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.
  • Are we fat?

    Assents, dissents, and elaborations -- well, actually no assents -- to these two earlier comments that I have not noticed the American obesity epidemic as much as I expected, after a few years away.

    "You need to get out more."
    A note representative of many I received:

    "You are in Washington.  Too many urbanites who buck the trend.  Spend a week off the coast - In Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis especially in the suburbs and you will see it."

    Ripple Effects:

    "Your comment about not seeing as many obese Americans as you expected to has prompted me to write. I teach product design in the college of engineering at [a major public university in the Midwest], and am currently working on a project to help the hospital technicians who do X rays, sonograms, CT scans, etc. It turns out that many of these folks suffer quite serious injuries at work, and by far the major cause of these injuries is the obese patients they deal with on a daily basis.

    "It appears that most of these technicians are women who are often required to move patients who outweigh them by several hundred pounds. In fact, one of the techs we interviewed in our study pointed out that when she performs vaginal sonograms on very large women, each of the patient's legs often weighs more than she does. I've often read articles about the growing obesity problem in the US, but I've never come across anything concerning this large and growing problem, if you'll pardon the pun. 

    "I find myself wondering, when I read about the growing cost of obesity in the US health system, if anyone is looking at the cost of injuries to the people who are responsible for treating these folks?"

    More refined view of the regional difference:

    "My personal, unscientific evaluation of obesity is that it's lower in big cities than small.  I live in Chicago, but have friends and family throughout the Midwest.  My impression is that I see more "volume abundant" people in the smaller and rural towns.  A little Googling gave that a bit of support, but it is related to property values:  titled "Zip Codes And Property Values Predict Obesity Rates."  I don't know where you were making your observations, but that may be a big contributor.

    More »

  • Airplane noise, senior-citizen driving: replacements for frogs

    Suggestions on replacements for the boiled-frog metaphor:

    "The cat litter box is a good substitute and there are plenty of similar examples if one considers sounds. A succinct example of this is from the movie the Blues Brothers. After Elwood picks up Jake from prison, they go to Jake's apartment in Chicago. Right after an El train rattles by, Jake asks Ellwood, "How often do the trains come by?". Jake responds, "So often, you don't even notice."

    "A similar situation occurred with my grandmother. She and her husband bought a house near LAX in the 50s, when I'm sure the occasional airplane flying over was a pleasant distraction. At the time of her death in the 90s, LAX had 4 runways and their house was bombarded by the noise from constant aircraft that seemed to be flying just a few feet overhead. Anyone walking into her house would have wondered why the TV was so loud, until the next takeoff or landing occurred.

    "Two more frog equivalences. Ever work on another person's computer and find that it operates brutally slowly? No one ever seems to notice that almost day-by-day loss of performance themselves. Easy to understand, but I can't think of a catchy shorthand.

    "So finally, my nomination for the replacement, an old person driving. They never notice the degradation in their driving skills until some unsuspecting passenger or pedestrian has a (hopefully only) near death experience."

    More to come.

  • America's newest shortage: the obese

    In response to my observation that I hadn't encountered as many very heavy Americans as I thought I would on return from three years away:

    "My wife (who is Australian and green card-holding) and I ( who was born in England but am now naturalized) were married this summer in Washington DC. Naturally her Australian family and some English relations of mine came to the wedding; for all of them it was their first time in the States and they combined their trip to DC with the usual American tourist visits (Disneyland, NYC, etc). On separate occasions both the Australians and the English said to me more or less what you wrote: "There are not as many fat people here as we expected".

    "As far as I understand it the rest of the Anglophone world is not so far behind the US in terms of obesity rates so maybe their stereotypes about America haven't caught up with the new, fatter reality in their own countries..."
  • Once and for all with the frogs

    Now that varied components of the online world are bearing down on the boiled-frog problem (Glenn Beck; Andrew Sullivan; Kevin Drum; the ever-useful Linguistics Log etc), here is the state of play:

    1) Consensus that real frogs don't actually do what the cliche (and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and countless others) say they do. Consensus unfortunately has not reached the otherwise- beyond-reproach Tom Toles of the WaPo, whose cartoon today is:

    2) Consensus that one kind of frog actually does behave this way: these are frogs with their brains removed. Details here. Thanks to Michael Jones for the science on this one, and congrats to Joe Romm for putting the revised image to use.

    3) Consensus that the metaphor itself is useful. See here and here.

    4) Allegations that there are no substitutes. OK, here's one, as mentioned early this year: the "cat lady" litterbox problem. You have cats in the house (I speak as a cat fan*) and you don't notice the mounting smell. Then someone walks in the door, involuntarily steps back, and says, "My God! What is that reek?" Here is the classic formulation, as laid out by Don Rose here, regarding the Gov. Blago scandal:

    "Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    "I tell them about my cat litter box.

