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.
  • Cornucopia of updates #6: a theory on AF 447

    This recent post and preceding items mention the still-ambiguous mix of data concerning the crash of Air France 447 into the Atlantic six weeks ago. The plane's presence in a tropical thunderstorm was almost certainly the trigger for the problems. And what happened then?

    From a reader involved in aviation, a hypothesis that it was a thunderstorm -> pitot tube -> autopilot -> rudder chain of events. Almost all airline disasters involve an "accident chain," a sequence of cascading failures that, if interrupted at any point, would not have led to a crash. In this view:

    1. The plane got into a thunderstorm, where the updrafts and downdrafts are extremely powerful and where unusual conditions apply -- including the possibility of the plane being covered with ice;

    2. Storm-related ice may have blocked the pitot tubes -- small probe devices that measure the force of the oncoming air. When compared with other data, pitot data lets the pilot derive the plane's airspeed. If the small openings at the front of the pitot tubes are blocked by ice or anything else, the pilots don't know the plane's speed, which is the most important single piece of info for keeping an airplane under control;

    3. When the sophisticated, computerized, highly-redundant autopilot system detected bad readings from the pitot tubes -- or readings from some of the tubes that differed from the others -- it disconnected the autopilot and returned control to the captain. This is a safety measure to prevent an automated system from following bad data all the way to the ground;

    4. When the human pilot took over, the absence of the autopilot gave him full control over the airplane's rudder. The autopilot and computerized guidance system included a "yaw damper," which limited sudden or severe movements of the rudder (which place strain on an airplane's tail);

    5. While in the storm under manual control, the violent forces on the plane and perhaps movements of the rudder may have broken off the tail and sent the airplane down.

    Pitot tube, on the underside of a plane's wing, pointed forward:
    Pitot.jpg

    As the reader sums up the sequence:

    My personal opinion about what happened is as follows - one or both pitot tubes iced over, which means that the air data computers are getting airspeed indications more than 5 knots apart.  In that case, the autopilots disconnect, and the aircraft reverts to basic flight mode - which may be thought of as a limp mode - and among other things the yaw damper is turned off.  Now the pilot has full rate authority on the rudder and the stab.  The airbus has a known weak tail [he cites this Wikipedia entry about the crash of American Airlines flight 587] -- they got into some turbulence and it broke off.  the airplane tumbled and came apart... which explains no mayday call and the diagnostic message about loss of cabin pressure.


    I note with interest that the rudder on both 447 and AA 587 were both found intact. 

    After the jump, a note from an Airbus pilot who, on a very recent flight in Asia, reported problems that would exactly match this hypothesis for the Air France crash.

    _____


    Note from an Airbus captain. I have removed various identifying details:

    Yesterday while coming up from XXX to YYY [two major cities in Asia], a 4hr. flight, we experienced the same problems Air France 447 had while flying thru bad weather.

    I have a link to the failures that occurred on AF 447. [It is here -- in a mixture of French and computer code.] My list [of things that went wrong on the flight] is almost the same.

    The problem I suspect is the pitot tubes ice over and you loose your airspeed indication along with the auto pilot, auto throttles and rudder limit protection. The rudder limit protection keeps you from over stressing the rudder at high speed.

    Synopsis;

    [Precise time and location info omitted.]

    FL390 ["Flight Level 390," or 39,000 feet], mostly clear with occasional isolated areas of rain, clouds tops about FL410. Outside air temperature was -50C TAT -21C (your not supposed to get liquid water at these temps). We did. [TAT = "total air temperature," a figure used in calculating air speed.]

    As we were following other aircraft along our route. We approached a large area of rain below us. Tilting the weather radar down we could see the heavy rain below, displayed in red. At our altitude the radar indicated green or light precipitation, most likely ice crystals we thought.

    Entering the cloud tops we experienced just light to moderate turbulence. (The winds were around 30kts at altitude.) After about 15 sec. we encountered moderate rain. We thought it odd to have rain streaming up the windshield at this altitude and the sound of the plane getting pelted like an aluminum garage door. It got very warm and humid in the cockpit all of a sudden.

