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.
  • Remaining holiday-festival updates, #9 - 999, all in one place

    Labor Day weekend has, sigh, reached its close, and with it the feeling of summer. To clear out the list of update topics for this weekend-long festival:

    - #9 Striking gold in China. I mentioned previously my skeptical response to the story of Americans showing up in China and suddenly finding great jobs. Seems that this was pretty much the response by the expat community in China too. See this and this from last month -- plus after the jump, a reply today from someone who showed up a year ago in China and has put the  "Chinese streets are paved with gold" hypothesis to the test.

    - #10 Is China (unfortunately) starting to learn from the TSA? Secondly after the jump, an account of a new wrinkle in Chinese airport security: having passengers take off their shoes, just like in the U.S.  Not sure whether this is a local aberration or the beginning of a new policy.

    - #999
    President Obama speaks to the schoolchildren. I was all in favor of this earnest buckle-down, back-to-school pitch until I saw the way the presentation ended. Sigh. And that brings us to the end of this holiday weekend special!

    More »

  • Festival of updates #8: Chinese/US attitudes on race, flu

    These are both big, complicated topics, but to catch up on recent developments in each:

    - I mentioned many times last year that there seemed to be less excitement about Barack Obama's rise in China than in, say, Europe or Africa, and that this was due at least partly to racial attitudes.* Many Chinese people with experience in America appreciate the centrality of black-white relations in the story of America's development. For instance, in a profile of Gao Xiqing, who directs the Chinese government's vast investments in the U.S., I mentioned that he has a small portrait of Martin Luther King over his desk in Beijing. (Gao went to law school at Duke.) But in my experience, many ordinary people with little exposure outside China freely expressed anti-black racial attitudes. During the 2008 primary season, this turned up as a kind of puzzlement about whether a black candidate could plausibly have the skill, sophistication, knowledge, work habits, etc to stand up to veteran opponents like Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

    That's the context in which to read the stories about the hard times faced by a (beautiful) young Chinese model-aspirant whose mother is a Han Chinese from Shanghai and whose father was a black American. The girl, Lou Jing, is at right, and her mother at center in this picture:

    Stories from last week here, in the Straits Times in Singapore (thanks, C. Tan), and from the Shanghaiist site here. A summary (in English) of some of the harsh Chinese on-line chatter at this site, which was also the source of the picture. Discussion of parallel situations in Korea here. The ChinaSmack site, which translates a lot of blog material into English, is said to have a discussion here, but for whatever reason I can't get it to load.

    UPDATE: The China Smack link did finally come up, which has a lot of trenchant material, including what is claimed to be a statement by Lou Jing herself, plus this additional and additionally charming photo:

    To be clear about the context: this is not a "blame China" episode but rather one of many illustrations of the differences in day by day social realities and perceived versus ignored sources of tension in particular societies. That's all to say about it for now.

    - In the same "varying realities" vein, I mentioned repeatedly through this spring how H1N1/swine flu was being taken as a huge public-health emergency in China, leading to extraordinary gestures of what most foreigners considered heavy-handed security-theater. But inside China, the prevalent perception was that the government was taking all necessary and proper steps -- while the US was being self-indulgently and irresponsibly lax, letting infected people roam free to spread disease wherever they went. I'm judging this by what I saw in the Chinese press and by the voluminous complaint messages I received from Chinese readers.

    That is the context for this item by James Areddy of the WSJ last week, concerning an inflight-video on a Chinese airline flight explaining what a "shame" it is that flu virus has been spreading from America. As Areddy points out, the video refers to mei zhou -- 美洲, "the Americas" -- as the source of infection, rather than mei guo, 美国, "America." So maybe it's  Mexico-US-Canada NAFTA-solidarity in blame. On the other hand, the English subtitles say "America." In any case, interesting as a reminder of difference in attitudes. This will matter more, of course, if the flu comes back in a more lethal form this fall. (Photo by Areddy from his item:)


    * In part, it also reflected the long-standing Chinese assumption that Democrats will be tougher than Republicans on trade policy, and the preference for sticking with known figures in US politics. Hillary Clinton was much better known to the Chinese public and officialdom than Obama was, and thus she seemed the safer bet from their point of view.