    "Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    "They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest."

    And I bet we could even work in some slippery-slope reasoning here!

    So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true -- and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.


    *On the cat-fancier theme: to demonstrate that I am a friend of all animals involved in these image controversies, the hapless frogs as well as the reeking cats, herewith a photo of the now quite elderly Mike the Cat, in his prime. He has been in loving adopted care, since our departure for China. Then and now, no odor came from his litterbox -- according to us.


  • A few more random return-to-the-homeland notes

    I will never do this systematically, so I'll keep jotting them down at random. As I repatriate, I notice:

    - Not as many very fat large Americans as I was expecting. Am I looking in the wrong places? So propagandized into thinking that all of my countrymen are obese that expectations are off? Something gone wrong with my visual judgment? Something gone right with public health? I don't know. Just telling you what I have (not) seen.

    - In a number of airports the past few days. I can't help noticing the moronic, utterly rote and meaningless announcements that begin, "The Department of Homeland Security has determined that the threat level is Orange. Please be alert..." The way you can tell that I'm still not fully acclimated is that I notice the announcements at all. For everyone else, they are 100% white noise. Is there a stupider aspect of national policy at the moment than these formulaic "threat level" announcements, which are always orange and which give no useful info whatsoever? Okay, I'm sure there's something stupider, but for rhetorical purposes I'll say that I can't think of one right now.


    - When I am king: I will outlaw "wheelie"- style rollable bags for carry-on luggage. Wheels and a handle on a big, heavy suitcase meant to be checked? Perfectly reasonable. But if you're going to carry something onto the plane, the law should require you actually to carry the thing, all the way to your seat. Why do I care? The wheelie triples or quadruples the floor space occupied by any one person, and the people tugging them don't look behind. I get my revenge by kicking the bags as they're being dragged across my path and tripping me. Then I act like it was an "accident."

    - But even before that I will outlaw: leafblowers. God in heaven, do I hate that noise. Unfortunately, the neighborhood abounds in households that love hiring crews for the all-out leafblower experience -- they stagger their days, so it happens pretty much nonstop. I realize that the Beijing approach (below) is probably not practical in the U.S. But, hey, I actually have used a rake in my time. Part of the new Clean Energy policy for America?


    As is obvious, I'm auditioning for Andy Rooney's role as public crank.
  • About those Chinese tires

    I keep putting this off, so before it finally disappears into the mists of time, here is a bullet-point summary of what I would have said at greater length when the Chinese tire tariff first arose.

    1) There is not now, and there never was, a serious possibility that this would escalate into some sweeping, self-intensifying, global-recovery-threatening "trade war."  The many publications and commentators who raised their hands in "Oh no! It's Smoot Hawley again!" horror need to calm down -- and to have their tendency toward over-reaction noted for the record. Yes, I'm talking about you, Economist magazine cover-designers (last week's cover image, below), but you had tons of company.

    There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute -- contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the  boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

    2) Larger point about the nature of this reaction, by analogy to Al Sharpton. Not to pick on him, but why did Sharpton's reputation as a careful, precise commentator on national affairs suffer during the 1980s? Especially after the unfortunate Brawley case? I would say it was the magical combination of predictability, exaggeration, and tendentiousness. His reaction to any news event was predictable (it was always about racism); it was exaggerated (it was always really terrible racism); and it was tendentious, in being uninterested in the details of the specific case. On the other hand, he was witty! I often think of the bad, non-witty side of the Sharpton of that era when I see the mainstream reaction to any trade dispute. It's predictable (oh no! Trade war!); exaggerated (oh no! Smoot Hawley!); and tendentious, in not being interested in any contextual point other than the evils of unions and protectionism.

    3) What's the context that does matter? Usefully, two people with whom I often disagree on trade questions -- the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, and Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post -- have both pointed out that there is a more important issue here than whether one agrees on the merits of the tire decision. They both criticize the decision  -- but as the headline on Samuelson's column puts it, "Bad Policy, Right Message." (My own view would be: Maybe bad policy, certainly right message.)

    The right message concerns the historic transformation of the Chinese economy that began a year ago, when demand from its biggest overseas customer, the United States, dried up all at once.  This story, which I wrote from China six months ago, discussed the magnitude of the adjustments China was trying to make -- and also emphasized the parallel that Michael Pettis, an economist at Peking University, drew between China's situation in 2009 and America's 80 years earlier. The details are laid out in that article, but the main point was this: Like America in the 1920s, China in the 2000s had been the dominant "global surplus" country, manufacturing and selling to everyone else and piling up big surpluses. When customers suddenly stopped buying -- America's because of the Great Depression, China's because of this recent freezeup -- the surplus countries lost disproportionately many jobs, because they'd had more than "their share" to begin with. That happened to America in the 1930s, and it is happening to China now.

