" by anyone else. I have written to ask whether Mr. Mone is saying that she never worked with tobacco representatives (whether or not she was "controlled" by them); and whether the Manhattan Institute was aware of any such collaboration. More info as it arrives.

     I wrote back to Lindsay Craig asking which of these options the Manhattan Institute was saying:

    "A: The Rolling Stone contention that tobacco companies collaborated with Ms. McCaughey and M.I. is totally false; there was no such contact or collaboration.

    "B: We are confident that Ms. McCaughey's opinions were not influenced by tobacco companies, even though she may have worked with them.

    Her immediate response:

    "A.   Betsy never worked with Phillip Morris." 

    Is this a question of a lobbyist grossly exaggerating his "influence" to impress bosses and funders? That's a very familiar pattern in Washington. On the other hand, the lobbyist's detailed knowledge of Betsy McCaughey's writing plans suggests some interaction. I don't know the underlying truth here. It would be valuable if Ms. McCaughey, who has specialized in detailed textual analysis, would address in specific what these documents contend.

  • One crucial B. McCaughey update

    I have deliberately laid off the Betsy McCaughey theme for the past month-plus. I had my say; she continues to have hers; people can make up their minds.

    But revelations late last week by Tim Dickinson, of Rolling Stone, are at face value so important that they deserve to be underscored. It's worth reading Dickinson's whole dispatch and studying the on-line scans of the documents he has found. But to me the real news is the evidence that tobacco lobbyists secretly worked with McCaughey to prepare her infamous 1994 New Republic article "No Exit." 

    As I argued back in 1995 in "A Triumph of Misinformation," everything about McCaughey's role in the debate depended on her pose as a scrupulous, impartial, independent scholar who, after leafing through the endless pages of the Clinton health proposals, had been shocked by what she found. If it had been known at the time that she was secretly collaborating with one of the main interest-group enemies of the plan, perhaps the article would never had been published; at a minimum, her standing to speak would have been different.

    (For the record: Yes, I am aware that my friend and current Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan, who was then TNR's editor, is the one who decided to publish this article. In the 15 years since the article's appearance, the magazine and its writers have, to their credit, repeatedly pointed out its errors and apologized for spreading its misinformation. Mickey Kaus was doing so immediately after the article's embarrassing selection for a National Magazine Award for "Excellence in Public Interest." Jonathan Cohn, author of the indispensable book Sick, did so early this year. The TNR site has a "link" to the original McCaughey piece, but it's not connected to the article itself.)
    Now Tim Dickinson produces documents from a tobacco lobbyist about his efforts to derail the Clinton health bill, including this one involving McCaughey and her then employer, the Manhattan Institute:
    Thumbnail image for RSMcCaugh2.jpg
    In case that's blurry, here is what Dickinson says:

    "What has not been reported until now is that McCaughey's writing was influenced by Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, as part of a secret campaign to scuttle Clinton's health care reform. (The measure would have been funded by a huge increase in tobacco taxes.) In an internal company memo from March 1994, the tobacco giant detailed its strategy to derail Hillarycare through an alliance with conservative think tanks, front groups and media outlets. Integral to the company's strategy, the memo observed, was an effort to "work on the development of favorable pieces" with "friendly contacts in the media." The memo, prepared by a Philip Morris executive, mentions only one author by name:

    ' "Worked off-the-record with Manhattan and writer Betsy McCaughey as part of the input to the three-part exposé in The New Republic on what the Clinton plan means to you. The first part detailed specifics of the plan." '

    "McCaughey did not respond to Rolling Stone's request for an interview."

    Maybe there is another side to this story, but if unrebutted it is damning.

  • A whole bunch more on obesity theories

    After the jump, an American-style cornucopia of observations and theories about which Americans are overweight and why. I have been fascinated to read this mail and am trying to share some of the most interesting or representative parts.

