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.
  • One more on the selling of "death panels"

    A reader writes:

    "I'm not sure if it has been pointed out yet, but the whole "Death Panel" bullshit is especially ironic given that the ability of insurance companies to grant/deny access to healthcare is effectively a death panel. Can't afford a plan? Tough luck. Not eligible for whatever reason? Tough luck."

    This illustrates the biggest change in the rhetoric of health care reform over the past year. Last summer, during the campaign, Obama succeeded in focusing attention on the real problems of the patchwork insurance-and-care system as it actually exists: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. Now, various opponents of a reform plan have succeeded in shifting attention to the imagined problems of a post-reform system: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. It is an achievement to ponder.
     

  • Kenneth Bacon, 1944-2009

    The extended Atlantic Monthly family lost one of its members yesterday, with the death from cancer of Kenneth Bacon, at 64. His daughter Katie was for a decade a crucial editor on our staff, including playing a large part in establishing our web site in the 1990s.

    Her father Ken was a well-known and universally respected figure in the journalism and policy worlds. First as an accomplished reporter, serving for many years with the Wall Street Journal; then as public-affairs spokesman for the Defense Department in the Clinton Administration, when he was distinguished by telling the truth even in difficult circumstances; then as president of Refugees International. I knew him in all those roles and particularly admired his efforts before, during, and after the Iraq War to mitigate the damage to civilians in the area. Only three weeks ago, he wrote a trenchant essay in the Washington Post about what his dealings with melanoma had taught him about reform of the health care system.
     
    Sympathies to his family. Our public life is much better for his role in it.

  • Why the "death panel" claim is working

    In this recent item about the apparent triumph of the McCaughey/Palin/Grassley/ Limbaugh tribe in keeping the false "death panel" idea going, I said I had been wrong to think that the modern blogosphere could act as a truth squad. Here are several reader hypotheses about why things are panning out this way, starting with the one that's most vivid and convincing and ending with a truly constructive suggestion.

    Theory #1: Triumph of the 'Sticky' Image

    Your last blog post sure was depressing: not that you could be wrong, but that the new media ecosystem still doesn't have the tools to keep lunacies like McCaughey's "death panels" from becoming part of the political debate.

    That said, if you're familiar with Chip & Dan Heath's book "Made To Stick" (www.madetostick.com), you can see that the death panel idea is probably too "sticky" to be debunked, defused, and delegitimized.  In their view, the six key principles behind sticky ideas (like the NYC sewer alligators, or the kidney thieves that drug you and leave you in an ice-filled bathtub [or boiled frogs, JF note]) are:

    - simplicity
    - unexpectedness
    - concreteness
    - credibility
    - emotions
    - stories

    The death panel story contains virtually all of these elements.  It's a simple, concrete concept that anyone can picture.  It's certainly unexpected, it stirs emotions, and it's easy to tell -- or make up -- stories.  (My grandma has Parkinson's, and I won't have a government bureaucrat telling me she's got to die!") 

    It's true that to a rational, dispassionate listener the idea of a death panel does strain the bounds of credibility.  However, the complexity of health care reform, the sheer size of the legislation, and the history of bizarre government policies that have been twisted by special interests, does leave room in the imagination for, well, the incredible.

    So, to your point: does the new media ecosystem have a greater ability to stop charlatans?  Clearly yes.  But I wonder if any ecosystem could have stopped such a "sticky" idea.

    Other theories after the jump, plus somebody who embraces the whole idea.
    ___

    More »

  • SugarSync + Android

    As I've mentioned many times (start here and follow links), SugarSync has become one of those tools I rely on 24/7. Over the past year, I've used it as a kind of personal-scale "cloud" letting the three Macs and two PC/laptops in our household share and sync the same files. I work on a Word or Excel file* on a desktop machine in my office. When I'm done, I save the file on that machine. Then I use any of my other machines, anyplace else, and I can open up the current version of that same file, without ever manually transferring anything. (The computers do need a network connection to sync up, but they don't have to be connected at the same time.)

    For the last few months, this has worked with the BlackBerry too. I revise an article in the evening. The next morning, on the street, I can look at the current version of it on the BlackBerry. I've never actually done that, but in theory I could. And I have actually come to take for granted that all my machines will always have the latest version of the work I've done on any of them. Many times I have edited my own files from someone else's computer or a public computer at a net cafe, connecting to my own little cloud. There are other services that can do some comparable things, but this is the easiest one I'm aware of.

