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.
  • Carter "crisis of confidence" retrospective this evening

    Thirty years ago this summer, Jimmy Carter delivered his famous "Crisis of Confidence" adddress to the nation, generally mis-identified as the "malaise" speech -- a word he didn't use. I was gone from the Carter speechwriting empire by then. My successor and longtime friend Hendrik Hertzberg was in the hot seat that time. (Below, screenshot of Carter at the start of the speech.)

    Recently Kevin Mattson, of Ohio University, published a book about that speech, its origins, and its aftermath, called What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President? This evening, October 7, I'll be joining him in Washington for a discussion of the speech, the book, and the general phenomenon of political calls, like Carter's, for "higher purpose" and "rebirth of citizenship." A live stream of the program, from 6:30pm to 7:30pm Eastern time, will be here.

    Other details about the event, including the many political worthies who will be on hand, and sponsorship by the Progressive Book Club and the Center for American Progress, are here. As Mattson knows, I have some quarrels about first-hand details of his reconstructed account. But I certainly support the larger case he is making in his book. 

  • The TSA: bringing us ever closer to China!

    One of the predictably nutty aspects of life in China was the tyranny of objectively unimportant details of ID records. To mention only experiences I had first-hand:

    I once had to buy a whole new airline ticket for a Beijing-Shanghai flight, and tear up my existing one, because the airline ticket agent had hand-written my first name on the ticket as "Jame," which didn't match my passport name. Similarly: the English-language on-line ticketing system for the Beijing Olympics had spaces for entering your first name and family name -- but no space for a middle name. (The Chinese version had spaces for the three characters in most Chinese names.) So when I went to the Bank of China to pick up the tickets I'd ordered and paid for, I showed my passport for identification -- and settled in for hours of argument, since my passport showed that I was James M. Fallows and the tickets were for James Fallows. How could this be the same person?

    Thus it was with with a sense of deja vu and doom that I heard this summer about the TSA's new "Secure Flight" system, designed to match the Chinese government's pettifoggery about ID cards. (And in China, it is a more defensible bias. They have many more people, and many fewer available names, so their hairsplitting about naming details comes closer to making sense.) Well done yet again, TSA! If you were going to learn something from the Chinese security system, how about their "of course you can keep your shoes on" screening policy at airports?

    Just now in the email, I find that this insistence on form rather than common sense ("the appearance of security is security") is leaking over to some of the private sector too. Thus, a similar "Secure Drive" message from a car rental company.


    Grrr. I childishly express my resistance by signing in as "Jabba the Hutt," "Charles Manson," "Kim Jong-il" etc when made to sign my name on "security" registers -- really, "security theater" registers -- at office buildings. I'm waiting for the time some dozing security official calls me back and says, "Wait a minute, Mr. Hutt, why isn't your middle name capitalized?"


  • Press items roundup

    - TNR/McCaughey watch. As mentioned here numerous times, starting 14 years ago, The New Republic made Elizabeth McCaughey a public figure in 1994 and has been trying to mitigate the damage ever since. Concluding installment, under the circle-closing headline "No Exit" [also the title of McCaughey's original article], from Michelle Cottle here.

    - Unknown gigantic cities watch. In my story last year about the surprisingly intense struggles within China to improve environmental protection, I mentioned a visit to Zibo, a coal-and-ceramics center in Shandong province. Zibo is one of countless cities in China that few outsiders have heard of but that are larger than, say, Chicago or Milan. The always interesting Moving Cities site, a Beijing-based effort to document urban design in fast growing cities, recently took a trip to Zibo to show what it looks like. Description and four photo essays about Zibo can be found here. (Note: for me, the Javascript on this site always stalled with Firefox. Worked OK with IE, Chrome, and Safari.)

    Downtown view, with housing from the 1980s onward -- horizontal black bar is part of the site's convention for presenting photos: 

    On the way into town:

    Alley that I've walked down myself, with pre-1980s housing:

    - Problems of the press watch. I am grateful to Jake Seliger, of The Story's Story site, for a retrospective of my 1996 book Breaking the News. He makes the discouraging but, I think, accurate point that the arguments and criticisms from back in that era are all truer now. I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it's worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

  • Just a little more on the obesity front

    The pensees keep on coming. More on simple phenomenon of weight this time, less on poverty or class issues. Previously here.

    My God, you're skinny!

    "I agree with your reader who theorized that "My god, you're fat!" is a nice compliment from a culture where an overabundance of food is a luxury.  I would also like to note that the exact opposite is true in America as well.

