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.
  • 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.

  • FT, Economist, and me

    - Very nice brief review of my Postcards book today, by Rahul Jacob in the FT. I am grateful for his seeing just the points I was trying to make.

    - From the Economist's online site, a thought-experiment designed to show the ultimate folly of protectionism. This item has also been picked up by the Atlantic's own Andrew Sullivan.

    This isn't the place for a full discussion of the differences between the world as laid out in a first-semester ec course and the world as it actually operates. My unified field theory on the topic is in this Atlantic story, "How the World Works," from 1993.

    But this is the place to point out the basic logic error in the "thought experiment." Here's what the Economist's site said:

    "But the idiocy of the whole idea [of tariffs and protectionism] can be understood with a simple thought experiment, which I haven't seen used elsewhere.

    "If tariffs are such a good economic idea, then why stop at national boundaries? If they make everyone richer, why not have customs posts between New York and New Jersey? Cars entering and leaving the Lincoln tunnel would have to pay, on top of the toll, a surcharge on all the goods they contain. Why not, indeed, make New York and New Jersey self-sufficient in all their needs, making all their own cars, growing all their own food etc?"

    Here's the difference between commerce involving New York and New Jersey, and commerce involving, say, the U.S. and China. New York and New Jersey are in the same country. Why does this matter? Let's try a little thought experiment.

    Suppose you grow up in New Jersey. By the time you're looking for a job, the flow of capital, ideas, and innovation may mean that the best opportunities are in New York. Or Idaho, Or California. Sentimentally, perhaps you'd rather not move away from home. But in a pure economic sense, it doesn't matter in where the action is. You're free to move there. Within the national borders of the United States, there are only trivial, incidental impediments to citizens moving wherever they want. All "factors of production" -- money, material, people -- can flow freely throughout the country, for maximum efficiency. That's what the ec textbooks call for, and that's how it can work within a given country, or a free-movement zone like in Europe.

    But it's not the same between countries. If you grow up in New Jersey and the real opportunities are in Shanghai, you can't necessarily move there. You may not be able to move there even if you grow up in Qinghai province, China. People do move across national borders, legally and illegally. Immigration is America's distinctive strength, so I'm glad as many move here as do. But in general, people's economic well-being depends very heavily on the industries and opportunities in the country where they are born.

    Pointing this out doesn't prove protectionism right -- or wrong, as a strategy for developing a national economy. I'm on record as arguing that open Chinese-US trade has been good for both sides. But it does mean that the "thought experiment" makes no sense. There's a first-order difference between the flow of factors within a country and the flow between countries. I suspect this is the reason we haven't seen this powerful analogy "used elsewhere."

  • From Sudan, the Arctic, Shanghai: last takes on obesity

    ... at least for a while. Previously here, and with backward-reaching links here. Today's themes:

    Role of psychological factors, beyond class and geography:

    "Earlier this year, I spent a month in Southern Sudan. Returning to the US has many culture shocks - overpowering media environment being one. But the most striking was the preponderence not only of obese people, but people of all classes who were clearly overweight.

    "I live in Rochester, upstate NY which I consider a small midwestern city. The class lines referred to in your post are easily visible and confirmed. But I'd add one other possible obesity factor that likely traverses class lines: depression. No data, but I would guess that people who are depressed or anxious most often turn to food to soothe those beasts. Perhaps there's also a subtle factor of reaction to our Calvinist, repressive cultural history when it comes to sensual pleasure; food is allowed."

    The Eskimo angle:

    "I live in a predominantly Yup'ik Eskimo part of the world, where education levels are typically lower and the consumption of junk food has led to rapidly increasing rates of diabetes.Overweight and obese are the norm here, and not just among Yup'iks....

    "Another indicator from here: the used-clothes boutique has literally tens of feet of rack space for large, large clothes, about one foot or less for what one would consider small sizes.A doctor friend says the medical community has to redefine normal, since official normal does not represent most people...

    "I recently took a trip to Kansas City - which appears periodically in those lists generated somewhere of most-obese cities - and was struck by how few overweight people I was seeing. In fact, it was notable to me how fit most people looked, whereas here it is just the opposite. I was surprised."

    From a British friend in Shanghai:

    "I'm not surprised you are surprised not to see so many obese people. The world is enjoying the conversation about an 'obesity epidemic' and technically America tops the scales which gives the rest of us a chance to enjoy a seeming superiority. Whether or not that situation has changed in America and whether or not the situation for the rest of us has changed (in Europe, China or wherever getting fatter) doesn't matter. It's become a truism that Americans are fatter in greater numbers. This belief is held on to by both a) foreigners who like to have a dig at the US whenever we get a chance and b) ex-pat Americans who take the ex-pat view of all ex-pats that the country they come from has gone to the dogs since they left it. As you've been mixing with both foreigners and ex-pat Americans for several years in China you've probably let your guard down a bit and allowed it all to seep into your consciousness as it sort of seems right. Therefore when you return and are re-immersed in American life your unconscious assumption made while overseas is challenged.

