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.
  • 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.

    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..."
  • Once and for all with the frogs

    Now that varied components of the online world are bearing down on the boiled-frog problem (Glenn Beck; Andrew Sullivan; Kevin Drum; the ever-useful Linguistics Log etc), here is the state of play:

    1) Consensus that real frogs don't actually do what the cliche (and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and countless others) say they do. Consensus unfortunately has not reached the otherwise- beyond-reproach Tom Toles of the WaPo, whose cartoon today is:

    2) Consensus that one kind of frog actually does behave this way: these are frogs with their brains removed. Details here. Thanks to Michael Jones for the science on this one, and congrats to Joe Romm for putting the revised image to use.

    3) Consensus that the metaphor itself is useful. See here and here.

    4) Allegations that there are no substitutes. OK, here's one, as mentioned early this year: the "cat lady" litterbox problem. You have cats in the house (I speak as a cat fan*) and you don't notice the mounting smell. Then someone walks in the door, involuntarily steps back, and says, "My God! What is that reek?" Here is the classic formulation, as laid out by Don Rose here, regarding the Gov. Blago scandal:

    "Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    "I tell them about my cat litter box.

    "Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    "They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest."

    And I bet we could even work in some slippery-slope reasoning here!

    So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true -- and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.


    *On the cat-fancier theme: to demonstrate that I am a friend of all animals involved in these image controversies, the hapless frogs as well as the reeking cats, herewith a photo of the now quite elderly Mike the Cat, in his prime. He has been in loving adopted care, since our departure for China. Then and now, no odor came from his litterbox -- according to us.


  • A few more random return-to-the-homeland notes

    I will never do this systematically, so I'll keep jotting them down at random. As I repatriate, I notice:

    - Not as many very fat large Americans as I was expecting. Am I looking in the wrong places? So propagandized into thinking that all of my countrymen are obese that expectations are off? Something gone wrong with my visual judgment? Something gone right with public health? I don't know. Just telling you what I have (not) seen.

    - In a number of airports the past few days. I can't help noticing the moronic, utterly rote and meaningless announcements that begin, "The Department of Homeland Security has determined that the threat level is Orange. Please be alert..." The way you can tell that I'm still not fully acclimated is that I notice the announcements at all. For everyone else, they are 100% white noise. Is there a stupider aspect of national policy at the moment than these formulaic "threat level" announcements, which are always orange and which give no useful info whatsoever? Okay, I'm sure there's something stupider, but for rhetorical purposes I'll say that I can't think of one right now.


    - When I am king: I will outlaw "wheelie"- style rollable bags for carry-on luggage. Wheels and a handle on a big, heavy suitcase meant to be checked? Perfectly reasonable. But if you're going to carry something onto the plane, the law should require you actually to carry the thing, all the way to your seat. Why do I care? The wheelie triples or quadruples the floor space occupied by any one person, and the people tugging them don't look behind. I get my revenge by kicking the bags as they're being dragged across my path and tripping me. Then I act like it was an "accident."

    - But even before that I will outlaw: leafblowers. God in heaven, do I hate that noise. Unfortunately, the neighborhood abounds in households that love hiring crews for the all-out leafblower experience -- they stagger their days, so it happens pretty much nonstop. I realize that the Beijing approach (below) is probably not practical in the U.S. But, hey, I actually have used a rake in my time. Part of the new Clean Energy policy for America?


    As is obvious, I'm auditioning for Andy Rooney's role as public crank.
  • About those Chinese tires

    I keep putting this off, so before it finally disappears into the mists of time, here is a bullet-point summary of what I would have said at greater length when the Chinese tire tariff first arose.

    1) There is not now, and there never was, a serious possibility that this would escalate into some sweeping, self-intensifying, global-recovery-threatening "trade war."  The many publications and commentators who raised their hands in "Oh no! It's Smoot Hawley again!" horror need to calm down -- and to have their tendency toward over-reaction noted for the record. Yes, I'm talking about you, Economist magazine cover-designers (last week's cover image, below), but you had tons of company.

    There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute -- contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the  boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

    2) Larger point about the nature of this reaction, by analogy to Al Sharpton. Not to pick on him, but why did Sharpton's reputation as a careful, precise commentator on national affairs suffer during the 1980s? Especially after the unfortunate Brawley case? I would say it was the magical combination of predictability, exaggeration, and tendentiousness. His reaction to any news event was predictable (it was always about racism); it was exaggerated (it was always really terrible racism); and it was tendentious, in being uninterested in the details of the specific case. On the other hand, he was witty! I often think of the bad, non-witty side of the Sharpton of that era when I see the mainstream reaction to any trade dispute. It's predictable (oh no! Trade war!); exaggerated (oh no! Smoot Hawley!); and tendentious, in not being interested in any contextual point other than the evils of unions and protectionism.

