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 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.


  • Second day reaction on the Hudson River air crash

    Why this crash happened, in a "who was thinking what" sense, may not be known for a long time if ever. But the mechanical description of the crash sequence now seems clearer. The NYT has another of its useful aviation disaster graphics attached to this story. The graphic itself is a pop-up that is tricky to link to directly, so with full acknowledgment that this comes from the NYT site and with encouragement to you go to there directly, here's what it shows:

    NYTGraphiconCrash.jpg

    The airplane left Teterboro and headed for the Hudson; it leveled off at 1100 feet, which is the maximum altitude along much of the "VFR Flyway" for "uncontrolled" flight (explained here) along the Hudson; and for whatever reason it made a left turn and hit the helicopter from behind and below. This is a terrible tragedy for all involved, and sympathies to those families. Two points about the reaction:

    - I am impressed by the realism and the relatively calm tone of this NYT story about how planes usually operate in the Hudson corridor. Here's why I'm somewhat surprised:

    To someone with no experience controlling cars or trucks, it would seem incredible that drivers could whiz past each other in opposite directions on a two-lane road and not have head-on collisions all the time. They're so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn't anyone in control? And in fact, tens of thousands of people do die in road crashes each year. But since most people know about cars, they understand how drivers can watch out for other vehicles, how two-way traffic can usually be safe, and what kind of mistake, misjudgment, recklessness, or sheer bad luck can lead to a head-on crash.

    But when it comes to aviation, relatively few people have first-hand experience steering planes or watching out for other aerial traffic. And because air disasters, when they happen, are so gruesome, it's natural for most people to think: they're so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn't anyone in control? In fact, avoiding collisions in the air is, in terms of sheer reflexes required, less demanding than avoiding them on the road. (Landing an airplane is more demanding than most aspects of driving; simply flying an airplane is not.) If you lose attention for five seconds in a car, you can be in serious trouble. In airplanes there's usually a lot more time to see what's coming toward you and decide how to avoid a problem. It's more like operating a boat in a harbor than like driving a car on a road. This may be why Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who has trained extensively as a helicopter and airplane pilot (his certificate info here) -- struck the calmest note in the NYT story. He said, essentially: this is a terrible tragedy, and while we have to look for causes, it doesn't mean we have to go crazy or shut everything down. More or less the way car drivers respond after a road tragedy.

    - I am less impressed by this AP story that tries to find a regulatory-negligence aspect to the disaster. The purported revelation is a recent Department of Transportation study showing that "on demand" air carriers, like the helicopter-tour company, are supervised less carefully than mainstream airlines are. Frankly, I would hope that airlines are always the most heavily-scrutinized part of the system, given how many more passengers' lives are at stake.

    Let's agree that regulatory and safety-procedure issues may have played a large part in the terrible Colgan crash in Buffalo this last winter. And that there could be systematic problems in the on-demand flight business. Still: I'm willing to bet a lot of money that nothing whatsoever about this Hudson crash was related in any way to regulation of the helicopter company. After a disaster, it's natural to look for any factor that might in any way be related. But this is a huge logical stretch and a kind of scare-mongering.

    On the other hand, the same AP writer did a very good story earlier this week about the latest development in the Air France crash over the Atlantic in June: the possibility that there is a systematic problem with the airspeed-sensing system in Airbus airplanes, which could have contributed to this and other incidents with Airbuses. More on that as it develops; no more on the Hudson crash unless there is new info. Again condolences.

  • The aerial collision over the Hudson

    As with any airplane accident or disaster, it can take a while to know what really happened. That is certainly the case with the apparent collision a few hours ago between a small airplane and a helicopter off lower Manhattan. What follows is just some orienting info to put in context today's unfolding news -- and, below, a request to any current-pilot reader with access to a scanner.

