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.
  • Will it never end? McCaughey v. Ezekiel Emanuel

    Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel should need no introduction to Atlantic readers. Among his many pursuits is writing a number of interesting articles for our "Food Channel," under Corby Kummer's auspices. He should need no introduction to anybody, since over the past decade-plus he has so often been involved in deliberations about the right future health-care path for America and the world. I stress "the world" since he has traveled widely and emphasized public-health challenges for poor nations too. I know him slightly -- just well enough that, a few weeks ago, I asked his journalistic advice for contacts in China on a public-health story I'm working on. He is an oncologist and bioethicist -- and, of course, older brother of Rahm Emanuel from the White House.

    Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey also needs no introduction to Atlantic readers. She has brought more misinformation, more often, more destructively into America's consideration of health-policy issues than any other individual. She has no concept of "truth" or "accuracy" in the normal senses of those terms, as demonstrated last week when she went on The Daily Show. Virtually every statement she has made about health-reform proposals, from the Clinton era until now, has been proven to be false. It doesn't slow her down.

    And now we have the New York Times, in a big take-out story, saying that Dr. Emanuel, in his role as Obama health-care advisor, is in an "uncomfortable place" because he is being criticized by*:

    1) Betsy McCaughey !
    2) Rep. Michele Bachman (look her up) !!
    3) Sarah Palin !!!
    4) Lyndon LaRouche !!!!

    McCaughey, Bachman, Palin, LaRouche -- shaping American debate and media coverage about health policy? Was Zsa Zsa Gabor not available?

    To be "fair," the story puts the criticisms in "context," thus:

    "Largely quoting his past writings out of context this summer, Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, labeled Dr. Emanuel a "deadly doctor" who believes health care should be "reserved for the nondisabled" -- a false assertion that Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, repeated on the House floor."

    "Out of context" and "false" are useful caveats. But why is the story about Ezekiel Emanuel being on the hot seat in the first place -- and not about the campaign of flat lies by McCaughey, Bachman, Palin, and LaRouche? Why are real newspapers quoting what they say any more? (Interestingly, LaRouche's claims rarely get NYT coverage. In in this case, he is apparently "legitimized" by ... McCaughey.) If I start a campaign of lies against somebody and get Soupy Sales plus Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme to agree with me, can I expect them to be regularly publicized in the mainstream press?

    I do understand - and wrote before -- about how difficult it is for the mainstream press to decide that one party to a controversy is making things up, doesn't care about facts,  and will keep saying whatever it wants. I also recognize that when a campaign of falsehoods has a political effect, the effect itself can be worth writing about. But does it have to be presented in a way that suggests that the McCaughey-Bachman-Palin-LaRouche team is just another participant in political discussion? This can give "fairness" a bad name.
    * Here are paragraphs two and three of the story -- the "nut graf" passage establishing that there is a controversy:

    "Largely quoting his past writings out of context this summer, Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, labeled Dr. Emanuel a "deadly doctor" who believes health care should be "reserved for the nondisabled" -- a false assertion that Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, repeated on the House floor.

    "Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska has asserted that Dr. Emanuel's "Orwellian" approach to health care would "refuse to allocate medical resources to the elderly, the infirm and the disabled who have less economic potential," accusations similarly made by the political provocateur Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr."
  • Why we love the TSA, chap. #14,867 (Amelia Earhart dept)

    The most interesting movie trailer I've seen since coming back to America -- OK, the only one -- is for Hilary Swank's upcoming biopic about Amelia Earhart. Opening shot below; link to full trailer at the bottom.


    This is timely not just because the movie looks so gorgeous -- as does Swank, reinforcing the beautiful androgynous kinship in appearance between Earhart and the young Charles Lindbergh -- but also because the latest small chapter in the war of TSA-vs-common-sense involves Amelia.

    Four years ago, as described in this NYT article and this one from Smithsonian Air and Space,  a New Jersey pilot named Grace McGuire resolved to recreate Amelia Earhart's round-the-world journey, in a restored version of the same kind of Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart flew. All instruments, equipment, and detailing would be similar. The big difference, as McGuire pointed out in her standard punch line, is that she intended to get home safely rather than disappearing over the South Pacific.