    3) What's the context that does matter? Usefully, two people with whom I often disagree on trade questions -- the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, and Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post -- have both pointed out that there is a more important issue here than whether one agrees on the merits of the tire decision. They both criticize the decision  -- but as the headline on Samuelson's column puts it, "Bad Policy, Right Message." (My own view would be: Maybe bad policy, certainly right message.)

    The right message concerns the historic transformation of the Chinese economy that began a year ago, when demand from its biggest overseas customer, the United States, dried up all at once.  This story, which I wrote from China six months ago, discussed the magnitude of the adjustments China was trying to make -- and also emphasized the parallel that Michael Pettis, an economist at Peking University, drew between China's situation in 2009 and America's 80 years earlier. The details are laid out in that article, but the main point was this: Like America in the 1920s, China in the 2000s had been the dominant "global surplus" country, manufacturing and selling to everyone else and piling up big surpluses. When customers suddenly stopped buying -- America's because of the Great Depression, China's because of this recent freezeup -- the surplus countries lost disproportionately many jobs, because they'd had more than "their share" to begin with. That happened to America in the 1930s, and it is happening to China now.

    This kind of loss is painful for any country under any regime. In terms of human suffering, it's all the worse for China, since so many of the displaced workers are so hard-pressed to begin with. In the long run, everyone agrees that both the Chinese and the U.S. economies need serious adjustment: the US toward more savings and investment, China toward more domestic consumption and less reliance on export markets, so that its own, still-poor population can enjoy more of the fruits of their own labor. But in the short run, the adjustment is difficult -- for each country. And the drama that Pettis foresaw six months ago, and which provides the proper background to the tire dispute, is the Chinese government's (natural) attempt to resist the inevitable and keep its trade surplus up as long as it can.

    That's the significance of stories like this, which I've mentioned  (eg here and here) over the months.

    This is not at all a matter of "blaming" China. Moralizing has no place in these sorts of economic adjustments -- whether we're talking about the Chinese government's currency-management to keep the RMB's value artificially low (details here), or the US imposition of tire tariffs. The real question is how the economies can manage the complementary adjustments each of them has to make, with minimal damage to their own populations and to world business as a whole. These are big, woolly, complicated, world-historical processes underway. There are a lot of useful things to say about them -- not including "Oh no! Trade war!"

    Now I see why I put this off so long.

    More »

  • By popular demand: Volokh on frogs and slippery slopes

    Recently I made an oblique allusion (last line of this item) to an article by Eugene Volokh, of UCLA Law School, in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning.

    Apparently it was a little too oblique, so in response to a number of queries let me come right out and say: Eugene Volokh has written in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning here, in a Legal Affairs article with David Newman from 2003, and here or here, in versions of a Harvard Law Review article that same year. I think these pieces do a reasonable job of showing why the slippery slope may be useful as a legal concept, whether or not the phenomenon exists in the natural world.* (Sort of like the legal concept of the "reasonable man." Never mind, just a little joke.) Stay tuned for more reader nominees for most plausible real-world example.

    And while we're on the legal-concept theme -- ie, slippery slope as a rhetorical device, not a reality -- here's another related entry:

    "I think there are some good uses of slippery slope arguments. One example is the general constitutional idea of safe harbor, which I became acquainted with while reading the transcripts and decision in Reno v ACLU, where it became clear that the law was written in such a way that there were large number of sites which would not be considered to be pornographic under the normal understanding of pornography but which the statue would allow to be prosecuted. The prosecution (in Reno vs ACLU) essentially argued, "Oh, we don't intend to prosecute those cases" and the court in effect said, but the law doesn't allow anyone to be sure they are doing the right thing."

    Back to the search for real-world examples soon.
    * Volokh unfortunately lards his argument with specious boiled-frog references, but at least in the Harvard Law Review version he redeems himself by admitting -- as Paul Krugman recently did -- that he's referring only to fictional figure-of-speech frogs, since real ones would probably try to save themselves.