    Five seconds later the Captain's, First Officer's, and standby airspeed indicators rolled back to 60kts.[Showing that the pitot tubes were blocked.] The auto pilot and auto throttles disengaged. The Master Warning and Master Caution flashed, and the sounds of chirps and clicks letting us know these things were happening.

    The Capt. hand flew the plane on the shortest vector out of the rain. The airspeed indicators briefly came back but failed again. The failure lasted for THREE minutes. We flew the recommended 83%N1 power setting. When the airspeed indicators came back we were within 5 knots of our desired speed. Everything returned to normal except for the computer logic controlling the plane. (We were in alternate law ["alternate law" = flying manually, without autopilot] for the rest of the flight.)

    We had good conditions for the failure; daylight, we were rested, relatively small area, and light turbulence. I think it could have been much worse. The captain did a great job flying and staying cool. We did our procedures called dispatch and maintenance on the SAT COM [satellite phone] and landed in YYY. That's it.

    More »

  • Cornucopia of updates #5: Frank Gehry

    In two recent entries, here and here, I mentioned my chagrin at the architect Frank Gehry's haughty dismissal of a persistent questioner at the Aspen Ideas Festival -- and Gehry's subsequent very gracious apology.

    Both were about the manner of the event -- not the substance of the disagreement, which concerned whether "iconic" buildings like many of Gehry's famous buildings also succeeded as attractive, accessible public spaces. The questioner said they didn't; Gehry said they did.

    I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now. I will say that the "fairly insistent" questioner I described as challenging Gehry has been identified on various web sites as Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. (I know that's who he is, but I didn't originally use his name.) I heard him speak at the Aspen festival several years ago; he is a known figure in the field. And for a statement of the argument he was making against Gehry, see two posts, here and here, from David Sucher's City Comforts site. More when I know more.

  • Cornucopia of updates #4: Xinjiang

    Following this selection yesterday of pictures of Uighur students in Xinjiang.

    - On why this eruption, violent as it and its suppression have been, is unlikely to shake the government's control of or support in China, my friend Russell Leigh Moses of Beijing, in this op-ed in the NYT today, makes the right points and presents a convincing argument. Gist:

    "The state apparatus has become dizzy with success in dealing with unrest. This gives little hope that further mass outbreaks will not be violently crushed. It also demonstrates that social upheaval will not pave the way to democracy. The party is too strong and confident to allow change from below."

    The contrast between the Chinese state's continued ineptness in appealing to international opinion and its very effective control of opinion and knowledge within China is worth remembering at all times, and especially during crises like this. From the outside, these may look like challenges to the survival of the regime. From the inside, to most people in China, they're new occasions for national fortitude and solidarity.

    - On the roots of the conflict, Glenn Mott of the Hearst Corporation (also a friend), who has been in Beijing as a Fulbright lecturer at Tsinghua University, sends this report:

    "What we saw this week should be familiar to us as Americans. This was a race riot, not a political insurrection. It is what a young Chinese engineer I had lunch with today called an ethnic "brawl" with Uighurs and Hans throwing rocks over the heads of police in between. We should notice there is progress at the central government level--foreign journalists are in fact being given some access to Urumqi--though social networks have been cut, and Xinhua is carefully editing for fullest grim effect on the Eastern Chinese psyche.

    "But with no public space in the media to cultivate a civil society, to debate and discuss grievances, and none on the horizon, the Han and Uighur of Xinjiang are caught in a hopeless deficit for information about each other's grievances. This is the same all over China (between developers and farmers, and between local government and petitioners, for instance) lacking a public space for civil discourse, lacking rule of law, lacking release and resolution except in private conversations and ultimately, into the streets they go."

    He attached a recent photo of the storied Uighur trading city of Kashgar, which is being razed so it can be rebuilt in a "safer" way.
     