  • Holiday festival of updates #3A: Back to Snow Leopard and "huge pages"

    I declare this the last posting in this venue on whether Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system does or does not support the use of "huge pages" in memory addressing, as laid out previously in Holiday Update #3 here. But for completeness, I offer this report from the other side of the operating system divide:

    "I'm a Software Engineer at Microsoft.  Apple's smart enough to see how little use 4MB pages are and I doubt they will ever implement support any time soon.  
    "Huge pages hurt when the other factors at play are accounted for like memory fragmentation, additional memory used, cost of reading in 4 MB at a time from the disk.  I think this has been tested on IA64 servers with huge amount of ram and it hurt not helped."

    Let's add this to the list of "how big is the universe"-style endlessly debatable questions.

    So many more updates, so few remaining holiday weekend hours.

  • Festival of updates #7: NYT hit-and-miss

    Catching up on one NYT item that rang exactly (and surprisingly) true, and another with a different effect:

    Sounds true to me: A "good news" item that stayed on the "most popular" list for a very long time. Its news was that years and years of running can actually protect and strengthen your knees, rather than inevitably pulverize and destroy them. I am here as a one-man long-term-longitudinal study to say: yessir!

    IMG_6684.jpgExcept for the past three years-of-smog in China -- lest we forget: Easter Day, 2009, in Beijing, shown at left -- I have been running many times a week for many decades. I shudder for various reasons to realize that I ran my first Boston Marathon 40 years ago. As the body-odometer has gotten into the tens of thousands of miles, I've logged problems with: Achilles tendon (too often -- hmmm, I wonder if there should be some term for a point of chronic weakness); hamstrings or calf muscles (periodically, including now); shin splints or ankle issues (rarely); etc. But knees, which I'd always been warned would be used up by running? No problems, at all. (As opposed to my dad -- who played college football and for the next 60 years coped with trick knees.) Now that actual medical research has confirmed that this is the expected result rather than a fluke, my knees feel even better.  So can yours!

    On the other hand: we have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn't find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they'd shortcut into positions of responsibility. I'm here to say: Well, sort of.

    Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so -- if they're willing to teach English. (And can get a visa -- whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it's hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it's like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

    But the idea that many non-trained grads will find "good" jobs -- eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it's realistic to go from zero to "highly proficient" in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of "land of gold!" account of today's China has a touching parallel to the "gold mountain!" accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

  • Festival of updates #6: TSA vs. the toddler menace

    No, this doesn't prove anything, but the picture is too interesting not to share. It's from a reader who describes his experience at BWI airport. It was back in 2005, before the BWI-specific improvements mentioned here, so maybe this would never happen again. But...

    "Attached is a picture of my daughter (15 months old at the time) being frisked by a TSA security screener at BWI....

    "I had been carrying her through security after putting the stroller through.  Of course the metal detector detected something. You can see in the picture that I am holding my pants up with my hand rather than my belt and have no shoes on so who knows what it was.  Maybe it was her shoes - they didn't make her take them off.  I got the feeling when they called a woman over that they were going to frisk her so I called to my wife who had already gone through to get a picture.  Sure enough they gave her the wand metal detector and pat down treatment."

    If all of this were part of a shrewd, realistic, threat-based strategy of imposing inconvenience and occasional humiliation only when necessary, then -- great! But in reality....
  • Festival of updates #5: Wolfowitz and Iraq


    For the rest of his life, Paul Wolfowitz will face questions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You can hear that realization sinking in on him during the course of his ten-minute interview with Guy Raz of NPR, broadcast this evening on on All Things Considered. Wolfowitz had come on the show to discusss his essay on foreign policy "realism" in Foreign Policy magazine -- about which more in a moment. Through the ten minutes, you can hear Wolfowitz sounding startled, then testy, then something like resigned when Raz keeps coming back to the questions he obviously had to ask, about how Wolfowitz's current theories match the record in office for which he will always be best known.