    SugarSyncAndroid.jpg

    Late last month, SugarSync announced that the system would work on Android devices. (Android = Google's free operating system for phones and other mobile devices.)  For example, if you had photos on your office computer and wanted to show them to someone when you were traveling, you could see them via the phone, in either small or large versions. That's what the photo to the left, from the SugarSync site, shows. Or you could check the actual content of many kinds of files from your phone.

    I mention this news for three reasons. First, on karmic principles. Products that work deserve not just to be taken for granted but also to be recognized.  Second, the Android market is itself potentially interesting. As "netbooks" -- cheap, simple computers designed to work in the cloud rather than storing much data themselves -- become more popular, the significance of free operating systems will grow. If a "normal" computer costs around $1000, another $50 or so for the operating system (ie, Windows) is not that big a deal -- a 5% add-on. For a $300 netbook, it's a much bigger hit. So whether netbooks really catch on, and what OS the manufacturers put on them, will matter a lot to Microsoft and everyone else.
     
    Third, the all-fronts onrush of the "cloud computing" age, illustrated by the very existence of products like SugarSync and Android, highlights the one big exception to that movement. This is also the one big reason why I, at least, still have to spend time thinking about what parts of my data are on what machines.

    That exception is Microsoft Outlook, and the enormous .PST files it generates. PST files amass all email, appointments, contents, and tasks you are dealing with in Outlook. The correspondence I have in my Gmail accounts and the appointments in Google Calendar exist separately from whatever machine I am using. The same is now true of .DOC and .PDF files -- and in fact everything, except for PSTs, which are hard to keep anyplace except on your own machine. Their scale is one factor: very quickly they reach into the tens or hundreds of MB size. More important is that every time you use Outlook, all of the .PST files you have open are all marked as being "changed," even if you have altered a single byte. It is as if every time you loaded Word, every .DOC file was marked as being changed and had to be newly backed up.

    The combination of huge file size, and constantly re-written status, means that virtually no "cloud" system can really handle .PSTs. It would be stuck in an endless loop of re-backing up and syncing them. So what I do is keep track of which .PSTs I have actually changed in any given session (usually the active one, and a main archive file), and copy only those from machine when I have to travel.  Yes, I know very well that there are utilities that would let me convert all my archived .PSTs from the past dozen years into Gmail or something else that could live in the cloud. Some day I will do that and leave Outlook altogether, now that Gmail has a works-most-of-the-time Offline feature. But on any given day, it hasn't seemed worth the bother.

    Why do I mention this? I don't think it's an intended part of Outlook's design, which was conceived long before the cloud era. But whatever the intention, at the moment it's a powerful lock-in / sea-anchor factor resisting the movement to operations purely in the cloud.
    ___
     
    * or one from Personal Brain, or Scrivener, or Zoot, or DevonThink, or any of the other programs I actually use 24/7 to do my work. For another time: more about how they work separately and together.

  • The NYT says "false." Good.

    When writing the previous item yesterday afternoon, about the pernicious works and thoughts of Elizabeth McCaughey, I had no idea that the NYT was planning to go into the same terrain with a very good story today:

    NYTAug14.jpg

    But I mention the story mainly because of the way it is presented as a lead item on the TImes's web site, as shown at left. Using the word "False" is a big - and important -- step for an organization like the Times to make. I can't recall a time when the NYT used that word in a headline to describe the "birther" worldview.


     In general, even on the most extreme, out-of-the-realm-of-fact political claims, every powerful instinct in the news media shies from calling something "false" in favor of adjectives like "controversial" or "disputed," or sometimes "partisan." As many people have noted, and as I discussed even back at the dawn of time in Breaking the News, the "objective" instincts of the news media can tie it in knots when one side to a political argument is perfectly willing to say obviously false things. It's hard for mainstream publications to say outright that something is false or a lie. So it is impressive to see that the NYT has taken that step.

    Online at least. The front page of the print paper plays the story big, but under this headline: "Getting to the Source of the 'Death Panel' Rumor." Much to discuss later on about how the two versions of the paper came to their different decisions; about whether in the long-run there will be "web-appropriate" and "print-appropriate" versions of objectivity; and whether this labeling even by the NYT will have any effect on political discussion. It may be that we're so far into the era of separate fact-universes that having the NYT call something false makes others believe all the more that it is true. Nonetheless, it's a headline worth noticing.
     