    "Or, maybe you just need glasses!

    "Seriously though, it is interesting how many myths, stereotypes and assumptions you make about your own society while out of it for even a relatively short time.

    "Therefore the question is not really what happened to America's weight, good or bad, but what happened to James Fallows while he was away!"

    Ah, that last line opens up some questions that reach far beyond the obesity theme...  For now I'll say that I will return shortly to the ever-pressing boiled frog and slippery slope debates. And I will add, after yesterday's set of obesity maps, that a wonderful site for visualized data in general is FlowingData.com -- eg with this set of charts about making sense of flight delays. Nothing to do with body weight but interesting nonetheless. Thanks to Parker Donham for this lead.

  • More on obesity, geography, and class

    Gary Chapman, of the University of Texas, has created this way of envisioning the relationship between income and obesity. Concept: the shading varies with the obesity rate divided by median household income. This is a not-immediately-obvious way to present the data, in order to highlight one particular phenomenon: The darker the shade, the likelier you are to find people who are both poor and obese. Map created via Datamasher.org.


    And here is a map of simple state-by-state obesity rates, from the Centers for Disease Control, highlighting among other things Colorado's claim to be trimmest state in the union.


    Obviously, state-by-state comparisons are crude at best. The real sociological differences are within states -- county by county, neighborhood by neighborhood, as we see in Red/Blue voting maps. Still, as with voting there are large-scale state-by-state variations, and here the difference between Mississippi and, say, Vermont or Utah says something about racial mix, income and education levels, etc.
    After the jump, another map and a few more hypotheses.

    Another map, which shows relatively trim states (greenish) other than Colorado, from Calorie Lab:

    Now, interpretation. From a reader in Asia:

    "Australian academic friend on sabbatical at Cornell referred to "The slender folk on the hill and the chunky ones below."  Lots of class bias in weight. He and family are tall and skinney - genetics I suspect."

    From a reader in England:

    "I am surprised to read the Australian/English experience of there not being many fat people on the DC/NYC/Disney tourist route.  I believe that obesity levels differ enormously according to geography.  I used to live in Missouri and for my job travelled around the rural mid-west-- I don't think that you would have noticed fewer obese people than you expected if you lived in suburban Jefferson City (if such a thing exists) rather than suburban DC. 

    "I currently live in England, and on my last trip to the US I went to rural Virginia for a wedding, and rural New York State to visit my parents-- both areas appeared to be heavily afflicted with obesity.  I suspect that the demographic differences almost entirely account for these differences-- poverty, after all, is supposedly most powerful indicator of obesity. "

    From a reader in that trimmest state, Colorado:

    "Some of your other reader have pointed out that is less visible in cities. It might also be less visible anywhere since I'd not want to go anywhere if I weighed 500 pounds.

    "I think one indicator is the marketing of products for the obese. I'm tall and find it hard to get clothes that fit so I shop online for LT shirts. These 'Large and Tall' places have many more offerings in the large than tall. I'd be willing to bet that someone who needs an XXXL shirt fits the definition of obese.One of these sites advertises camping chairs that hold 800 pounds!

    "My stepdaughter, who is 6'1" has also remarked on this. She is hard to fit and finds the tall places sell way more large

    "I think the reader who commented on the health industry on to something. My wife is currently in a rehab hospital for brain trauma. She was thrown by her horse but will recover since she was wearing a helmet. The patients here tend to the slender since many got there through bicycle crashes and extreme sports. This hospital is attached to a large urban hospital and we've gone there a few time visiting an injured neighbor. There are some huge people there. We also see things like really, really wide and heavy wheelchairs."

    The sci-fi angle, from a reader in the Midwest:

    "There's the issue of the tails of the distribution.  I live in Wisconsin and have visited Germany twice in the last two years for about two weeks each time.  What I notice is, sure, both in the US and Germany there are  plenty of thin people, and plenty of somewhat heavy people, the people who are a bit round around the middle.  Maybe the ratio is a bit different, but you'd need real data to tell, it looks roughly similar.  The striking difference is that I never saw anyone in Germany who was really, really large.  The people three times my size who have trouble walking. There aren't an overwhelming number of the very large in the US, maybe it's a few percent, but it's enough that you see very large people every day.  There must be some in Germany, too, but nothing like the US.

    "For some reason I can' fathom, a science-fiction convention in the US will have a much larger fraction of very large (and the largest of the large) than you usually see, but in Germany it's like a gathering of skinny people, and most of the somewhat heavy round-in-the-middle people are actually from the UK." 

