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.
  • 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 »

  • 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
       (From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA)
       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:
    WSJChicken.jpg

    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:
    TolesFrog.gif

    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.

    MikeonCouch.JPG


  • 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.

    evilbag.jpg

    - 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?

    IMG_5722.JPG 
     

    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.
    EconomistTyre.jpg 

    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.
    IMG_7448.jpg

    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 »

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