    It appears that a small Piper airplane (Arrow or Cherokee, initial reports differ -- doesn't matter for our purposes) hit a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River, sending both craft and their occupants into the river. The airplane had reportedly taken off from Teterboro airport in New Jersey, not far away. Here is what the relevant section of the New York "Terminal Area Chart" would look like for the airplane pilot planning a VFR -- "Visual Flight Rules" -- trip on this route:

    HudsonCrash1.jpg

     


    Teterboro airport is the blue elongated-X shaped mark in the upper left corner. The reported crash site would be near the center bottom. The helicopter chart for the same area would look like this (both of these are way more legible in real life):

    HeloChart.jpg

    Why would an airplane and a helicopter be in the same area, and neither of them actively directed by air traffic controllers? Because there is a "VFR Flyway" over the Hudson that lets aircraft travel through on their own guidance, and providing their own look-out for other traffic, if they stay below a certain altitude. (Above that altitude is controlled "Class B" airspace for Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia airports.) The exact altitudes differ, but typically in this area the planes would stay at around 1000 feet to make it through. That's relatively low for an airplane -- it's often the elevation above ground level at which you fly the "pattern" in preparation for landing at an airport -- but more normal for a helicopter.

    Because the New York VFR flyways, and their counterparts in other big cities, are very busy, there are all sorts of specific instructions for flying there. Usually there's one radio frequency that planes flying this route are all supposed to monitor, and on which they announce their positions. The last time I flew along the Hudson, it was 123.05, but it might have changed. Usually you're supposed to turn all the plane's exterior lights on, to make it as noticeable as possible -- and to keep to a limited speed, and observe other procedures designed to keep traffic moving in one direction away from opposing traffic. All these procedures, safety tips, and operational details are spelled out on the back of the New York "Terminal Area Chart," but since I don't have one any more, I can't show them. Any pilot-reader who can do a scan of the "VFR Flyway" procedures for the Hudson River flyway, please send it in.

    For reasons still unknown, one craft or the other might not have been following those rules  -- or one of them might have ended up in the "blind spot" from the other pilot's cockpit (it happens with aircraft as it does with cars). Pilots of sightseeing helicopters are presumably very familiar with this area and the associated procedures, so a starting assumption is that the airplane was doing something unusual -- for example, flying unusually low. But that's pure hypothesis.

    Nearly three years ago, the pitcher Cory Lidle also crashed a small plane over Manhattan, but that was in different circumstances. (Here and here with other links.) That was a single-plane accident, not a collision -- and it happened over the East River flyway, which has a very different function than the flyway over the Hudson on the west. The East River flyway comes to an air-space dead-end when it run into LaGuardia's controlled airspace. The function of that flyway has largely been to give helicopters and seaplanes a way to get out of the Manhattan area. The Hudson river route, by contrast, is an actual throughway for planes traveling north/south past New York, in addition to being a favored sightseeing route. Here is an account from someone who flew there recently.  I've flown the Hudson route many times -- always feeling as if I had to be very alert, but never feeling that another plane was dangerously near -- but never even thought of trying the East River.

    Condolences to all affected. More information as it is available.
     
  • On why I can't get in to see my doctor

    I mentioned yesterday that, in this slack economy, every part of the service sector seemed poised for instant response at the slightest chance of business -- with one exception. When I called to get a back-from-China physical from my doctor, the first opening was more than three months away. (Among his other virtues, my doctor subscribes to the magazine -- but does not frequent the web site!)

    Two reader-hypotheses about the difference: that it's simple medical economics, and that it's because America is not Canada.
     
    1) From the "medical economics" reader:

    My girlfriend (spanish/japanese, lives in Spain) is always amazed by the service sector when she visits... It is almost always quick, efficient and relatively cheap (compared to Europe).  That is changing in Europe with cheaper labor, but the sophistication of the US service markets (24 hour call lines, next day delivery) can never be matched.
    On the pricing note, the delay in office visits is mostly price related, no?  My father (a GI) makes about $50 an hour on office visits, before taxes and overhead.  That is a lot less than all the other wonderful service experiences you describe. [Plumbers, electricians, tree-trimmers, etc.]  At that price point, what incentive do you have to make yourself available?  Given access to doctors is the biggest interaction most healthy people have with the medical system, increasing those basic services would make most people feel better about reform, no?