    This kind of loss is painful for any country under any regime. In terms of human suffering, it's all the worse for China, since so many of the displaced workers are so hard-pressed to begin with. In the long run, everyone agrees that both the Chinese and the U.S. economies need serious adjustment: the US toward more savings and investment, China toward more domestic consumption and less reliance on export markets, so that its own, still-poor population can enjoy more of the fruits of their own labor. But in the short run, the adjustment is difficult -- for each country. And the drama that Pettis foresaw six months ago, and which provides the proper background to the tire dispute, is the Chinese government's (natural) attempt to resist the inevitable and keep its trade surplus up as long as it can.

    That's the significance of stories like this, which I've mentioned  (eg here and here) over the months.

    This is not at all a matter of "blaming" China. Moralizing has no place in these sorts of economic adjustments -- whether we're talking about the Chinese government's currency-management to keep the RMB's value artificially low (details here), or the US imposition of tire tariffs. The real question is how the economies can manage the complementary adjustments each of them has to make, with minimal damage to their own populations and to world business as a whole. These are big, woolly, complicated, world-historical processes underway. There are a lot of useful things to say about them -- not including "Oh no! Trade war!"

    Now I see why I put this off so long.

    More »

  • By popular demand: Volokh on frogs and slippery slopes

    Recently I made an oblique allusion (last line of this item) to an article by Eugene Volokh, of UCLA Law School, in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning.

    Apparently it was a little too oblique, so in response to a number of queries let me come right out and say: Eugene Volokh has written in defense of "slippery slope" reasoning here, in a Legal Affairs article with David Newman from 2003, and here or here, in versions of a Harvard Law Review article that same year. I think these pieces do a reasonable job of showing why the slippery slope may be useful as a legal concept, whether or not the phenomenon exists in the natural world.* (Sort of like the legal concept of the "reasonable man." Never mind, just a little joke.) Stay tuned for more reader nominees for most plausible real-world example.

    And while we're on the legal-concept theme -- ie, slippery slope as a rhetorical device, not a reality -- here's another related entry:

    "I think there are some good uses of slippery slope arguments. One example is the general constitutional idea of safe harbor, which I became acquainted with while reading the transcripts and decision in Reno v ACLU, where it became clear that the law was written in such a way that there were large number of sites which would not be considered to be pornographic under the normal understanding of pornography but which the statue would allow to be prosecuted. The prosecution (in Reno vs ACLU) essentially argued, "Oh, we don't intend to prosecute those cases" and the court in effect said, but the law doesn't allow anyone to be sure they are doing the right thing."

    Back to the search for real-world examples soon.
    * Volokh unfortunately lards his argument with specious boiled-frog references, but at least in the Harvard Law Review version he redeems himself by admitting -- as Paul Krugman recently did -- that he's referring only to fictional figure-of-speech frogs, since real ones would probably try to save themselves.

  • Two views of SECDEF Gates

    In response to this item yesterday, noting Robert Gates's mention of John Boyd as one of the "transformative figures of American air power," two reactions. The first is from a relatively recent product of the Air Force Academy (whom I don't know). The second is from a long-standing friend who is a quite experienced veteran of the defense business. First up:

    "I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002, and while I was there Boyd was taught in our Military Strategic Studies courses as though he was the latest in a line of military theorists that stretched from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mitchell, Liddell Hart, Boyd, and Warden.  In fact, Boyd's OODA loop was taught with such reverence that I distinctly remember making light of it with my classmates.
    "I am a few years to junior for such an assignment, but were I on the the staff of Secretary Gates assisting with the preparation of speeches, I would not have batted an eye at the inclusion of Boyd among that line up, and I doubt any officers from my cohort would either.  If anything, LeMay strikes me as out of place and far more controversial in today's Air Force."

    Now, from Charles A. Stevenson, a friend and former professor of mine who has written a book, SECDEF, about the "nearly impossible job" of running the Pentagon:

    "I share your surprise and satisfaction over the performance of Bob Gates...  I fully expected him to follow the Laird model: wind down the war in Iraq, cut deals with the senior military on other issues, end-run the White House types on issues that mattered to him. From his long government service and membership on the Iraq Study Group, that seemed likely. His appointment by Obama suggested that the new team liked his style and welcomed the political cover he provided as a Republican.

    "Now I think his closest model was the first SecDef Gates, Tom Gates, who had served several years in the Pentagon under Eisenhower before being elevated to SecDef.

    More »

  • I keep waiting for SECDEF Gates to do something really stupid ...

    ... and I'm sure his time will come. (Most likely occasion of error: Afghanistan.)

    But for the moment, he keeps offering surprises in the opposite direction. Including last week, with this speech to the Air Force Association convention, the ending of which is exemplary in two ways.