    First, why med students aren't fat, from a fourth-year med student from Indiana:

    "1)  From what I've seen, class is a massive factor when it comes to obesity.  For us, it's actually frighteningly easy to quantify class when seeing patients -- we rotate through 4 different hospitals here and the term "Wishard Patient" is a well worn code among students/doctors/nurses/etc.  Typically, it's used in the context of trauma (gun and knife club) but it's depressing how routine it is to see diabetic patients 50/100/150 lbs overweight in the populations that can least afford care.  When working in a clinic for the local indigent population I saw a whole family where I'm certain every member was at least 100 lbs overweight, and a 14 year old girl already weighed over 250 lbs.

    2)  For some reason, there are very few fat medical students or residents.  Undoubtedly some of this is class, but the number of overweight students is too low to be attributed solely to that.  This actually kind of surprised me, because I've known my share of fat doctors.  My dad was a physician and could have stood to lose 30-40 lbs for most of his life...  But I'm constantly amazed at how fit my class is.  I can think of maybe 5 people I'd call "overweight" (let alone obese) in a class of 280.  I probably work out less than the mean, and I'm 6'2, 200 lbs, lift/run sporadically but play tennis once a week minimum.  I have friends who literally look like they can bench press trucks.  Some people just never NOT go to the gym, even on their most brutal rotations (sometimes that can mean 100+ hour weeks).  That's really inspiring to me. 

    "But the moral of the story is why that's the case?  Undoubtedly some of that is self selection, but I think a lot of it is that the medical hierarchy can be incredibly cruel to the overweight.  I suspect it's much harder than an overweight candidate all else being equal to get admitted to medical school to get admitted (maybe even relative to other professional schools or graduate schools).  I've seen superiors (staff, residents) just blatantly insult the weight of subordinates -- what comes to mind in particular is a staff physician constantly berating an extremely overweight resident to his face.  And honestly, I sometimes wonder how patients would react to an obese physician -- is it tough to tell someone to quit smoking when you're a 100 pounds overweight?  I'm not sure."

    Are cars the problem,  or suburbs? A view from Austria:

    "Interesting last post about the perils of car culture. I think it's dead on, but I wanted to emphasize that it's not just cities that come out looking good. The lesson is closer to, it's suburbs that are bad.
    "Let me explain.

I'm 6-2 and I'm one of those people whose weight varies a lot, it can be as low as 220 or as high as 270. In the last three years I've been dividing my time between rural Austria and suburban Westchester County near NYC. The reason I've been doing this is that my mom is sick in Austria and I have to take care of her and also sell the house in Westchester. So I've been spending stints of 1-2 months in each place for two years now, shuttling back and forth. As your correspondent suggested, when I'm in the suburbs, that's when my weight rises. I drive everywhere, I order takeout food, and so on. The wrinkle is that in Austria, where I'm remote from suburban infrastructure, I rely on my car to an even greater extent, but the lack of distractions means it's much easier to dedicate myself to exercising and maintaining a diet. And my weight drops.

    "The good news is, the Westchester house is sold, and when I return to the tri-state area it will be as a resident of NYC without a car. With any luck it'll become easier to maintain a virtuous cycle in both places.

     "My God, you are fat!" From an American reader who goes frequently overseas.

    "Whenever I return to the U.S. I have the same slack jawed reaction to the fatness of Americans in general.  However, there are several factors at play, as you and others have noted.  Statistically, a big part (excuse the pun) of the problem is the definition of "Obese".  I am a large man (6'3") and weight, at my peak, 260lbs.  Over the last year or so I lost about 55 lbs.  I did this primarily because I was tired of my business associates in Asia beginning every conversation with "My god, you are fat!".  My own perception was that I was a Clinton-esque, normal middle aged American male.  Round at the middle but hardly "obese".  That word was reserved for the truly huge among us.  Those with gobs of flesh folding over the beltline, winded by a trip up the stairs.    The medical community defines "overweight" as having a BMI above 25 and obese as over 30  I currently run 35-40KM per week and swim 1km a day.  I still have not gotten my BMI below 25.  The data is definitely skewed by this definition.
    "Having said all that, our European friends have nothing to scoff at.  Plenty of fat people in the UK and the continent.  I once had the pleasure of sitting in at a breakfast buffet in Manila watching a chair busting European family wolfing down a breakfast consisting of mounds of scrambled eggs, large stacks of pancakes drenched in syrup.  The kicker was between shoveling food into their mouths they sucked down cigarettes.  Nothing as impressive as a fat person using one hand to work the food and the other to hold the cigarette."