  • I was wrong

    Twice recently I've done brief interviews on NPR's On The Media show. Both times have concerned the pernicious influence of one Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey, below.

    betsey mccaughey wikimedia.png

    In the early 1990s McCaughey single-handedly did a phenomenal amount to distort discussion of health-care policy and derail the Clinton health bill. She did so through an entirely fictitious argument about what the bill would do. You can go back in the records here, here, and here, but the issue boils down to this: She claimed that the bill would make it illegal to go outside the government plan for coverage or pay doctors on your own. If a doctor took money for such outside-the-system services, she said, the doctor could go to jail. That was a flat-out lie. (One of the very first clauses of the legislation said, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services.") But her imaginary "no exit" claim was repeated so often by so many "respectable" media sources that it effectively became "true" and played a large part in stopping the bill. It would be as if the "birthers" had persuaded John Roberts to say, "Wait a minute, let's take another look at that birth certificate" and decline to swear in Obama on inauguration day.

    McCaughey has been at it again this year -- twice, in fact. First was with an early, equally false claim that to compile  "comparative effectiveness" data about medical care -- which drugs had which effects, which surgical procedures led to which results, the sort of data collected routinely about education, air safety, and everything else -- would lead to a Big Brotherish intrusion on individual medical decisions. That one seemed to get knocked out of contention fairly early. Then she was back with the "death panels" argument. And here is where I made my mistake.

    In the On the Media interviews, I said that the "media ecosystem" was a lot different now from what it had been fifteen years ago. Back then, there was no blog world. The news cycle moved in days-long or weeks-long intervals, as newspapers came out each morning and newsmagazines each week. It was very hard to have instant feedback or correction in real time, so false stories could solidify before the truth squad had a chance. The early McCaughey was brilliantly matched to this system. Her unvarying pose is that of the objective researcher who has, selflessly, pored through the pages of a bill and emerged to warn us about what she has found. People took it at face value the first time.

    But these days, I said, that wouldn't work as well. She personally now had a track record. (Republican politician with a turbulent history; proven distorter of the facts.) And thousands of other people could now look through a bill too and post their findings mere minutes or hours after her claim. Thanks to blogs, Wikis, and the rest, there was a more nimble check-and-balance built into the discussion of ideas these days. And indeed it seemed to work that way early this year, with her failed "comparative effectiveness" foray. She made a claim; "crowdsourcing" proved her wrong; she piped down. And so, I confidently said to Bob Garfield of OTM, we'd seen a good side of today's Web-based decentralized journalism. There were plenty of bad sides, but the new potential to stop charlatans was a plus.

    But then came her claim about the "death panels." About the plain old facts here, there is as little room for rational dispute as with her previous phony contentions. The bill would not call people before panels to determine whether they had a right to live. Details from the conservative Republican Southerner who sponsored the plan, here.

    Beyond the facts, anyone who has had first-hand experience with modern end-of-life issues knows this is not something to demagogue. The combination of what is eternal, namely man's mortality, and what is new, namely the frontiers of high-tech medicine, converts what has always been a painful, fraught, and central aspect of human existence into something with even more painful dilemmas and choices than in previous days. Seriously: I do not think that any decent person who has seen this process, up close, can imagine preaching to anyone else about the choices and consequences. It's just too complicated and painful. And certainly any fair reading of the legislation indicated that it was designed to give individuals and their families more rather than less control over what are inevitably impossible choices about our loved ones and ourselves -- to reduce the chances that anyone else could preach or dictate to them.

    But the flow of argument makes it appear that "death panel" has won the battle of political ideas, as "no exit" did 15 years ago (and as the "birthers" have not done). For example, Charles Grassley seems to have bought it. I don't know which interpretation is more depressing: that Grassley actually believes in death panels (ie, he's irrational), or that he knows better but figures it's smart to say he believes (ie, he's craven). The political fundamentals, as I understand them, still favor the passage of some health-care bill. To that extent, Ms. McCaughey may indeed have been blunted. But I said two weeks ago that I thought today's communications systems had caught up with people who invented facts. I was wrong.

    In my, umm, mature years, I don't generally see a point in going after people personally. I have enough adversaries already. But there are necessary exceptions. And the ability to have a civil discussion about central policy issues, in terms that are connected to the world of facts and realities, matters for reasons that go beyond any one person's involvement.