    Kashgar.jpg


    - On fiction-list suggestions, I have mentioned many times this past year a spy-thriller novel by the British writer Charles Cumming, called Typhoon. It is about a Uighur uprising in Xinjiang -- in the novel's case, abetted by outside agents. I will have serious/non-fiction reading tips later, but this is the most relevant thriller.

    - On general introduction to the Uighurs and their situation, this brief video by the Stanley Foundation has a lot of useful information, including an interview with Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur emigree blamed by the Chinese government for much of the upheaval. It also includes an interview with a very tired-looking me after a trip to Xinjiang.

    - On America's stake in Xinjiang, it is a lasting error and embarrassment that after 9/11 the U.S. won Chinese government support by agreeing that Uighur separatists -- formally, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization -- should be seen as part of the world terrorist threat. After all, they are Muslims.

  • Cornucopia of updates #3: AF 447

    Yesterday I mentioned that (unsurprisingly) there was not yet any definitive word on the cause of the Air France flight 447 crash over the Atlantic off Brazil. It turns out that there has been this recent interim report from the French BEA, Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses, about the basic facts of the disaster. Link is to a 72-page PDF in English. Nothing definitive, but this passage from the "Initial Findings" section reinforces previous hypotheses. For aviation and disaster buffs, lots of interesting detail. (Thanks to Neil Gordon.)

    AFReport.jpg

  • Cornucopia of updates #2: Robert McNamara

    I mentioned yesterday that, while having followed Robert McNamara's decisions and legacy for many decades, I had never dealt with him personally. Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe, who wrote the paper's obituary of McNamara two days ago, sent this recollection of his own encounters:

    I briefly interviewed him on the phone, twice, the first time in regards to "The Fog of War." The most amusing thing about that conversation was how flabbergasted he was by the price of movie tickets. The fact he wasn't trying to be funny made it all the more amusing.

    My most memorable McNamara experience didn't involve direct contact. This would have been the summer of 1978 [when Feeney was in college] on Martha's Vineyard. I was standing on the main street in Edgartown with a couple of friends, and there was a car waiting at a stop sign. I don't recall if I recognized that the driver was McNamara or only realized that's who it was after hearing the question I'm about to relate. It came from a middle-aged white guy (clearly not a summer resident) standing by the car. "Hey, are you Secretary McNamara?" he asked through the open passenger-side window. Before there was an answer, the man added, "You're one of my heroes. Let me shake your hand." He then reached in and shook hands with McNamara.

    What made the scene so memorable was McNamara's response. He visibly flinched; his face just collapsed. It was horrible to see. One could easily imagine numerous similar confrontations--few, if any, ending so cordially. Here was someone who, a decade and a half earlier, had been one of the three or four most powerful men in the world reduced to fleeting agony by an innocuous question. Brief though the moment was, I've never forgotten it.

    I can't imagine Donald Rumsfeld either being so publicly available or responding in such a way. Neither fact speaks well of the man.

    The last point bears emphasis, and is one I wish I'd made yesterday. If we thought that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or for that matter George W. Bush would eventually reflect as deeply on the consequences of their decisions as Robert McNamara clearly did, they would deserve the respect for moral seriousness that the McNamara of "The Fog of War" era had clearly earned. My guess is that, Nixon-like, all of them (and certainly Cheney and Rumsfeld) instead scorn McNamara for giving in to doubts and doubters.

  • Cornucopia of updates #1: "regreening"

    Last week I mentioned the impressive and even (somewhat) encouraging presentation by Thomas Lovejoy and David Hayes at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on the topic of "regreening." Their argument was that the earth's own natural biological processes could do a lot more to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, if forests, wetlands, agricultural areas, and even deserts were protected and managed in a different way.