    2) On the Canada front, from Parker Donham:

    I live in a tiny Nova Scotia community, about 45 minutes from the nearest small city. When I want to see my "good-but-normal" doctor (the same one I've had for 35 years), I don't make an appointment. I call and ask what hours he will be in the office that day, then show up at a time convenient for me. I bring The Atlantic to read for the 10-20 minutes it takes to see him.
    As we watch Americans debate the future of their health care system, it's galling for Canadians to hear opponents of reform demonize our single-payer system with discredited tales of health care denied. I am in good health, and enjoy excellent medical care. A close relative whose serious congenital heart condition leads to frequent, sometimes grave emergencies and occasional surgical interventions likewise receives superb care.
    Yes, Canadians sometimes wait months to see certain specialists, a problem that varies from place to place, from speciality to speciality, and by degree of emergency. A lot of effort is now focused on reducing wait times, with some progress.
    Canadians live three years longer, on average, than Americans; we have lower infant mortality, less chance of dying before age five, and much less chance of dying between 15 and 60. We spend barely half what you do, per capita, on health care, and no one loses their home to pay for needed medical care. Except for American ex-pats, no one stays in a Canadian job for fear of losing health coverage without it. Our system is very popular, and in our perennial, rather touching quest to identify cultural factors that distinguish us from Americans, single payer health care always ranks near the top of the list.
    Sources here, here, and here.
  • If you're in Seattle-land

    I will be on KUOW's Weekday program today, 9am-10am PDT, talking with Steve Scher about (guess!) China. I was supposed to do this one week ago, but had such a paralyzing case of laryngitis, based on having yelled over the noise of jet engines at the Oshkosh air show earlier that week, that I couldn't say a word and had to bail out.

    Update: audio of show is available here. It was a lot of fun. Got to talk about my visit to the Shanghai Skin Diseases and Sexually Transmitted Diseases clinic, as a patient.

    Side note: again I notice as a recent arrival on American shores the value that NPR public-affairs talk shows around the country bring. When I lived in Seattle, I often listened to Scher's show -- or to Michael Krasny's Forum on KQED when I was living in Berkeley,  or Larry Mantle's AirTalk on KPCC when I was visiting my parents in southern California, or Kathleen Dunn on Wisconsin Public Radio when I'm in that part of the country. And of course in many cities you can hear Tom Ashbrook's On Point from WBUR in Boston and  Diane Rehm on WAMU in DC. I'll stop with the list before getting into the risk of "offense by omission"; the point, again, is that at a moment of justified concern about the chaos and deterioration of the media, it's worth noting that this particular kind of program -- locally-run NPR talk shows -- is an area of increasing quality and strength.

  • A reminder that we've left Beijing

    I open the front door this afternoon, at our recently re-occupied house inside the District of Columbia barely three miles from the White House, and I see:

    IMG_7909.JPG

    IMG_7901.JPG

    IMG_7903.JPG


    And my first thought is: this is not what you'd see three miles from Zhongnanhai [seat of power] in Beijing. Actually, that was my second thought. The first one was, "where is the camera?" -- and the deer were blase enough to stick around while I got it.
     
    Yes, yes, I know that deer are the new rats of American cities, graceful but nonetheless troublesome supersized vermin. Still, the stark difference in circumstances of daily life in the two capitals -- the background sights, the routine nuisances and pleasures that shape consciousness -- makes it remarkable that officials of the two governments can communicate about issues as well as they do. Here is what I would see when I walked out my front door in  Beijing, about as far from Zhongnanhai as my DC house is from Pennsylvania Avenue:

    IMG_5151.jpg

    Yes, sure, I could find something similar in a three-mile radius of the White House too. But you couldn't find anything in Beijing like a deer-filled front yard. (I have seen people in Chinese cities trapping ducks and pigeons to eat. How long would venison on the hoof last?) I put up these pictures mainly for the benefit of readers in China. It is hard to convey to people who have lived only in one of the two countries how different everything about daily life can feel in the other. I'm still in that fleeting stage where I notice. But that will pass.

  • Notes on repatriation (recession, media depts)

    It would be too overwhelming to try to list all the things my wife and I miss about three years' immersion in China, and all the things we enjoy about returning to the house where we've lived, off and on, since the early Reagan era. Items in the first category boil down to the daily sense of amazement at some improbability we'd seen on the street in Beijing or Urumqi or Lanzhou. Our standard evening conversation was, "You won't believe it, but..." Items in the second category have a lot to do with the physical comforts of daily life in a rich rather than a poor country. Yes, I mean starting with the air.

    But here are three things we can't help but notice.