  • A note from Niall Ferguson (postponed)

    I have pulled back what I posted here a few minutes ago (yes, I know that the ambitious can still find it in a cache) in response to a follow-up message from Niall Ferguson requesting a delay. His original message concerned his "Felix the Cat" / "black, and very, very lucky" column. Stay tuned.

  • Last word on helicopters v. airplanes (for now)

    Two responses to my recent confession that while I loved flying airplanes, I was basically frightened of helicopters. Airplanes are meant to stay up in the air; helicopters are meant to fall out of it. First is from a reader who is a helicopter pilot in Alaska; then, from a reader who flies neither helicopters nor airplanes but is a professor of physics.

    From the pilot:

    Perhaps you've heard the expression, "Helicopters don't fly, they beat the air into submission."

    From the professor -- Steven Lepp, of the physics department at UNLV.

    "I am sure you will hear from all kinds of helicopter pilots, who will probably know more then I do.  But as a Physics Professor (though Atomic and Molecular Astrophysics rather then Fluids is my specialty), I can say I don't think there is much difference between a helicopter and a fixed wing airplane in terms of how much it "likes to fly".

    "Maple seeds are a good  example of "Helicopters love to fly".  As a kid I could play with these things for hours,...

    More »

  • Even more on GDP, economics, and "rational insanity"

    A number of China and technology issues in the queue (plus frogs), but for the moment, a few extra references on the "does GDP really matter anyway?" front. Previously here and here.

    1) A group in Nova Scotia called GPIAtlantic has applied a "Genuine Progress Indicator" to social and economic developments in its region. The idea of GPI rather than GDP has a long history; for further information, see here, here, and here. (Yes, there are a variety of other "sustainability indexes" or measures of overall welfare; more info at sites above, plus here for another "can money buy happiness?" study.) Below, a sample GDP/GPI comparative graph from the Redefining Progress site.

    GPIIndex.jpg


    2) Another in the ever-expanding cadre of first-rate Atlantic online Correspondents is Ben Heineman Jr., who has this very valuable post on the perils of paying attention to statistical indicators of any sort. Part of living in the modern world is accepting that opposite-sounding principles can both be true. (Hey, living in China makes such acceptance easy! The country is rich -- and it is poor. It is open - and it is closed. It is one ancient culture -- and it is a thousand little baronies. But I digress.)

    In the area we're talking about now, the contradictory principles are: a) "big data" can reveal truths that would escape normal human reasoning power. Easiest illustration: hundreds of millions of people, all creating links among web pages, can together produce a vast and nuanced guide to what is where on the web, which Google put to use through its "PageRank" system.  b) numerical data can lead to incredibly stupid mistakes, if users forget that numbers and models inevitably oversimplify real, messy reality. Easiest illustration: the apologia from Robert McNamara in Errol Morris's The Fog of War.

    In his post Heineman talks about how the "idolatry of numbers" -- worship of the spurious precision of mathematical models -- can lead to terrible real-world misjudgments. This was a powerful lesson I took from my time in graduate school studying economics: the formulas were so neat and powerful, yet their connection to the real world was so hit-and-miss. In a way this is also a theme of Liaquat Ahamed's outstanding book Lords of Finance, about the way financial "experts" helped bring on the Great Depression. They had great faith in their models; unfortunately, the models and principles didn't match reality.

    3)  While I'm at it, here is my article "How the World Works" from the early 1990s, which was an attempt to explain the mismatch between the nice, clean models of Anglo-American economic textbooks and the brand of economics believed in by many governments in East Asia. Mainly Japan in those days and China now. Japanese and Chinese economic strategies differ from each other in very important ways, but in both countries governments have often applied a "strategic development" model of economics, not just the "consumer welfare" approach that arises from textbooks in Ec 101. More explanation in that article -- and for a bonus, this one from 2005, "Countdown to a Meltdown," about the imbalanced economic growth that the financial models of the "derivatives / subprime" era were creating and why it would end in tears.


  • Apropos of nothing: new Joe Henry album available on NPR

    In a feature I hadn't paid attention to while overseas, NPR has over the past year offered "Exclusive First Listens" to entire new albums on line. Today: an hour's worth of Blood From Stars by the wonderful bluesy guitarist-singer Joe Henry.

    The trick is that the full-length streaming audio is turned off once the album officially goes on sale. Thus the past-events listing includes full-length sessions from Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Moby, etc -- but none of the music is still there. (The oldest still-available entry is from one week ago.) If you click on the older sessions, you're taken to an Amazon or iTunes purchase site. Fair enough: this is one more interesting twist in the vast, varied, and necessary series of experiments now underway to see how "content," from music to movies to news articles, can be "monetized" in the age when so much of it can be copied or used for free.