    Via Lovejoy, here is a link to the PDF of a new 68-page report from the UN Environment Programme (sic), that goes into the hows, whys, and at-what-costs of "biosequestration" -- that is, improving the natural ecosystem's ability to absorb carbon. Interesting and worth reading, and again at least somewhat encouraging. Its exec-summary begins this way:

    UNEP.jpg

    After the jump, a reader's response on the importance of having people like David Hayes inside the federal government. (He is now the #2 official at the Department of Interior.) We take our encouragement where we can find it.
    ___

    A reader writes:

    Your report on a seminar at the Ideas Festival in which David Hayes, a bio-diversity expert recently named #2 at Interior, announced his plans to explore how the 20% of US land that Interior owns can be better used for carbon absorption, is interesting in several ways. Too many people left-of-center have a fuzzy idea about political power and how it's used. Seeding people like Hayes at Interior and Steven Chu at Energy is the first step in re-directing two departments that have been driven by industry priorities for decades towards a new, public agenda.  

    These type of appointments are unprecedented.  They put power into the hands of experts instead of bureaucratic hacks by means of political payback.  They ensure that billions of dollars in federal research money start flowing towards alternative energy and environmental protection, the quicker the better, so they can take root and outlast Obama.  [As the appointees and policies put in place under Ronald Reagan, GW Bush, etc outlasted them -- jf]

    Compare that to 'cap-and-trade' legislation, a huge, complicated system conceived as an more business-friendly alternative to 'command' regulation during the last two administrations  So much attention, so many trade-offs, so much political capital spent.  On a strictly defensive play. Yet even its supporters call the legislation weak and disappointing....

    What has changed under this Administration?  The whole orientation is no longer 'how do we restrict this process and that contaminant.'  That's defensive. Now it's where do we put the money to make restrictive regulation obsolete.

    That no-turning-back change in priority could only be delivered now, in the 21st century, as the entire world order is under strain, by an administration with enough vision to know the time is ripe, and is brash enough to grab it.  This Administration has an instinct for power and knows how to use it.

    Not a moment too soon.  China is determined to use this recession to re-evaluate its manufacturing with a goal to leap forward in technology.  Already it is testing two types of 'clean coal' technology.  China will never sign a Kyoto-type treaty.  But if China continues to blend environmental innovation with its basic industrialization, in 50 years it might not just dominate the world economy but may have the bluest skies on earth.

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  • Uighur faces

    Tomorrow, more on the substance of the racial violence in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in northwest China. For the moment, small glimpses of what some people there look like.

    Three of the students below are ethnic Uighurs -- ethnically Central Asian, generally Muslim, raised speaking a Turkic language rather than Mandarin -- on the first day of class in the fall of 2007 at 新疆大学, Xinjiang University in Urumqi. They had come from remote parts of Xinjiang and, when my wife and I saw them, were buying "Mandarin as second language" textbooks in the university book store. The man on the right of the picture, a Han Chinese, was their teacher.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3157-1.jpg

    The Uighur father on the right below, who wore the same expression of wistful pride my wife and I did when we took our children to college, had come a long distance from the countryside to bring his daughter, on the left, for her first day at the big-city university. He is holding the math and Mandarin textbooks he has just bought for her.
     
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3146A.jpg

    The racial tension was palpable when we traveled around Xinjiang. More on the consequences soon. After the jump, several other pictures from Xinjiang U.

    A rec area between class buildings:
     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3113.jpg

    More class buildings, for your "China is taking over the world" file:
     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3116A-1.jpg

    Similarly, a main pathway between classes:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3112A-1.jpg

    "Xinjiang University" in biggest characters right above the English letters. Description of the department in English letters, Chinese characters, and Uighur script:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3143.jpg

    A main entrance:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3119-1.jpg

    New students, fresh from the bookstore:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3151-1.jpg

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  • An email from Frank Gehry

    Last week I mentioned my surprise at what I considered a high-handed performance by Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when he dismissively shooed away a questioner whose line of persistent inquiry he didn't like.