    The idea that we'll "always" be known for a moment in the unchangeable past, no matter how the rest of our lives turn out, is a proposition so fatalistic that that we all naturally resist it. (Except maybe Michael Phelps, Sandy Koufax, perhaps Tom Brady and Neil Armstrong, etc.) The earnest post-Vietnam career of Robert McNamara is a testament to how much he struggled with that reality. Remarkably and rarely, Al Gore will "always" be the man at the losing end of Bush v. Gore, but he made a new identity after that.

    In the ten minutes of his interview, whenever Wolfowitz says "Look!" what he's really signaling is: I don't want to talk about this Iraq stuff any more, so why do you keep coming back to it? The reason for coming back, of course, is that Wolfowitz does and always will occupy a unique role in the intellectual history of the decision. Dick Cheney will apparently never reveal a doubt or second thought; George W. Bush has (with some dignity) backed off the public stage for now; Colin Powell has made sure to signal that he was never that enthusiastic; and who knows what Donald Rumsfeld will come up with. But Wolfowitz was the one who from the start had the sweeping vision of the historic rationale for removing Saddam Hussein.

    The public case for invading Iraq was purely negative. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) But the "enlightened" case that Wolfowitz in particular had made for years in articles, interviews, and speeches involved the broader, Wilsonian prospect of bringing democracy to the Arab world, as it had largely come to much of Asia and Latin America. I did a profile of him in early 2002 that emphasized this theme. I also had a sense of its origins, having lived in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, when Wolfowitz helped swing U.S. policy against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and then was a very popular U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. By all accounts, Wolfowitz was a prominent voice telling a rattled President Bush, during the first, nervous strategy session at Camp David days after the 9/11 attacks, that for positive and negative reasons alike he had to get to the root of the terrorist problem by moving against Iraq. (For more on Wolfowitz's role in war planning, see here and here.)

    In its way it was an honorable vision, as were most of Robert McNamara's beliefs through the early days in Vietnam. But it did not -- OK, has not so far -- turned out anything like what Wolfowitz advertised publicly and within the government. To his credit, Guy Raz of NPR played back to Wolfowitz the tape of his notorious Congressional testimony just before the invasion, in which he said "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." And "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

    It's worth listening to -- along with the full 37-minute unedited interview, here. Among other reasons, I suspect it will be a while before we hear Paul Wolfowitz in such a setting again. The first 15 minutes or so of the "long" version involve what he did want to talk about -- his new Foreign Policy article warning against excessive "realism" in America's approach to the world. Judge for yourself, but it strikes me as a concerted argument against a non-existent or straw-man foe. When an American president has given a major speech in an Arab capital saying that the U.S. needs to engage in the modernization of the Islamic world, it's hard to argue that the U.S. is showing a steely indifference to social and political conditions outside its borders.

    It took more than twenty years after Robert McNamara's departure from the Pentagon for him to begin talking seriously about Vietnam. I look forward to what Paul Wolfowitz eventually says about his war.

    In an on-air colloquy with Guy Raz after this interview, I made my own mistake. I said that a recent ruling by a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit held that John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, "was" personally liable for illegal detention of a U.S. citizen. Actually, the ruling said that he "could be" personally liable. My apologies.

  • Festival of updates #3: Snow Leopard and "huge pages"!

    Nerds only. I mentioned yesterday that the elegant 23-page Ars Technica review of the new Mac Snow Leopard OS should give as much tech detail as "anyone" would want. Au contraire! (Someday I will learn to avoid saying "anyone," "everyone," "no one," etc.) After the jump, a remaining question apparently left unanswered even by Ars Technica -- namely, whether the latest Mac OS supports "huge pages." An explanation of what this is and why it matters, via reader and software guy Ken Broomfield, follows. This goes into the "there are always more details" category, and is offered as a public service.