    I mention it for that reason -- and also because anyone who, like me, hadn't known of the feature might find it worthwhile. Certainly this Joe Henry music is great. Check it out while it is there.

  • "Nukes in Burma": a traveler's report

    An email from a reader who was in Burma earlier this year. Background here and here, and generally on Burma here. FWIW, the reader's accounts of conversations on the streets in Burma resemble my experience in three trips there over the past 20 years:

    "For me, the strangest thing about the news of nukes in Burma is that I first heard it in January -- from a seemingly average guy on the street in Burma.
     
    "During my two weeks of travel around Burma, many people would come up to me when no one was looking, start with a few friendly words, then progress into a series of terrible stories about their government: beatings, arbitrary taxation, health care withheld from pregnant women, children forced into the military, monks who were taken by police and never seen again...
     
    "A few stories seemed at first to be possible paranoia, but I eventually started believing them:

    "Your rickshaw driver is a spy"

    More »

  • More on GDP, airplanes (updated)

    I mentioned yesterday that a good NYT op-ed this week on the limits of GDP-as-Holy-Grail paralleled a similar argument in an also very good Atlantic cover story from 1995. To round out the trio of excellence, I should mention a NYT column last year by the economist Robert Frank, of Cornell, on the ways in which money does and does not buy happiness. The column comes up as a PDF here. The three are worth reading together.

    In the same item yesterday, I mentioned that an NPR correspondent had sounded Chicken Little-ish about the recent tragic aerial crash over the Hudson, the only such collision in the many decades in which planes and helicopters have flown that route. Miles O'Brien -- ex of CNN, now of True/Slant, and pilot himself -- is much less polite about such coverage, in two items, here and here. Eg:

    "Those of us who fly through this airspace are responsible for seeing and avoiding each other. There are no air traffic controllers serving as traffic cops here.

    "And before you get yourself all spun up about this (I am talkin' to you Sen. Schumer! [and the NPR guy]), before this tragic crash there has never been a mid air collision like this in New York City.

    "Over the years, many thousands of airplane and helicopters have successfully and safely plied their way through this corridor of airspace wherein the responsibility for collision avoidance rests entirely in the cockpit.

    "And the real truth is it makes flying in the New York City airspace safer - because all the aircraft who fly in this zone are not taxing already maxed out air traffic controllers.

    "If tour helicopters had to check in with ATC every time they alighted with a load of tourists, the system would bog down in a hurry.

    "It is NOT the Wild West up there... It is a busy place with a lot of traffic and you have to pay attention all the time. But that's New York for you. When two cars collide in Midtown Manhattan, do we instantly insist the traffic laws be changed?"

    I'm with him.

    UPDATE: I am also with my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, here, in his life-extension maxim of "never take a helicopter ride for fun." I love airplanes and aviation; in the three China-based years that I've been away from flying I've actively missed the "aerial view," the particular perspective you get on the world from a few thousand feet up; like everyone who has thought seriously about flying, I know it brings risks. But helicopters are to me a different matter. If you've studied aerodynamics, you know that airplanes "want to stay in the air" -- if the engine fails, they turn into gliders, not plummeting objects. Helicopters "want to fall out of the air" -- yes, despite the limited ability to "autorotate" and avoid a direct plummet. I respect people who fly them, which is harder than flying airplanes. But I keep a respectful distance.


  • "Black, and very, very lucky."

    I have had my disagreements with Niall Ferguson, as chronicled several times -- here, here, here, and here. But I had thought they were simply on the merits -- how to interpret the financial and strategic tensions between China and America, whether there was any serious historical parallel to be drawn between the rising China of Hu Jintao and the rising Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm. (Ferguson said Yes; I said No.)

    Everything about such discussions is conditioned by Ferguson's constant reminders that he is a professional academic historian and therefore deserves deference for whatever historical connections he sees. This morning in the Financial Times he once again shows off the insight that professional training can bring. The essay on American politics begins:

    President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US as he takes a well-earned summer break after just over six months in the world's biggest and toughest job.

    Hu Jintao is Kaiser Wilhelm; Obama is a black cartoon cat. I look forward to Ferguson's discussing this over a beer with his Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates.