    Just now, I was at least as surprised to see in the email inbox a message from Frank Gehry, which with his permission I quote below:

    Dear Mr. Fallows -

    Fair enough - your impression.  I have a few lame excuses.  One is that I'm eighty and I get freaked out with petty annoyances more than I ever did when I was younger.  Two, I didn't really want to be there - I got caught in it by friends.  And three - I do get questions like that and this guy seemed intent on getting himself a pulpit.   I think I gave him an opportunity to be specific about his critique.  Turns out that he followed Tommy Pritzker [the moderator of Gehry's session] around the next day and badgered him about the same issues.  His arguments, according to Tommy, didn't hold much water.  I think what annoyed me most was that he was marketing himself at everyone's expense.  I apologize for offending you.  Thanks for telling me.

    Best Regards,

    Frank Gehry

    To state the obvious, this reply is classy in the extreme and makes me feel better in many ways. As coda to this episode, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, below. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

    WaltDisneyConcertHall Wikipedia.jpg


  • On Robert S. McNamara

    1) I never had any kind of in-person discussion with him. The closest I came was during the Vietnam era, when he was making what he thought would be a routine visit to Harvard -- and to his enormous surprise was engulfed by seas of protestors who immobilized his car and yelled "Murderer!" at him. I was a newly arrived freshman and was walking down to sports practice when I found the street full of people and police surrounding a big black limo. Thirty years later, I ended up sitting next to McNamara on a DC subway car and decided not to say anything.

    2) I know some of his relatives and in-laws. They loved and also respected him, and I am sorry for the loss of their father and grandfather.

    3) In 1995, when McNamara published his In Retrospect memoir of the Vietnam War, I reacted very harshly in an NPR commentary. My argument was that he had missed his chance for a respectful hearing for his admission that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. If he hadn't done anything about that war when it could have made a difference, then there was no reason to, in effect, ask for public sympathy and understanding for his belated recognition of error. (Quotes after the jump.)

    My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that's just because I'm older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris' remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.

    4) In an interview with Sam Stein of Huffington Post, Errol Morris talks about McNamara's moral seriousness and Morris' ultimate respect and sympathy for him. He also echoes the main grounds of my attack on McNamara from the time In Retrospect was published:

    "I share one thing with McNamara's critics. As a friend of mine said to me, I can forgive him for Vietnam. I can forgive him for this. I can forgive him for that. But I can never forgive him for not speaking up about the war in the years following his resignation as defense secretary. I kind of agree that was his most significant failing."

    5) The greatest defense of McNamara's life and works will, I suspect, rest not on his poverty-alleviation projects as head of the World Bank but instead on his consistent efforts, from the Kennedy administration onward, to reduce the risk of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons. This included his role during the most dangerous moment of of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.*  

    6) Among many reasons to mourn David Halberstam's death in a traffic accident two years ago is the loss of the opportunity to hear his retrospect on McNamara. In The Best and the Brightest Halberstam wrote the passage that framed understanding of McNamara for years to come, which wound up this way:

    He did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.

    7) Among many reasons to be grateful for Walter Pincus' continued presence at the Washington Post is this appreciation of his friend McNamara.

    * Update: In Slate, Fred Kaplan presents the evidence that McNamara actually took a more bellicose stance during the Cuban Missile Crisis than he later claimed.
     
    RIP -- a more freighted wish than in most cases, given McNamara's troubled recent decades. Harsh passages after the jump.
    ___

    From NPR commentary, "Too Late to Say You're Sorry," April 11, 1995.

    By the time he left in 1968, McNamara knew the war to be unwinnable - he now says. But he did not speak up in 1969, as Richard Nixon prepared for four more years of combat; or in 1975, after America's humiliating exit from Saigon; or through the 1970s, when Vietnam veterans were being reviled; or through the 1980s, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was being built and campaigns for reconciliation were underway. He remained silent in 1988 and 1992, when first Dan Quayle and then Bill Clinton were raked-over for having avoided combat at a time when McNamara believed - secretly - that combat was futile.

    At any of those moments McNamara could have helped his country - saving lives, reducing recriminations - by saying that he had changed his famously powerful mind about Vietnam. And at every moment he failed to speak....