    The problem is the South. Regional food traditions matter. [Original subject line meant as a joke, but it ticked off the reader who sent the message below.] 

    "It certainly is appropriate to co-relate poverty, class, and educational attainment with obesity.  But I suggest that a couple of other cultural factors need to be considered:  food traditions and physical activity traditions. 
    "Food traditions vary by region and ethnic culture in the United States.  Physical activity traditions also vary by region and ethnic culture.  I have lived in five states in five different regions:  Georgia (where I grew up), New York (Ithaca, actually, where I attended Cornell); Colorado; Minnesota; and, now California.
    "Southern food traditions rely on fat for flavor and sugar for dessert.  Midwestern food traditions rely on meat, often pork, and dairy products.  In the Mountain West, the beef culture is significantly modified by an growing emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, not to mention a strong culture of physical activity in the form of leisure time exercise and sports.  California has a similar food and physical activity culture.
    "In the South and the Midwest, the physical activity culture is work-based.  As physical labor has declined as a way of making a living in these regions, calories are not worked off, but meal time is still abundant.  Southern food traditions include big servings....
    "These are all impressions.  I do not know if any one has studied and co-related food traditions and physical activity traditions with obesity.  Someone should, I think.  German food traditions, as one would find in the midwest, might contribute to obesity in the same way as Southern food traditions do." 

    More »

  • Obesity and politics

    A reader notes the thematic resemblance between two maps. First, the famous NYT map showing the counties that voted more Republican in the 2008 presidential election than in 2004. The areas in red show where Barack Obama, while winning nationally, got less of the vote than John Kerry did while losing.

    Then, the previously-mentioned map showing the states with greatest number of people who are both poor and obese.
    Thumbnail image for ObesityMap1.jpg

    What this means, if anything, is hard to say, because of the state-versus-county difference in scale and other anomalies. Still, it's interesting. The reader says:

    "You brought up the voting map, but even before I saw your mention of it, it struck me that the obesity/median income map strongly resembled maps that showed percentages of people voting for McCain and Obama. There is a V, with its bottom point in Arkansas and extending an arm NE to West Virginia and NW to Montana, that covers both McCain voters and the poor-and-fat. So the GOP is not just the natural home now of evangelical whites but also the disproportionatlely poor and heavy? Wow. That's a lot of cultural signifiers for rednecks conservatives all rolled up into one.."

    Here, also from the NYT, is a map of the states McCain actually carried, showing the reach up toward Montana.

  • Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Besuboru dept

    Update: Just after posting the item below I learned of the death of William Safire, who for three decades wrote the NYT Mag's language column, among his voluminous other works. Sorry for a querulous-seeming note under the circumstances. On the other hand, this is the kind of distinction that Safire himself reveled in. My condolences to his family.

    There is a big risk in writing items on the lines of: "Everybody thinks X, but everybody's wrong. Actually Y is correct." The risk is that, as the corrector, you can be wrong yourself. I know! I've been there before, and no doubt will be again.