  • Three news updates: GDP, airplanes, health politics

    1. GDP department: The NYT yesterday had a very good, double-length op-ed about the folly of relying strictly on GDP and its growth as a proxy for human happiness, social progress, or overall national success. (Simple illustration: home security systems add to national economic activity, but the need for them may illustrate a decline in real human happiness and wellbeing.) Back in 1995, the Atlantic had a very good cover story to very similar effect. I don't know whether it's discouraging that the same case has to be made again and again or encouraging to see similar logic being applied. But if you were interested in the NYT piece, the Atlantic one (by Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe) is a worthy  complement.

    2. Airplane department: I mentioned shortly after the tragic Hudson River aerial crash that a person who had never driven cars - let's say an Amish farmer -- might look at traffic on a busy roadway and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe? Similarly, people with no experience in airplanes might look at areas like the Hudson River "VFR corridor" and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe?

    If you would like to hear how this perspective sounds when applied in a news broadcast, there was a specimen on NPR's (of course generally admirable) All Things Considered this evening,  here. Contrary to general assumption (and the specific assumption of this segment), air traffic controllers are not what keep airplanes from running into each other. William Langewiesche, a long-time pilot and son of a revered aviation writer, explained this point in the Atlantic in a story about controllers several years ago. In brief: "controlled" flight is crucial when airplanes are in clouds or when for other reasons the pilots can't see where they're going; and when flights are being sluiced and sequenced into busy airports. It's also mandatory for all flights at the altitudes where jets fly. But otherwise, the pilots are the ones keeping their planes from hitting each other, as car drivers and boat skippers do. This crash was a tragedy that should be studied, but not from the perspective of a person on a buggy who views a collision as a sign that roads are inherently unsafe. (Minor factual-error complaint after the jump.*)

    3. Health department: In response to this item yesterday, I have received abundant correspondence to the effect of: especially after you've come back from China, how can you possibly be against free debate? It would be so wrong to ram a bill right down the throat of an unprepared Congress and public.

    Yes, yes, we're all in favor of free debate. But organized efforts to shout down public officials at "town meetings" are not my idea of what Thomas Paine, John Peter Zenger, Socrates, and the rest were trying to promote. Nor is propagation of demonstrably false information, including the "death panel" scare that has most effectively been debunked by a conservative Republican Senator from Georgia.

    Below and after the jump, a note from a reader who has "genuine" concerns about the Obama plan but is worried that irrational "birther"-style opposition will keep the serious concerns from being aired. I don't agree with all of his concerns, as noted below; but I think his analysis of the politics is right:

    I completely agree with the observations you and [Steven] Pearlstein make about the Republican positioning on the health care debate.  I also agree with Steven's statement  that "Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off."  However, that does not translate into automatic agreement on the plan as proposed--a presumption that the advocates of the current health care bill would have us accept as true.

    More »

  • Let's mark this moment in the health debate as it happens

    Nearly fifteen years ago, after the collapse of the Clinton health-reform effort, I spent a lot of time working on an Atlantic article (and subsequent book chapter) about how, exactly, the discussion of the bill had become so unmoored from reality and finally determined by slogans, stereotypes, and flat-out lies.

    It's better to do that after the fact than not to do it at all. And, if I do say so, I think the article remains useful background reading for what's going on now -- including the return-guest-star role of the voluble but consistently misinformed Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey.

    But if there's a chance, it would obviously be better still to keep the current debate from ending up in the same intellectual/political swamp in which the previous one drowned. That is why I was so impressed by this Steven Pearlstein column two days ago in the Washington Post. (Yes, despite changes noted recently in the WaPo, there are good people doing good work there.) Pearlstein, a longtime business and financial columnist and reporter (and last year's Pulitzer winner for commentary), is no one's idea of a predictable leftie. Thus when he says things like the following, they have weight:

    The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems....

    He goes through the most familiar talk show / Republican Caucus / Sarah Palin / protest group complaints -- "death committees," socialized medicine, end of innovation, "keep the government out of my Medicare," etc -- and shows how, as with all of McCaughey's complaints over the years, they're just not true. The current legislation has defects, but they're not the ones most often yelled about. Then he makes the point that, to me, matters even more than the legislation itself.

    Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.

    Pretty soon I will lay off the "As a Rip van Winkle returnee to your country, what I notice is...." approach. But I have to say that it is striking to come back -- from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate "official truth" in China -- and see the world's most mature democracy, informed by the world's dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can't think this is a sign of health for the Republic.


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