    In the cycles of life, the desire to square accounts is natural, but Robert McNamara has forfeited his right to do so in public. You missed your chance, Mr. Secretary. It would have been better to go out silently, if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good.


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  • Preventing the next AF 447-style crash

    Unless I've missed it in my time away from the internets, no one yet knows exactly what happened to Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean six weeks ago. But whatever went wrong, the problems were almost certainly related to the plane's having flown into the middle of a powerful thunderstorm. (As discussed here, here, here, and here, and illustrated by this match of the plane's route to reconstructed weather data.)
    Thumbnail image for WeatherAirFrance.jpg

    Why did the pilots find themselves (and their passengers) there? Mainly because NEXRAD-style displays like the one above simply don't exist in real time for weather over the oceans. They depend on readings from ground-based radar stations, which obviously are scarce in the open seas. As one correspondent pointed out in a previous post, "You know what we (meteorologists) call the oceanic regions? The big blue data void."

    Comes now NASA with a research project designed to "provide aircraft with updates about severe storms and turbulence as they fly across remote ocean regions." Further details here. Sounds good to me. For an idea of what the planes are hoping to avoid, via NASA here is an astronaut's view of a thunderstorm near Brazil.
    365724main_convection-STS-516.jpg
     
    Airline safety usually advances, as in this case, in a learning-from-the-latest-disaster fashion. Sounds like a good project to me.

  • One more viewing tip on the 'Chimerica' tape (updated)

    As a reminder: sooner or later the full video of the "Chimerica" discussion between Niall Ferguson and me, this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, will be posted at the Aspen site. (Previous mentions here and here.) If you see or read the full version, you will note that an absolutely fundamental premise in the argument (Ferguson's) for the inevitable collision of US and Chinese interests is that the Chinese leadership has recently lost all faith in the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar and is determined to move away from the dollar as an international currency.

    You will note too that statements by Chinese officials, taken strictly at face value, are the main pieces of evidence for this contention. In that regard, this latest statement by a senior Chinese official deserves notice: 
    ReutersDollar1.jpg
    ReutersDollar3.jpg
    --------
    My argument, as you'll see, is that China and the United States will continue to disagree over countless issues but are too thoroughly connected to be pushed by the current world economic crisis toward what Ferguson declares a "divorce." If a real separation occurs, it would probably be over Taiwan or some other non-routine-economic issue.

    Bear this statement from He Yafei (genuine influential official) in mind when you hear "academic discussions" about moves away from the dollar. And, as I've mentioned many times, if you're looking for an "academic" perspective on the Chinese economy and US-Chinese tensions that is based on its actual realities rather than sweeping generalizations, start here.
    ____
    UPDATE
    :  Thanks to Andy Rothman of CLSA in Shanghai for the reminder that one week ago, Zhou Xiaochuan, the People's Bank of China governor who touched off original speculation about China's move away from dollar holdings, declared that China would be making no sudden moves to change its currency holdings. Why this matters: the "impending breakup" thesis depends crucially on the idea that China is quickly and unstoppably undoing its links to the U.S. economy and U.S. holdings. 

    Zhou.jpg


  • More Chimerica, Ferguson, Fallows, Kaiser Wilhelm, etc

    Apparently it will still be a while until full videos of various Aspen Ideas Festival sessions go on line, as opposed to the selected clips now available (see the right side of this page). So because it may not be apparent from the short video of my discussion with Niall Ferguson, or from David Brooks' very fair-minded column about the discussion, or from my previous item on it, here is a little more about what was discussed and where I think the differences lay.

    1. The main part of my "side" of the argument that was necessarily left out of a 750-word summary of a 90-minute discussion, but that I've tried to express in all the articles I've written from China over the past three years, is that anything is possible when it comes to developments inside China and also relations between China and the outside world.
     
