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.
  • 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.

    WordMap.jpg


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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Local boys make good, China version

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

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

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


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

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


    The moment of truth on the show, as the Wolf dutifully claps for the just-announced winner, Song "Social Conscience" Wenming, who raises his hands in victory.
    win2guys.jpg

  • A nice offhand allusion in the NYT

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

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

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

    Over the past three years, I've emphasized maybe a million times how diverse, churning, individual-minded, and generally resistant to control much of today's China seems. If I were writing LaFraniere's sentence myself, I'd say "often resembles" rather than "at times resembles," and I'd replace the reference to the Uighur uprising (an exceptional, real emergency) with something about one billion rule-evading ordinary citizens. But this is a worthy step toward a sane perspective on China -- worth bearing in mind as we prepare to see the (deceptively) precise and orderly displays on October 1.
     
    Photo from the NYT about the kind of precise pageantry we'll be treated to. Don't be misled.
    29beijing_650.jpg


  • More on Ls and Rs in Japanese

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

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

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

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

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

    More »

  • The obesity / class / region express rolls on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    More »

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

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

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

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

    UPDATE:
     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.

    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.
    ElectoralMap1.jpg


    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.
    ElecMap2.jpg


  • 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.

    ObesityMap1.jpg


    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.

    ObesityMap2.jpg

    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.
    ____

    More »

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author

Just In