  • Two views of SECDEF Gates

    In response to this item yesterday, noting Robert Gates's mention of John Boyd as one of the "transformative figures of American air power," two reactions. The first is from a relatively recent product of the Air Force Academy (whom I don't know). The second is from a long-standing friend who is a quite experienced veteran of the defense business. First up:

    "I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002, and while I was there Boyd was taught in our Military Strategic Studies courses as though he was the latest in a line of military theorists that stretched from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mitchell, Liddell Hart, Boyd, and Warden.  In fact, Boyd's OODA loop was taught with such reverence that I distinctly remember making light of it with my classmates.
    "I am a few years to junior for such an assignment, but were I on the the staff of Secretary Gates assisting with the preparation of speeches, I would not have batted an eye at the inclusion of Boyd among that line up, and I doubt any officers from my cohort would either.  If anything, LeMay strikes me as out of place and far more controversial in today's Air Force."

    Now, from Charles A. Stevenson, a friend and former professor of mine who has written a book, SECDEF, about the "nearly impossible job" of running the Pentagon:

    "I share your surprise and satisfaction over the performance of Bob Gates...  I fully expected him to follow the Laird model: wind down the war in Iraq, cut deals with the senior military on other issues, end-run the White House types on issues that mattered to him. From his long government service and membership on the Iraq Study Group, that seemed likely. His appointment by Obama suggested that the new team liked his style and welcomed the political cover he provided as a Republican.

    "Now I think his closest model was the first SecDef Gates, Tom Gates, who had served several years in the Pentagon under Eisenhower before being elevated to SecDef.

    More »

  • I keep waiting for SECDEF Gates to do something really stupid ...

    ... and I'm sure his time will come. (Most likely occasion of error: Afghanistan.)

    But for the moment, he keeps offering surprises in the opposite direction. Including last week, with this speech to the Air Force Association convention, the ending of which is exemplary in two ways.

    For one thing, it ends with what used to be known in speechwriting land as an "ending," rather than the boilerplate that has become standard in presidential addresses. The ending is nothing special, but at least he tried. (And he didn't take a shortcut with "God bless the Air Force.")

    More important is this peroration, which starts with an appreciation of Billy Mitchell and goes on to say:

    "It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell and his travails was not that he was always right. It's that he had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed, understood the implications of that change, and then pressed ahead in the face of fierce institutional resistance.
    "     The transformative figures of American air power - from Mitchell to Arnold, LeMay to Boyd - had this quality in varying degrees. It is one I look for in the next generation of Air Force leaders, junior and mid-level officers, and NCOs who have experienced the grim reality of war and the demands of persistent conflict. These are men and women we need to retain and empower to shape the service to which they have given so much."

    Whoa! To have John Boyd -- fighter pilot, theorist of combat, unbelievably persistent thorn in the Air Force establishment's side from the late 1960s through his death a dozen years ago -- become part of an offhand, last-name-only allusion to the "transformative figures of American air power" is something like the moment when establishment economics began including "Keynes" in their list of major figures.* Gates had done homage to Boyd before, for instance as discussed here. But this is a further, interesting, and deserved step. The Gates-misstep watch perforce continues.
    * For as much more as you would like to know about John Boyd, you can follow the links in this previous item, or of course read Robert Coram's wonderful biography Boyd. On the Keynes comparison, I don't mean that Boyd ideas have affected as many people in as many countries through as many decades as Keynes's have; but the vindication of ideas previously considered total heresy is comparable.

  • I love this on so many levels

    It turns out that the "Chinese site" with dramatic photos of rehearsals for the 60th anniversary commemorations in Beijing on October 1, which I mentioned this morning, is a straight-ahead, flat-out, unblushing rip-off of this "The Big Picture" feature three days ago from the Boston Globe's site. I don't see any mention of the Globe on the Chinese site, either in English or what I think is the Chinese version (Boshidun Huanqiu - 波士顿 环球 ?).

    I should have guessed. (Why would a Chinese site have bothered to include translated English captions? Why was there a semi-edgy photo of a lone man and a tank?) My reflexes must be going. I'll have to re-sharpen them with a visit soon. Thanks to C. Wang and others for the heads-up. Apologies to the Globe.

  • Book list: Repeat After Me

    Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing -- a memoir of her unlikely career as a vampy soap opera star on Chinese TV in the 1990s -- is deservedly on the list of books that expats in China tell new arrivals they should read for a pop-culture feel of the place. My own reaction, when newly arrived, here.


    DeWoskin's new book, Repeat After Me, is different: novel rather than memoir, set half in New York and half in Beijing rather than all on-scene in China. But the voice and nervous/sassy sensibility are similar, and similarly memorable. When I was reading it this summer, I marked a few passages that made me miss Beijing (no small achievement, just after I'd left) or that rang particularly true. The book's not at hand at the moment, so I'll just say: a book worth finding out about for yourself.


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."


An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground


The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."


The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"



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