    For instance, when one questioner asked for "scenarios" about China's political evolution, Ferguson replied that "all my Chinese graduate students at Harvard" gave him the same scenario: that there was no huge appetite for a democratic shift in China now, economics came first, etc. I said that I could imagine countless possible scenarios: internal disaster because of environmental or other emergencies; another Tiananmen-like internal crackdown that alienated the outside world but reflected the government's belief that domestic control mattered more than outside approval; a nationalistic backlash triggered by something like last year's foreign protests against the Olympic torch relay; a Taiwan-related emergency; even rising middle-class pressure for democratic openings. Whatever. These are all conceivable. What seems to me most likely, however, is what we've seen since the early Clinton years: continued US-Chinese engagement in a deeply connected but often contentious way.

    This is in contrast to Ferguson's argument that the "Chimerica" bloc had been the indispensable basis of the world economy until recently, but now was headed for inevitable breakup because of economic troubles inside the US and political developments inside China.

    2. The specific part of Ferguson's view I most strongly resist is his assertion of close, cautionary parallels between Germany's rise in the years leading up to World War I and China's rise now.

    ErnestMay.jpg

    Historical patterns and analogies are obviously essential and instructive. But just as obviously, it's crucial to recognize the differences as well as the similarities in different stages of history. This was the central argument of the wonderful "Lessons" of the Past: Uses and Misuses of History in American Foreign Policy, by Ernest May, a favorite professor of mine in college and afterwards who sadly died this year. Another valuable work by another Harvard professor is Richard Neustadt's Thinking in Time: The Use of History by Decision-Makers. As May pointed out in his book, when LBJ and his confidants thought only of Munich, Chamberlain, and Hitler when hearing about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, they mis-assessed their adversaries and badly hurt themselves. We've seen the same mistake more recently in the pre-Iraq war assertions that because it was a mistake to delay a military confrontation with Hitler's Germany, the same principle applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

    A systematic examination of the similarities and differences between the Kaiser's Germany and Hu Jintao's China would be an interesting exercise. As I run through them informally, it strikes me that for every similarity (relatively rising economy, naval-force expansion) you can think of at least ten differences (scale, overall stage of economic development, geographical points of tension with existing powers, religion and ideology, recent military history, environmental and other possible constraints on growth, etc).

    The real point is: The fact that Germany's rise was followed by a disastrous-for-all-parties world war is worth remembering. But to assert that this means that China and America are necessarily or even probably headed for a showdown is just assertion.

    3. More than assertion, it is dangerous assertion. Even historians -- or especially historians -- recognize that world events are shaped in part by deep economic, demographic, and technical trends, but only in part. Real human beings make real decisions that have real effects. (Cf: LBJ in 1964, Bush-Cheney in 2001, JFK-Khrushchev in 1962, etc.) If we recognize that a collision with China is possible, but only one of several possibilities, then we act so as to reduce that possibility and increase the probability of better outcomes. If we think breakup is inevitable, as Ferguson is arguing, then the odds of a collision in fact occurring become higher than they would otherwise be. (Because each side interprets the other's moves in the darkest way and responds in kind.)

    4. As will be seen when the tape goes up, Ferguson's opening remarks included repeated references to what "the Chinese think" and "the Chinese want" and "the Chinese will demand." My opening comment was how treacherous it was to say that "the Chinese" do or think or want anything, since in practice the place often behaves like 20 separate countries and countless regional factions and many self-interested businesses and a billion-strong individuals. This is related to the previous point, in that any analysis that starts with the idea of one big, coherent Chinese entity is both more alarming than other understandings -- and, in my view, less realistic.

    5. Although I didn't address this part of Ferguson's analysis directly, he pointed out -- correctly -- that China's export machine has been profoundly affected by the collapse in surplus US demand. But Ferguson's conclusion, that this means the end of "Chimerica," seems to me far less convincing or nuanced than, say, the running analysis by Michael Pettis of Peking University. His web site is here; he was among the analysts I quoted in this article about what the economic downturn will mean for "Chimerica."

    There's more, but this will do till the tape appears!