    1) The service sector. I think the US consumer economy would still be in free-fall if we hadn't come back. We show up from China needing new of everything. Clothes. Camera. Two computers, plus monitors and backup drives. Housewares. Shoes. At least one fridge, probably a stove. Radios/sound system. TVs. You name the item, and the version we have is road-worn, obsolete, broken, or gone. (Sadly for Detroit, not cars: Our two, vintage 1999 and 2000 respectively and stored with friends, still seem just fine. Sorry!) Our house needs to be repainted-- and re-roofed, and re-drivewayed, and its trees trimmed. That's just a start. Good thing we saved up in those days of 20RMB noodle/dumpling dinners. And, yes, many of the items we're getting were made in China. You just can't buy them there.

    Here's the surprise: We call to get service appointments, and people show up right away. Air conditioning not working in 90-degree DC swelter? We make a call one evening, and the next day it's all fixed. Plumbing clogged and leaky? A few hours later, it's not. Need the car looked at, after three years in the shed? Call the service place and the only question is: do I want to bring it in this afternoon? Or wait till tomorrow? On a Sunday, we see that a tree is dying in the back yard. By Monday afternoon, it is converted into neatly stacked wood.

    These are all people and services we'd dealt with before, but in those days we learned to plan weeks in advance for service calls. America still looks incredibly rich and lush. But this little indicator suggests lots of slack in anything considered a discretionary purchase. Not startling in principle, but impressive to encounter first-hand.

    Only exception: I call to get an appointment for a physical exam with our doctor -- a good but "normal" doctor, not some fancy physician to the stars. First available slot, mid-November. I have no theory for this anomaly.

    2) The dispensability of TV. The first night we were in our house, three weeks ago, no internet! By the next afternoon, we'd solved that emergency. Phew. (That day I was driving around the neighborhood with a laptop, looking for no-password wifi signals from some neighbor's house.) But that first day, also no TV. Cable, satellite, and TiVo services had all timed out. Of course no broadcast signal, after the digital switch-over. Each day since then, we've looked at the list of next-most-urgent chores for getting re-settled. And each day, getting the TV going -- figuring out the right service, making the appointment calls -- has not quite made the cut for that day's to-do list.
     
    A few times I've thought, It would be nice to turn on the TV. Like, during Obama's evening press conference last month. And I am sure we'll eventually get it going again, before football season and all. Probably the US Open tennis matches will be the trigger. But after many decades of living in a swirl of TV signals, I am surprised by how livable life is without it. For now.

    3) Media. We're getting real paper newspapers and magazines again. NYT and Washington Post, and soon again the WSJ. And all our complement of magazines. Leafing through the papers is a nice ritual in the morning -- even when I've read a lot of the stories the night before online. Don't worry: I'm not even going to start down the road of comparing online/print economics or ergonomics, even though I'm impressed at how differently I read the news on a page versus on a screen.

    Instead what I notice is the change within the papers I'd read before. The NYT, for all its travails, is a recognizable version of the publication I'd previously known. Personality, depth, world-view, tone. The poor Washington Post is not. Laying off -- that is, buying out -- so many reporters who knew so much about their topics has had a more profound effect than I would have guessed. (Locus classicus: Tom Ricks on defense.) And the resulting paper seems more obviously desperate to try anything that will draw attention in this new age.

    To me, that was the real meaning of the unfortunate recent "Mouthpiece Theater" commotion that has accompanied my re-introduction to the Post. (And for which Chris Cillizza wrote a gracious apology.) Not the flap over the final "bitch" episode but the existence of the thing at all. Experimentation is great and necessary in journalism, always and especially now; mistakes are a natural price of that; and everyone in every field needs to make his or her work as entertaining and attractive as it can be. But trying to compete for attention on sheer yuks is a step toward the brink. "Real" entertainment will always be more entertaining -- that's how it got the name. Anyone hungry for more on this theme is invited to check out the whole chapter on the death-spiral of infotainment in Breaking the News. And I think it's why the parody-reply to "Mouthpiece" on YouTube, below, was so genuinely funny and stinging. It wasn't mocking the segment so much as the paper's overall predicament.

    WaPoPosted.jpg

    I've thought of the Post as my hometown paper for years and feel as if I've come back to see a family member looking suddenly very ill. I still have good friends doing good work there. Also, good work by people I don't even know! As with two Style-section pieces this morning, on Thomas Pynchon by Michael Dirda and on the Obama/Joker/Socialism posters, by Philip Kennicott. But if someone asked, what do you notice that's changed, the Post would be high on the list.

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