    Ken Broomfield writes:

    "ArsTechnica deserves a lot of credit for doing in-depth stuff like this that's becoming hard to find anywhere except in dry, poorly-written journal articles (though Ars has done less of this lately). But they lost me with this part, about the desirability of a 64-bit OS X kernel:
    >"Tracking 96GB of RAM requires 1.5GB of kernel address space. Using more than a third of the kernel's address space just to track memory is a pretty uncomfortable situation."<

    More »

  • Festival of updates #2: China business!

    Recently I mentioned an enjoyable discussion session at the Motley Fool, which is available in this podcast. Today there was a followup analysis here, at the Fool's site. The low-road reason I mention it is that it's very complimentary about my assessment of life and business in China. But there's a high-road reason too, which involves an aspect of making sense of China that, IMHO, needs to be stressed again and again, even if you've already stressed it a lot -- as I certainly have.

    This aspect, which indeed can never be stressed strongly enough, concerns the chaos, diversity, internal contradiction, unknowability, and general "many different countries and cultures coexisting under one name" nature of today's China. It's harder to keep track of such a confusing reality than it would be to say, "We must be afraid of China" or "The Chinese want XXXX" or  "With its new power, China will do YYYY." But it is certainly more interesting and stimulating to embrace all this contradictory reality than to stick to a monolithic view of one big, "rising," potentially menacing power. It is also much truer to life. In any case, I am glad to see the Motley Fool analyst underscoring this point. And I think the author of this item, Sean Sun, has added a very interesting born-in-China perspective. As he says:

    "I was born in China and raised in its countryside in a small, mountainous village. I've worn a suit and tie in tier-1 metropolises, donned hard hats in tier-2 and 3 cities, and marveled at the rapid growth in rural areas like my hometown. When someone wants to ask me about China, I ask: Which one?"

    Worth reading, as part of your holiday weekend fare.

  • Holiday festival of updates! #1 in a weekend-long series

    Labor Day Weekend wouldn't be the cherished American ritual it is, without cookouts, beer, one last beach weekend frequent updates on past technical, political, and aviation matters. To kick off this special all-weekend series, an airline industry insider's account on why the Transportation Security Administration condones class-war in the airport security system: Shorter lines for high-mileage passengers (like me! until my China-travel miles time out), all the longer waits for everyone else. Here's the inside view:

    "You might have already gotten this from other sources, but as a 25-year airline industry veteran, the discriminatory TSA lines are easily explained.

    "They exist because the Legacy Airlines cut a deal with senior-level political appointees in the early days of the TSA, and no one has ever challenged them, and it is set up so no one can challenge them. The airlines are, of course, not actually paying anything for the privilege of deciding which taxpayers have first-class/second-class access to federally mandated security screening. The "justification" is that airline rents and fees "pay" the costs of the airport, therefore they have the right to control how "public" spaces in the terminal are used. Neither airports or the TSA gets an incremental dollar for allowing this discrimination.

    "The floor space used to sort passengers into different queues is officially controlled by the airlines, and is separate from the space (just behind it) that is controlled by the TSA. Thus the situation is quite different from discriminatory queues you might have experienced in London and other overseas points, where the airlines actually paid money to fund separate "business-class" airside access points. All that money you paid United to earn Platinum status pays for the lounges and upgrades you get. But your preferential TSA access is a gift from the government, and a "wealth" transfer from all of us in steerage to all of your friends in business class.