    Last one, for now, on the role of geography at the micro level:

    "Observations from your correspondents on geographical distribution of obesity would appear to support my own theory that obesity correlates to development patterns (i.e., places where people walk have less of it; places where people drive everywhere have more).  That would be consistent with the coastal cities vs. Midwest differential... 
    "This seems so painfully obvious to me that I'm surprised it isn't the central point in every discussion of the 'obesity epidemic'.  (Or maybe I'm merely shocked, but not actually surprised.)"

    Again, the general pattern here -- richer and better educated people being trimmer -- is very familiar. Its ramifications remain important.

    More »

  • Weight, class, and Wal-Mart

    From a friend in Boston, a note that gives an extended version of a theme in many responses I've received. Background here and here. Charts and data on this point shortly. The argument here -- that, along with smoking, obesity has become a class-bound marker and problem in America -- is hardly surprising, but the power of the connection is what many people emphasize.

    "i wonder if your seeing fewer overweight people than you expected when you got back to the states might be, at least in part, a function of class. this is a point i'm somewhat uncomfortable making, but it shouldn't be ignored. people who, just as a for instance, run and listen to npr and read (not to mention write for) the atlantic are both likelier to be fit and likelier to associate with people of the same ilk. (as a nation, we've not only gotten fatter but also, as you know, much less likely to mix with people who don't share our educational or cultural background.)

    "i remember walking  through harvard yard back in 1986 during the university's celebration of its 350th anniversary. the place was awash in alums, and there was something noticeably different about most of these people. it wasn't that they were expensively dressed or looked like preppies, i realized. it's that almost everyone was so *trim.* none of  these people would likely be found shopping in wal-mart, where waistlines look a lot different.

    "as an aside: i've long thought it would be an interesting commentary on the stratification in this society to have political candidates asked during a debate if they'd ever shopped at a wal-mart. i have to think that very few could honestly answer yes--and the higher the office the fewer the yeses. to think that a democracy's leadership class should  have no connection (other than owning stock--or, in hillary clinton's case, being once on its board) to the biggest corporation in the country, how strange! back when the biggest corporation was gm or exxon, even the wealthiest people likely had *some* dealings with it, even only being chauffered in a cadillac."

    To answer the last question: I'm not a political candidate, but I have not only shopped in W-Ms around the US but have also been to many outlets inside China. That's a story on its own -- the one in Shanghai has whole pig carcasses suspended by hooks right inside the front door, and tanks full of live carp, which the shopper-housewives let flop around on the floor to see which ones look best for the evening's dinner. No one will ever convince me that W-M doesn't know how to globalize/localize.

    But I digress. To sharpen my friend's question: a candidate should be asked when was the most recent time he or she enjoyed Every Day Low Prices.

  • Reactions on Chinese tires

    In this item two days ago, I mentioned that most of the mainstream economics press had gone (predictably) berserk in overreacting to the shock-horror nightmare of the Obama administration's tariff on imported Chinese tires.

    First point: I neglected to mention the honorable exception of Andrew Peaple, reporting in the WSJ and playing down "Oh no! Smoot Hawley!" hysteria from the start. The online version of his initial story:

    "WSJA(9/15) Heard On The Street: Tires, Chickens, Common Sense
       By Andrew Peaple
    "Fought over the likes of bras and bananas, trade wars always give off a whiff of the absurd.

    "With a measure of good sense, a spat between the U.S. and China involving tires and chickens won't devolve into a trade war as well."

    Unfortunately, the version of the story that is now online has a much more alarmist headline, though the common-sense content of the article itself is still the same. Here's the new headline:

    Next, from someone with on-scene experience, making a point left out of most of the reflexive, "Oh no! Smoot Hawley!" original coverage

    "I was a senior International Trade consultant with 2 major firms in China 2003-2007.   Approximately one third of the over 100 projects I managed during that four year period involved assisting foreign companies (US, EU, some Japanese) in defending themselves against either investigations by, or anti-competitive practices perpetrated by, the Chinese Customs authorities. 

    "I believe that I can safely say that without fail, each project of this type that I was involved in was predicated by a distortion or willful misunderstanding of both Chinese and WTO/WCO trade law and operational norms by the Customs authorities.  Nor were these actions limited to provincial backwaters (though the most egregious did take place there); many of our projects involved Shanghai or Beijing Customs entry ports.  Practices such as demanding improper HTS classification of goods (HTS classification determines applicable duty rate) or arbitrary valuation of goods (the Customs declared value upon which duty and VAT are assessed) are practiced daily throughout the country and cost foreign companies substantial amounts.

    "I very seldom see this issue addressed in any article concerning China trade and thought I would bring it to your attention."

    Main point: this is a far more complicated issue, with a far longer and more tangled history, than 95% of the western-press reaction would indicate. I urge everyone to keep up with this "China Financial Markets site before expressing heated opinions on the subject.