    "I am underweight. I'm a 118 lbs, 6 foot tall male. It's not that I do not eat, I certainly do, my genetics just do not help me gain any weight at all.  But the amount of people who 
    willfully come up to me and say "My god, you're skinny!" never ceases to amaze me.  I can be particularly embarrassing, especially when you have a hangup about being so thin.  I always found it interesting that people here can so freely point out my frailness and yet if I were to point out their obesity it would be considered quite rude. 

    "It wasn't until somewhat recently that I realized most people saying this to me mean it as a compliment.  Many people would like to be as skinny as I am and have my genetics (even though I don't particularly care for it), and this is just their way of expressing that fact.  I have no doubt that in a different culture it could be skewed the other way."

    My God, they're fat!

    "Last week on a flight to Kansas City to visit family I had a layover at O'Hare and I spent some time counting fat men. I wanted to see what the percentage of fat to normal was. I used a simple visual standard- if the belly exceeded the belt by a certain degree I considered the men fat. This is a very generous criteria since good tailoring can hide a lot. After an hour of counting I came up with a ratio of three fat men to every normal man. I know that this was a survey rife with error but still, James, our empire is truly dying.
    "Full disclosure- I am now 5,10 and 150 lbs but I was once (15 years ago) 190 lbs."

    The real problem: sitting disease.

    "The Mayo Clinic is doing some interesting research on what actually causes the human body to burn calories and a huge amount of it is activity outside of intentional exercise. In short the biggest cause of obesity per Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is "sitting disease".

He's a big advocate of standing desks (which worked for Donald Rumsfeld, he had plenty of energy at 70something to act on his bad ideas) and some more futuristic solutions (adding treadmills to said desks) but all of the work is based on results which are backed up by research at Mayo's labs... 

    More »

  • Olympic notes: good for Rio

    1) I love Chicago, but Rio is the best choice overall. Probably better for most people in Chicago (I speak from having lived through the ramp-up to the Beijing Olympics these past few years), although some of them may not feel that way right now. Certainly better for the whole spirit of the Games.

    The US has had a lot of Olympics; no country in South America has had any. I think that these events feel more special, and get a better all-out push from the host country, when they represent some kind of inclusive "first ever" achievement. Japan marked its post-WW II recovery as before and after its 1964 Olympic games. South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008 used their host role, in different ways, as big national milestones. Athens in 2004, too, had some kind of closing-the-circle fulfillment in bringing the games back to their original home. Whereas for Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, and I assume London three years from now, the Olympics are mainly big logistics challenges to be coped with and endured.

    2) Obama was in a no-win situation about his personal lobbying. The other candidate chiefs of state had also made personal pitches. If he hadn't made the trip and Chicago lost, you can imagine today's right-wing theme being: he didn't care enough about his country even to try. (Probably because it's not really his country. Now, if Kenya had been a finalist...) Since he did make the trip, the theme is: what a loser.

    Yeah, yeah, his advisers "should have" had a clearer sense of the nuttiness that is the modern Olympic governing process; and yeah, yeah, knowing that, he should have limited his exposure by letting his wife be his representative. But -- and I would have said this if John McCain were president and had made the trip -- it was never really about him.

    3) It's superfluous to link to anything in the omnipresent BoingBoing, but in this item, yesterday, Cory Doctorow made an important point that everyone outside the U.S. knows but that few resident Americans take seriously: It has become a tremendous nuisance, and often a humiliation, for foreigners to get through U.S. customs-and-immigration clearance. Lots of people still want to immigrate to the US, but people who have a choice are often glad not to travel here. (How to imagine this, if you hold a US passport? Think of your most unpleasant TSA screening experience, and multiply it by a hundred -- with an extra dose of, Why should we think you're not a terrorist? Yes, I hold a US passport, but I've heard tales like Doctorow's too many times not to get the point.) It's hard to know how much this affected the Olympic bid but is worth realizing as part of our connections with the rest of the world.

    4) From a Chicagoan:

    "As an unabashed Obama-phile, I'm distraught at how badly he miscalculated in going to Copenhagen.  Not only because the failure could be damaging in itself, but also because, as you promised after Obama's health care speech, the time has finally come that he wasn't able to "pull himself out of pinch with a big speech."...

    "This latest speech may not perfectly fit, as Obama didn't think he was in a pinch in the first place.  Still, his failure does break his string of very good luck  (which included, for example, his three-point shot in Kuwait)."

    The theme of luck brings us back to the main point: Anyone who appreciates big cities should always love Chicago, but best of luck to Rio.