    More »

  • Three updates: Hudson River, "false claims," origins of Iraq

    Catching up on a variety of previous reports:

    1) The FAA responds in a sensible, proportionate way to last month's tragic crash above the Hudson River. Following the lead of the NTSB, as mentioned here, it will soon propose clear, common-sense rules of the "road" to keep airplanes and helicopters safely separated in the busy Hudson River corridor. For instance, it will require -- rather than just expect -- that northbound traffic stay on the east side of the river, and southbound on the right; and that helicopters stay at a lower altitude than the airplanes; and all pilots stick to the same radio frequency; and other steps.

    Why this matters: because it's a targeted, non-panicky response directed at the specific problem that has been revealed, rather than a sweeping exercise in TSA-style "security theater." It will no doubt create complications of its own, mainly through increased work for controllers. But overall, this is a victory for common sense.

    2) Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, whose previous reporting about the health-care debate has been noted (in different ways) here and here, has a very strong story today about Elizabeth McCaughey and her role in these discussions.

    Why this matters: the story straightforwardly does something that goes against the nature of mainstream coverage. It notes the influence that Ms. McCaughey's claims have had on public discussion, while also flatly saying that those claims are often false. It's worth recognizing what a step this is for the Times, prefigured in this story from three weeks ago. The natural reflex of mainstream publications is to finesse such disagreements with the "some critics claim..." approach. It seems more "objective," and it certainly is safer for the reporter and the news organization. And when we are talking about differences of opinion, judgment, or political creed, of course that's exactly the right approach to take. ("Is the Administration's approach to Iran likely to work? Some critics claim...") But there is a such a thing as plain misstatement of fact, and it is good when the press can point it out.

    3) James Gibney of the Atlantic also has a very strong, short item about revisionism now being practiced by some of the architects and enthusiasts of the invasion of Iraq.  In particular, the writer Max Boot and the former DOD official Paul Wolfowitz, the latter of whom I have written about here and here.

    Why this matters: The edge to Gibney's argument will be evident to anyone who reads it. What most people would not realize is how particularly trenchant a judgment this is, coming from him. As a one-time Foreign Service officer (and former executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine), James Gibney is no one's idea of a hothead. He is more gentlemanly than most people who express views on this site (not to mention on the whole untrammeled web), and less known for harsh opinions. These words have weight.

  • More than you probably want to know about Snow Leopard


    I expect to have a Mac OS X 10.6 / Snow Leopard install disk on hand for amusement over the Labor Day weekend. Between that and getting TV service re-connected -- after a month, we finally gave in -- it should be a full and satisfying few days.* What is this program they talk about, called "The Daily Show"?** And this man "Conan"?

    On expository as much as purely technical grounds, I have to say something complimentary about the new 23-page-long review of Snow Leopard by John Siracusa at ArsTechnica. It has technical analysis that should satisfy anyone so inclined. Eg, this diagram and accompanying discussion of Snow Leopard's use of the LLVM approach (Low Level Virtual Machine) and more generally the explanation of how the operating system is designed to do "more with more," that is, making use of the vastly-increased processing power of modern computers.


    But the review also includes much more accessible discussion of the difference this system will make to ordinary users. The Go/No-go advice, which comes on page 23 of the review, is that for most users of Intel-based Macs it's an obvious Go, even though there will certainly be some bugs in this initial release. My main point for the moment is not to give advice one way or another about software upgrades but to note an impressive piece of technical writing.

    UPDATE: Install disk was there when I got home; applied to one computer, MacBook Pro; finished in about 40 minutes with no problems or complications and appears to have freed up many Gigs of disk space.

    UPDATE 2: After repeated attempts, the new OS has not installed on the MacBook Air, after easy handling of the MacBook Pro. This is no doubt due to the fundamental design compromise built into the MBA. To make the system unbelievably light and elegant, a lot of "basic" features were left out, like its own DVD/CD slot. So it installs programs or plays music only from "remote" discs, namely those on other machines in the same local network. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. I'll try tomorrow with hard-wired rather than Wifi connections.