  • Fifty-nine and a half minutes of brilliance, thirty seconds of hauteur

    This evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry talked about his life and works under the questioning of Thomas Pritzker.

    Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming. Over the years I've highly valued chances to hear people at the absolute top of their fields, to compare the experiences of hearing them speak about what they do. Some of them are as good to listen to as they had been to admire from afar. Others (often actors, athletes, visual artists) have no way of conveying in conversation what makes them so impressive in their own metier. Gehry is in the "good talker" category.

    Gehry.jpg

    (Photo of Frank Gehry by Trent Nelson of the Salt Lake Tribune)

    Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too.

    Gehry didn't like the question and said that the indictment didn't apply to his own buildings. He said that the facts would back him up --  and as the questioner repeated the challenge, Gehry said that he found the question "insulting."

    Fair enough. The guy did keep pushing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever appeared in public has encountered questions a hundred times as personally challenging as this.

    But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said -- and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior -- again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.

    I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.


  • Be sure to see this when it's posted: 'Feeding the World's Billions' panel

    Whenever the Aspen Ideas Festival posts full videos or transcripts of its panel events, be sure not to miss the session on global food supply that took place this morning. As measured by the ever-popular "how much more did I know at the end of the session, compared with what I knew at the start" metric, for me this was the most informative 75 minutes I've spent here so far.

    The panelists were: Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto -- whose company was, of course, a central villain of the Food Inc movie screened here earlier this week; Henrietta Fore, former administrator of USAID; Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, with experience in market-based and supply-chain efforts at conservation; and David Tilman, a biology/ecology expert from the University of Minnesota.

    The benefit of the panel was the combination of alarming facts and specific solution-possibilities. Sample alarming fact: if the world population eventually tops out at 9.5 billion, 50% more than now, total food production will probably have to grow by 200%, as people eat higher up the food chain and demand more and more meat. The challenge, as several panelists put it, was to produce three times as much food on no more than the current amount of agricultural land. (About why it won't just work to cut down all remaining forests to grow food, see here.)

    Sample specific solution-possibilities, or at least interesting facts: Average yields in U.S. farms are roughly three times as high as the overall average for Mexico, India, and Brazil. If those countries got to even two-thirds of the US level, it would make a huge difference in closing the "grain gap." Also: a huge share of the world's food output is wasted -- in the developing world because it rots and spoils before it can get to market, and in the US to a significant degree because of restaurant waste. Thus easy opportunities for gain. Surprising facts about animal efficiency: if it takes 2.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of chicken, and 5 pounds to produce a pound of pork, and up to 10 pounds to produce a pound of grain-fed beef, it can take less than a pound of grain feed to produce a pound of tilapia fish. "It's all about buoyancy," one of the panelists said.  I may be hazy on a few of the details here, but the general points are right.

    There was a whole lot more -- I was taking notes the whole time, while I was supposed to be moderating. Also, Hugh Grant on Monsanto manfully answered questions about the Food. Inc. movie at the start of the session. Really, an exceptional discussion: check it out when available.

  • Fallows v Ferguson at Aspen (updated)

    David Brooks' column in the NYT this morning describes a discussion I had with Niall Ferguson, of "Chimerica," two days ago at Aspen. In its brief space the column gives a fair sampling of the terms of argument and tone of the discussion. A video of the thing itself is here, as part of the Ideas Festival's video archive. Right at the moment, the video doesn't load for me, but I assume that's a temporary glitch.

    For now, I'll say that the discussion speaks for itself -- and perhaps that it may also illustrate two different ways of approaching and assessing evidence, and two different styles of presentation and argument. My experience in graduate school in England makes me think that among other things we might be seeing here a comparison of two national styles of discourse, Oxford-style debate versus Yank-style. But probably it's just the difference between two individuals.

    UPDATE: At the moment I am not at a computer that will load the video of the session. But I hear from my trusty correspondents that, rather than being the whole hour-plus discussion, it's actually a 3:41 clip. The contentious part, as described in David Brooks' column, begins at about 2:30. FWIW.

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