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.
  • Ferguson, Obama, Felix the Cat -- and Pluto

    Let me tell this one in order:

    On August 11, last Tuesday, Niall Ferguson wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times whose theme was that Barack Obama reminded him of Felix the Cat? Why? "Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky."

    Later that day, I did an item marveling at the column. Its final line was, " I look forward to Ferguson's discussing this over a beer with his Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates."

    Two days later, on August 13, I got an irritated note from Ferguson. Its subject line was "Rubbish." It included a quote from H.L. Gates saying that there was no problem with the Felix line -- the reported quote from Gates was "What a load of rubbish" -- and it ended with a request that I publish it. To be exact, a challenge: "I shall be interested to see if you post this on your blog."

    Soon thereafter, I did indeed publish it. I sent Ferguson a note saying that I had done so, with the explanation that I took his note as a request that I share his views.

    An hour later, he wrote back and requested that I remove the item from the Atlantic's site so that he could check further with Gates. Within minutes I did that, putting up this placeholder announcement instead. Since the original had been up for a while, it survived in many search caches. But I saw no reason to be difficult  -- or to pretend I didn't get Ferguson's "please take it down" note; so I complied.

    Over the weekend, I didn't hear from Ferguson, and on the "life is short" policy resolved to let the matter drop.
     
    Then this afternoon, I received a followup note -- sent jointly to me and Paul Krugman, who had written in a similar vein. In its entirety it says:

    Dear Paul and James,

    As you both took exception to my comparison of the President with Felix the Cat, my favorite cartoon character, implying it was racist and recommending I consult Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I have now done so. He has taken the trouble to consult others in the field of African-American Studies, including our colleague Lawrence D. Bobo, the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, and has written to me as follows:

    "None of us thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used.  Felix's blackness, like Mickey's and Minnie's, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin color. ... You are safe on this one."

    As he has made clear, you are free to publish this on your blogs. I hope that you will, and that you will also add an apology to me for the imputation of racism as well as, in Paul's case, the gratuitous and puerile accusation of "whining" (i.e., defending myself against a slur). I remain of the view that you took this line to avoid engaging with my central points that President Obama's administration has no visible plan for stabilizing the finances of the federal government even over ten years, and that Congress will likely impede whatever steps he may take in this direction.

    Yours,

    Niall Ferguson.

    On the requested "apology": Sadly, No. I don't think and didn't say that Niall Ferguson is a racist. Probably like him, I lament the way indiscriminate use of that label -- or  "sexist," "anti-Semite," now "socialist" -- can shut down discussion. But there's no getting around the clumsiness of what he wrote. If Felix the Cat's blackness is a barely noticeable aspect of his identity, why on earth would anyone begin a comparison of Obama to Felix by saying "Felix was not only black"? Thought experiment: Suppose I wrote a column about Jackie Chan -- or Cabinet members Steven Chu and Eric Shinseki, or Yo-Yo Ma, or new PGA champion Y.E. Yang -- that began exactly the way Ferguson's did. "Jackie Chan reminds me of Pluto. One of the best-loved characters from the Disney studio, Pluto was not only yellow. He was also very, very likable."

    pluto1.jpg

    I could go on to discuss policy aspects of Jackie Chan's controversial comments about democracy in China -- as Ferguson goes on to discuss Obama's problems with the budget deficit. But 99% of the readers would think, What the hell? And if asked what I was doing, I would not try to relitigate the case, as Ferguson is now doing in several venues, but would recognize that I'd blundered and back off. But apparently that's just me.

    Paul Krugman on the same subject here.

  • Omnibus news catch-up #1: Hudson River air crash UPDATED

    Concerning Saturday's front-page story in the NYT about what the Teterboro air traffic controllers were doing just before the airplane-helicopter collision over the Hudson:

    Obviously this doesn't look good for the controllers (that one of them was on a "non-business-related phone call" just before the crash), and the National Transportation Safety Board will eventually pronounce on how much, if anything, that had to do with the crash.* The NTSB's special update on what it has learned so far about the controllers' behavior and other factors is here.

    There's one main reason to think that none of the controllers, including the one in the Teterboro airport tower who was on the phone, should principally be "blamed" for the crash. The reason is that by definition controllers are never principally responsible for "traffic separation" when planes are operating under "Visual Flight Rules," or VFR. The pilots themselves are responsible, like the drivers of cars.