    For one thing, it ends with what used to be known in speechwriting land as an "ending," rather than the boilerplate that has become standard in presidential addresses. The ending is nothing special, but at least he tried. (And he didn't take a shortcut with "God bless the Air Force.")

    More important is this peroration, which starts with an appreciation of Billy Mitchell and goes on to say:

    "It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell and his travails was not that he was always right. It's that he had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed, understood the implications of that change, and then pressed ahead in the face of fierce institutional resistance.
    "     The transformative figures of American air power - from Mitchell to Arnold, LeMay to Boyd - had this quality in varying degrees. It is one I look for in the next generation of Air Force leaders, junior and mid-level officers, and NCOs who have experienced the grim reality of war and the demands of persistent conflict. These are men and women we need to retain and empower to shape the service to which they have given so much."

    Whoa! To have John Boyd -- fighter pilot, theorist of combat, unbelievably persistent thorn in the Air Force establishment's side from the late 1960s through his death a dozen years ago -- become part of an offhand, last-name-only allusion to the "transformative figures of American air power" is something like the moment when establishment economics began including "Keynes" in their list of major figures.* Gates had done homage to Boyd before, for instance as discussed here. But this is a further, interesting, and deserved step. The Gates-misstep watch perforce continues.
    * For as much more as you would like to know about John Boyd, you can follow the links in this previous item, or of course read Robert Coram's wonderful biography Boyd. On the Keynes comparison, I don't mean that Boyd ideas have affected as many people in as many countries through as many decades as Keynes's have; but the vindication of ideas previously considered total heresy is comparable.

  • I love this on so many levels

    It turns out that the "Chinese site" with dramatic photos of rehearsals for the 60th anniversary commemorations in Beijing on October 1, which I mentioned this morning, is a straight-ahead, flat-out, unblushing rip-off of this "The Big Picture" feature three days ago from the Boston Globe's site. I don't see any mention of the Globe on the Chinese site, either in English or what I think is the Chinese version (Boshidun Huanqiu - 波士顿 环球 ?).

    I should have guessed. (Why would a Chinese site have bothered to include translated English captions? Why was there a semi-edgy photo of a lone man and a tank?) My reflexes must be going. I'll have to re-sharpen them with a visit soon. Thanks to C. Wang and others for the heads-up. Apologies to the Globe.

  • Book list: Repeat After Me

    Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing -- a memoir of her unlikely career as a vampy soap opera star on Chinese TV in the 1990s -- is deservedly on the list of books that expats in China tell new arrivals they should read for a pop-culture feel of the place. My own reaction, when newly arrived, here.


    DeWoskin's new book, Repeat After Me, is different: novel rather than memoir, set half in New York and half in Beijing rather than all on-scene in China. But the voice and nervous/sassy sensibility are similar, and similarly memorable. When I was reading it this summer, I marked a few passages that made me miss Beijing (no small achievement, just after I'd left) or that rang particularly true. The book's not at hand at the moment, so I'll just say: a book worth finding out about for yourself.

  • The 60th anniversary celebration is almost here!

    From this Chinese site, with English translation, some appropriately amazing pictures of the preparations and practice runs for the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, on October 1. (Previous mention here.) A few samples:

    Nightime practice drill last month.

    Tank practice parade two days ago

    An unintentionally evocative picture of a lone man and a tank.

    And a photo of a women's militia unit that is more in the spirit of the way I usually saw soldiers (and people in general) carrying themselves in China.

    This should be interesting. Very sorry I won't be there to see it in person. (Thanks to various readers in China.)
  • More slippery slopes

    This is not the only subject on my mind at the moment (eg, the Redskins' unimpressive victory over the Rams just now, Barack Obama's more impressive TV fandango this morning, the ever-interesting Chinese tire tariff question, etc)  but it's the one with the biggest backlog of worthwhile incoming material. From reader BJ in Florida:

    "Three thoughts on your "slippery slope" dialogue:

    "1) As your reader Webster Marquez hinted, the frequency of a slippery slope argument actually bearing out seems to be quite rare. In fact, if a scientist or statistician was looking at this question, it seems to me that they would be comparing the number of times that a "slippery slope" argument did NOT bear out, versus the number of times that one actually DID bear out. When looked at this way, history is seemingly littered with thousands of failed "slippery slope" arguments, versus a precious few arguments that may have been considered true.
    "2) One good, general recurring slippery slope argument may be the drawing of colonial boundaries that ignored the indigenous geography of ethnicity, language, culture, religion, etc. Once formalized, the results appear to inevitably be tragic whether it's Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, etc.
    "3) I'm almost ashamed of myself for suggesting the following, but not ashamed enough...If there was ever a valid "slippery slope" in politics (albeit not policy-related), it surely must be (literally and figuratively) the initiation of an extramarital sexual relationship. Once that "little step" is taken, the results are almost universally predictable:

    More »


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