    UPDATE 3: Well, it looks like the failed-install to the MacBook Air had a silver lining. Have tried out all my normal programs and utilities on the Pro; all seem to work without problem on the new OS. Except, I just now learn, the beloved "K4" -- the Adobe-based production software we use to edit, lay out, and put together every article in the magazine. Hmmmm. Maybe I'll pretend I did get Snow Leopard installed on all my computers, so I have an excuse to miss the next few deadlines. Or not bother to install it on the MBA, and stick with that for actual work.

    *For the record, Snow Leopard will go on the household's three Macs, which are also running Windows XP under VMware Fusion; the poor ThinkPad T60 that was blighted with the original, unworkable version of Vista will be left in tech hospice to sputter out its last days; and my wife's new HP laptop, replacing one that died on our very last day in China, not only has the much-less-objectionable latest release version of Vista but also an upgrade certificate for Windows 7, which will be applied in due course.

    ** Just a little joke. I know it's on summer hiatus; even in China I could see it on computer, though boy does the Great Firewall slow down video feeds.

  • A very simple question about the 'public option'

    No one I have ever met who is eligible for Medicare would dream of turning down its coverage.

    And therefore the "public option" would be so terrible because.... ???
    Medicare is of course a "public option" in spades. I remember the debates before its enactment in the 1960s, about how the coming of "socialized medicine" would be the end of the American way.

    Of course now we have a system that is taken for granted as a central part of the American way. Yes, yes, I am aware of the arguments (as laid out here, here, and elsewhere) about the distortions and cost pressures within Medicare. Still: as a matter of politics I have always thought that the route toward health-coverage reform in America would be steady expansion of the eligibility standards for Medicare. First down to age 60, then 55, then... 

    I know that "logic" tells us only so much about health policy debates. But, seriously, how can people with a sound mind and a straight face take Medicare as part of the landscape but consider the "public option" an abomination? Just curious -- but genuinely curious.

  • My visit to the Motley Fool

    A week ago, when for unrelated house-reconstruction reasons I was comatose from no sleep, I had a very enjoyable hour-long visit with the staff of the Motley Fool, at their stylish HQ in Alexandria, Va. This was part of their Motley Fool Conversation series. A podcast of the result is available here. I realize that I may have been snarkier-sounding about the future of Twitter than reasoned analysis would support. But, hey, I was only half awake! And it was at the Motley Fool. Most of the talk was about China, with side notes about Microsoft, speechwriting, the Future of the Atlantic, and so on.

    Seriously, most TV and radio talk shows could take useful interviewing tips from these guys. A very enjoyable exchange, at least from my point of view.

  • The right kind of college rankings

    As a one-time staff editor of the Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.

    As a one-time editor of  US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News. But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too. For more on this theme, the classic source is this 2001 article -- as it happens, in the Washington Monthly -- by Amy Graham, who came to US News on my watch to try to clean up the rankings, and Nicholas Thompson, who has a wonderful new joint biography of (his grandfather) Paul Nitze and George Kennan coming out soon.

    The practical solution to ranking mania is not to try to eliminate them -- it's too late -- but instead to crowd the field so that no one "Best Colleges" list has disproportionate influence. Toward that end, the Washington Monthly's latest iteration of its college rankings is valuable simply for existing and adding diversity to the ranking field. It's more valuable than that, because of the way it carries through its analysis about the traits we really should value in universities, plus letting people tailor their own rankings based on the qualities that matter most to them. Here's a glimpse at its "National Universities" ranking, which is quite different from the familiar list in US News (this shows just a few of the elements on which schools are rated).


    The introduction to TWM's approach to college ranking is here; a description of its methods is here; the interactive ranking system is shown here. As I've stressed time and again when reporting from overseas, America's vast and diverse university system is (along with its openness to outside talent) one of the advantages hardest for any other country to match, and therefore most important to protect. Among the threats to protect it from is a bogus and simplistic concept of quality. I welcome the Washington Monthly rankings as another step away from the brink of bogusness.


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