    Update: there's actually no material after the jump; original posting included some background notes, by mistake. But our system retains the "continue reading" link even with nothing there any more.

    More »

  • Are we fat?

    Assents, dissents, and elaborations -- well, actually no assents -- to these two earlier comments that I have not noticed the American obesity epidemic as much as I expected, after a few years away.

    "You need to get out more."
    A note representative of many I received:

    "You are in Washington.  Too many urbanites who buck the trend.  Spend a week off the coast - In Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis especially in the suburbs and you will see it."

    Ripple Effects:

    "Your comment about not seeing as many obese Americans as you expected to has prompted me to write. I teach product design in the college of engineering at [a major public university in the Midwest], and am currently working on a project to help the hospital technicians who do X rays, sonograms, CT scans, etc. It turns out that many of these folks suffer quite serious injuries at work, and by far the major cause of these injuries is the obese patients they deal with on a daily basis.

    "It appears that most of these technicians are women who are often required to move patients who outweigh them by several hundred pounds. In fact, one of the techs we interviewed in our study pointed out that when she performs vaginal sonograms on very large women, each of the patient's legs often weighs more than she does. I've often read articles about the growing obesity problem in the US, but I've never come across anything concerning this large and growing problem, if you'll pardon the pun. 

    "I find myself wondering, when I read about the growing cost of obesity in the US health system, if anyone is looking at the cost of injuries to the people who are responsible for treating these folks?"

    More refined view of the regional difference:

    "My personal, unscientific evaluation of obesity is that it's lower in big cities than small.  I live in Chicago, but have friends and family throughout the Midwest.  My impression is that I see more "volume abundant" people in the smaller and rural towns.  A little Googling gave that a bit of support, but it is related to property values:  titled "Zip Codes And Property Values Predict Obesity Rates."  I don't know where you were making your observations, but that may be a big contributor.

    "As I was writing this, I began to think about the process of going from the observation to the stated impression.  The study above was based on phone interviews taken only in King County, Washington (Seattle area) and extrapolated across the US.  That's a significant extrapolation, but all of us seem to be making a similar extrapolation. The difference is we're not even starting with randomized data.  If the source observations are limited to certain areas (rural IL, WI, MN, or SD vs. DC, Disney World, or NYC), then the perceived impression of obesity will likewise biased...

    "I think the overall point is not so much the observations, but the expectations.  From news stories about US obesity, I quickly imagine 300 million Augustus Gloop's waddling through the streets.  Reality is much more nuanced than a headline grabbing story.  A couple percentage point higher rates of obesity in the US vs. wherever else is an important topic.  But, those 'couple percentage points' are hard to observe on an individual basis.

    "Hell, I wear loose shirts and stretchy pants for a reason. :-)"

    More »

  • Airplane noise, senior-citizen driving: replacements for frogs

    Suggestions on replacements for the boiled-frog metaphor:

    "The cat litter box is a good substitute and there are plenty of similar examples if one considers sounds. A succinct example of this is from the movie the Blues Brothers. After Elwood picks up Jake from prison, they go to Jake's apartment in Chicago. Right after an El train rattles by, Jake asks Ellwood, "How often do the trains come by?". Jake responds, "So often, you don't even notice."

    "A similar situation occurred with my grandmother. She and her husband bought a house near LAX in the 50s, when I'm sure the occasional airplane flying over was a pleasant distraction. At the time of her death in the 90s, LAX had 4 runways and their house was bombarded by the noise from constant aircraft that seemed to be flying just a few feet overhead. Anyone walking into her house would have wondered why the TV was so loud, until the next takeoff or landing occurred.

    "Two more frog equivalences. Ever work on another person's computer and find that it operates brutally slowly? No one ever seems to notice that almost day-by-day loss of performance themselves. Easy to understand, but I can't think of a catchy shorthand.

    "So finally, my nomination for the replacement, an old person driving. They never notice the degradation in their driving skills until some unsuspecting passenger or pedestrian has a (hopefully only) near death experience."

    More to come.

  • America's newest shortage: the obese

    In response to my observation that I hadn't encountered as many very heavy Americans as I thought I would on return from three years away:

    "My wife (who is Australian and green card-holding) and I ( who was born in England but am now naturalized) were married this summer in Washington DC. Naturally her Australian family and some English relations of mine came to the wedding; for all of them it was their first time in the States and they combined their trip to DC with the usual American tourist visits (Disneyland, NYC, etc). On separate occasions both the Australians and the English said to me more or less what you wrote: "There are not as many fat people here as we expected".

    "As far as I understand it the rest of the Anglophone world is not so far behind the US in terms of obesity rates so maybe their stereotypes about America haven't caught up with the new, fatter reality in their own countries..."


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What Makes a Story Great?

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Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

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Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

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Is Wine Healthy?

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

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