    Unfortunately, I think that the estimable Jack Rosenthal of the NYT, in today's "Language" column in the magazine, is there too. Most of the column is devoted to correcting widely-practiced misuses of "phantonym" terms -- "disinterested" to mean bored (wrong) rather than impartial (right), etc. I'm with him on all of these! Then he adds this multilingual note:

    "The Japanese love besuboru, reflecting the phonetic phenomenon of lallation, reversing "r" and "l." "

    Not really. Rather, in keeping with my opening note of caution: to the best of my knowledge and experience, this is incorrect. Japanese fans of the Hiroshima Carp or the Nippon Ham Fighters do indeed refer to the sport as either besoboru or, more formally, 野球, yakyu. But they don't say besoboru because they are switching Ls and Rs. They say it because the Japanese language does not have the L sound. Where English speakers would use either L or R, the Japanese language has only R.*
    Therefore when Japanese people speak English, they often have trouble with Ls and may even "lallate," mixing up Ls and Rs. Much as English speakers, raised in a language with no gender, often mix up le/la or der/die/das in gendered languages like French or German. But when they're speaking Japanese, they say besoboru because that's the way their language works. (And if Rosenthal meant that the change wasn't caused by lallation but simply illustrated the use of an R where there had been an L -- OK. But it's still a bad illustration, since both Ls and Rs in English will become Rs in Japanese. Saying that it illustrates lallation implies that Rs would become Ls in Japanese -- Balaku Obama, etc. That doesn't happen.)

    OTOH, a very nice homage to one of my long-time Atlantic friends and colleagues in the Cox-Rathvon acrostic in the same magazine today, and a lot of unusually elegant clues. Check it out.
    * Primer on Japanese sound system here and here. As anyone who has studied the language knows, its syllabary has the ra / ri / ru / re / ro sequence of R sounds, but nothing involving Ls.

    Foreign words are often brought directly into Japanese and and converted to Japanese phonetics -- in contrast to Chinese, where the concept behind the foreign word is often re-rendered in Chinese. Thus "computer" is konpyuta (コンピュータ) in Japanese, but dian nao, "electric brain," (电脑), in Chinese. And thus in China I had a whole invented Chinese name with little relation to my original name, whereas in Japan, within the limits of Japanese sounds, my last name became ファローズ, Fuarohzu.

  • Obesity and class: the "hotness" factor

    An additional view on the relationship among education, income, and weight:

    "I am currently enrolled in an MBA program in a large city in the South.  On the weekends, I drive 80 miles and work as a paramedic for 48 straight hours for an emergency medical service that covers a bunch of rural small towns.  I am about 50 pounds over my ideal weight.  In my classes and in my neighborhood, which is very "creative class," my weight is definitely irregular.  In a b-school class of 50 or a full trendy neighborhood restaurant, there might be one other person who is more than 20 pounds overweight.  In the more rural area where I work, however, I'm damn close to the median.

    "A couple of thoughts:
    "1. Very broadly, American culture trends to stereotype those who get good grades as unathletic nerds.  Might be true in engineering, computer sciene and the natural sciences.  But in the professional classes, the same people I went to school with who had the discipline to put in the study time necessary to get into the good law schools, med schools or grab the investment banking or management consulting jobs also had the willpower to put in the time at the gym.  I'd bet that many current 22-year-olds would consider maintaining or obtaining "hotness" as as important as career success.  D.C. is full of these types of successful grads of good schools.

    "2. Car culture is terrible for public health.  Again, I'm significantly overweight.  Always trying new exercise and diet programs that never result in sustained weight loss.  What has?  Spent two months in London without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt at dieting or exercising.  Weight loss: 22 lbs. Six weeks in NYC without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt...  Weight loss: 19 lbs.  D.C. also benefits from this.

    "I had a friend from my paramedic job come visit me in the city a couple months back and bring his brother and a few of his brother's friends, who all work physically demanding construction jobs.  The construction guys, who are all stocky but in various stages of growing beer guts, somehow got into a fight with this group of guys who were built like lumberjacks.  It was a draw.  I later found out that the lumberjack guys were all "Big 4" accountants - CPAs who somehow had better arms and fitness levels than those who actually used their bodies for a living."

    More in the queue.


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