  • Obesity compendium

    Various of my colleagues -- Corby Kummer, here, plus T-N Coates and Andrew Sullivan -- have picked up the conversation involving the connections among obesity, class, region, etc in America. Reasons for my returning to this topic:

    - When the original reader messages came in, I did not give them a consistent category tag. I've now gone back and labeled them all with "Obesity," so the whole thread (including this item) can be found here.

    - Below and after the jump, a few more reader notes to carry out the discussion.

    From a reader who works for a major US corporation:

    "[Another reader] wrote: .  I did this primarily because I was tired of my business associates in Asia beginning every conversation with "My god, you are fat!".
    "My Asian experience pales in comparison to yours (and presumably to your reader's), but my hunch is that your reader's business associates believe they were paying him a nice compliment. The long and tragic history of undernourished Asians led to a cultural view that to be of a healthy weight was to be prosperous.  Hence, "My God, you are fat!" is equivalent to a Westerner saying "nice car!" or "you look great!"  I can see how your reader might have felt insulted or hurt, but I am pretty sure the intentions were exactly the opposite. [JF note: Certainly in China, "Hey Fatty" is not a term of abuse.]"

    From a (female) graduate of CalTechCaltech [I always forget]:

    "Are science nerds fat? The answer is an unequivocal no, especially for women.

    More »

  • More from the F'DOH: Summers, Schmidt

    Another day, a lot more stimulation, at the "First Draft of History" event, as previously reported here.

    I was the Atlantic's assigned chronicler/blogger for the interview with Lawrence Summers. First installment here; full wrapup, with clips, here. Then I got to interview Eric Schmidt of Google, who put on a real tour de force. The Atlantic's writeup by Derek Thompson, with clips, here.

    Tomorrow back to reading, interview, writing -- you know, the stuff of getting the next issue of the magazine produced. But this was a worthwhile two days.

  • The big parade

    As I mentioned in real time while watching the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing on middle-of-the-night Chinese language TV, the whole event was a surprising relief. It had been shaping up ahead of time as a mammoth and imposing display of military hardware. The hardware and missiles were there -- but there was, to put it mildly, a lot of other stuff too.

    As anyone watching in real time can attest, the appearance of this troupe was the first time that Hu Jintao, from the reviewing stand, broke into anything that looked like a relaxed expression:

    What this picture (by Diego Azubel / European Pressphoto Agency) tragically doesn't convey is that members of scarlet-miniskirted division were actually goose-stepping.

    A wonderful video summary from Dan Chung and Xiaoli Wang, of the Guardian, below, boils the many hours of the parade into four minutes -- and conveys the dramatic shift from tanks-and-missiles, to Mardi Gras/County Fair, at about time 1:55 of the clip.

    Two other nice summaries: a live blog from the WSJ's China staff here; and a comparison of the parade to the movie Hangover here.

    Here's one of the groups that came soon after the tanks. As I say, I'm relieved to see this chaos diversity, which reflects some of the wild range of Chinese life. Congrats to all involved.


  • More about visualizing words

    I mentioned two days ago the very nice tool for mapping word-use in presidential inaugural addresses, created by Jonathan Feinberg of IBM.

    I should have mentioned the underlying open-ended tool Wordle, also by Feinberg, which allows you to create "word clouds" from any arbitrary piece of text (or web feed etc). You can find it here, and I've used it just now to create clouds from two recent Atlantic web posts. This is how one recent post about obesity-and-class looks when word frequency is converted to graphics (most of the contents here comes from readers' letters; click for larger):


    And here is how my post from a few hours ago about David Petraeus's comments looks with a slightly different layout scheme:

    No cosmic point here, but interesting. Try it out -- an email from the boss, company vision statement, etc.
  • At the F'DOH

    Today and tomorrow, most of the Atlantic's staff is at the Newseum in Washington, for the "First Draft of History" conference. Live streaming webcast here, along with pictures, real-time updates, after-action analyses, and so on. Atlantic staff members are rotating in the role of Official Recording Secretary (aka blogger) for each session. My duty today was the Brian Williams-David Petraeus discussion. First dispatch here; longer followup, with four clips of Petraeus in action, here.
    I spell F'DOH with an apostrophe in homage both to Homer Simpson and to Portuguese Fado music. Although I realize that for Homer alone, it should be FD'OH.

  • Village Dreamers

    In Yunnan province, two Americans struggle to save an ancient town from kitsch.

  • 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.

    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.


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