    When the weather is clear and pilots are operating under VFR, they are free (within limits) to choose their own course and altitude; but they -- not the controllers -- bear legal and practical responsibility for staying clear of terrain and not running into anything else in the sky. Everyone involved in the system understands this. The big divide in aircraft operations is between VFR and IFR, "Instrument Flight Rules." Under IFR, the pilots have to go where the controllers say -- but the controllers bear legal responsibility for keeping one plane away from others. Virtually all airline flights operate under IFR, so non-pilot public assumes that controllers are supervising flights of every kind. They're not.

    Also, based just on the facts now released, there's something to be explained about the airplane pilot's actions.  Soon after the plane had taken off, the Teterboro tower controller told the airplane pilot to switch to a Newark "departure" controller on another frequency. This is purely routine and is something you expect once airborne from an airport with a control tower. ("Airplane XXX, contact departure on [ XXX frequency]".)** Usually you know ahead of time what frequency you'll be switched to, and you have it pre-loaded into your radio. When instructed, you activate that new frequency by pushing one toggle switch.

    In this case, the pilot acknowledged the "contact departure" request but then never spoke to the new controller. "Never" covers the 54 seconds between the request to switch frequency and the actual crash. That's a pretty long time not to "check in" with the next controller. Usually you enter the new frequency (a few seconds); listen a few more seconds for a chance to talk; and then announce yourself to the new controller. In extremely busy air-traffic areas, like New York most of the time, you may have to wait quite a while for a break in transmissions so you can check in. Was the pilot waiting all that time? The tapes will show whether he had a chance.

    Now we come to the area of murk and "responsibility" in other than a strictly legal sense, which the NTSB will try to sort out. The NTSB announcement says that the second controller, in Newark, was eager to reach the pilot to warn him about the helicopter and suggest that he turn to avoid its path. Obviously that warning never get across. Was it just because the frequency was too busy? That would seem odd: when a controller really wants to reach a particular plane, he can tell other pilots to be quiet and put out a call to the plane he needs to reach. It's not unusual to hear such instructions. ("Piper XXX, if on frequency, acknowledge; all other traffic stand by....") Did the controller ever put out such a call? The NTSB doesn't mention it, but says that the Newark controller telephoned the one in Teterboro to mention the problem. Of course that Teterboro controller could no longer reach the pilot, whom he had instructed to switch away from his frequency.

    The lore of aviation disasters, often discussed here, is that they very often involve an "accident chain" that could theoretically have been broken at any link. If the Teterboro controller had not been on the phone, maybe he would have seen the same impending problem that the Newark controller did -- but maybe not, because his radar scope may not have covered the same area. If the pilot had been able to check in quickly with the Newark controller, maybe he would have gotten the warning and turned. If the Newark controller had tried to reach the pilot, maybe that would have paid off.  If the pilot and passengers had been looking in a different part of the sky, maybe they would have seen the helicopter in time. We'll know more about this eventually, although the whole tragedy may never be fully explained.

    Main point for the moment: it would be natural for non-flying readers to hear about the controllers and conclude: Obvious negligence! They should have been at the scope keeping those planes apart! That's been the implication of some recent coverage of the crash. It is indeed possible, based on what's known now, that controllers might, through extra vigilance, have averted this disaster. The one in Newark apparently tried. But this is different from a situation in which, say, a controller neglects his duty to keep airliners safely separated and allows them to collide. Here what we know so far is that controllers may have missed a chance to go beyond normal duty and save the pilots from error. More when the NTSB speaks.

    UPDATE: According to this AP story, as of Monday night the NTSB revised a previous claim that the Teterboro controller (the one with the phone call) could have seen the impending collision. The new info suggests that the helicopter did not show up on that controller's screen until immediately before the crash. Main reminder: it will take a while to sort out what really happened.
    __

    *Side note: for all the care and thoroughness of the NTSB, its final reports can be weirdly tautological. If a plane has crashed on takeoff, the finding of probable cause may talk about the "pilot's failure to maintain proper terrain clearance." When it eventually reports on this Hudson crash, the conclusions will probably include both pilots' "failure to maintain proper separation from other traffic." Still, it does careful, exhaustive work, and its reports end up containing as many crucial facts as can be found.

    **Why is a pilot talking with controllers at all, if he is flying VFR? There's a very long answer, but the short version is: at airports with control towers and in certain categories of airspace, a pilot must be in radio contact with air traffic control and obey their instructions -- even if operating VFR. So even if this pilot was planning a VFR trip out of New York, which meant that he would choose his own course after he got away from the city and would be responsible for seeing and avoiding other planes,  he needed to talk with controllers in these early stages of the flight.

  • 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.

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