    McGuire encountered various obstacles along the way, most notably a struggle with Lyme Disease that for years left her too weak to advance her plans. But her most recent hassle has been with our friends at the TSA.

    As described here in AVweb and recounted on many general-aviation sites, the TSA has been ramping up background-check requirements for anyone who does any work, of any kind, at any site where flying craft can land. Most of the nation's 4000-plus small airfields have historically been very casual, low-formality, open operations, policed mainly and effectively by their community of users. To people who have worked at and gathered around them, the airports' openness was much of their American-freedom-style, Earhart-and-Lindbergh-style appeal. To the TSA, it looks like a threat. An overheated pilot partisan argues here that fortifying little airports is part of the Big Government vision of "Team Obama." Her heart's in the right place about the TSA, but of course these rules and the overall security-theater approach got started under the previous team.

     McGuire had moved her Electra airplane to the tiny Santa Maria airport in California, a very nice little field very far from big cities. Restoring a 75-year old airplane meant a lot of ad hoc visits by a variety of craftsmen and suppliers who happened to come up with the right part for the plane. Putting every one of them through Federal security checks and certifying them for permanent airport ID cards, before they could drive up to the little airfield and repair an aileron, was bringing the project to a halt.

    Help has arrived, in the form of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Its staff has already passed TSA security checks, and it will take over restoration of the plane. Happy ending -- but you wonder, will there ever be a chance to say, Enough with the petty security theater, and let's think about the courage and common sense that keep free people free. (Anyone who wants more on this topic, see here and here.)

    Back to Hilary/Amelia: film trailer below.

  • My new software favorite: Personal Brain (updated)

    What is my purpose on Earth? Raising my children? Being as good and supportive a husband to my wife as (the movie version of) Paul Child was to Julia in the new film? Working for world peace and sustainable environmental development and a more humane society? Helping keep my magazine afloat?

    Yeah yeah yeah.

    I often think that my real purpose, apart from dreaming about getting back into aviation and  tennis (and, gulp, finishing the next book), is to tinker with every piece of "interesting" software that anyone can cook up. I've written about dozens of them over the years, and still have many of them at close reach on my computer. Lotus Agenda -- the "spreadsheet for words" that was invented in the early 1990s, then cruelly orphaned by Lotus, but is still handy now. BrainStorm -- an outlining and list- based program. It is ultra-minimalist, text only, straight from the DOS age -- but after Symantec's also-tragic orphaning of the best-loved-ever outliner, GrandView, BrainStorm is often the place I turn. (Part of that bittersweet outliner history, from Dave Winer, here.) And of course Zoot, which I have used since the early 1990s and wrote about in the Atlantic 12 years ago. For all its info-organizing power, Zoot has in the past few years begun showing its age. Like BrainStorm, it is text-only and has no way even to underline or highlight important text. Also, it is too Web-friendly.  But its lone-genius creator, Tom Davis of Delray Beach, FL, has been working on an all new, web-connected version, which is now in beta testing and which I'll sign up for as soon as it's released.

    But for the moment: Personal Brain, from TheBrain software in Marina del Rey, California. I'm in that familiar and always-enjoyable phase of feeling: this program is really interesting, and let's see how it fits the way I think and work.

    The idea of the program is to connect any item -- a call you want to make, a web site you want to quote, a PDF file you want to read, or even an entire project you're beginning -- with any other, in a flexible variety of relationships. FWIW, the program calls its items "thoughts." Here's an idea of how some of the connections look, in a view that shows many projects for which I'm collecting info or am working on.


    More »

  • Xu Zhiyong released

    Just over a month ago, a well-known Chinese legal reformer named Xu Zhiyong was taken from his house in Beijing at 5am and moved to a detention facility. Background reports here and here, which emphasize that Xu, far from being some overthrow-the-government voice of radicalism, had been dedicated to defending the rights of Chinese citizens within China's own legal system. His best-known recent case was on behalf of parents of children who died or were harmed during the tainted-milk scandal last year.

    This morning comes news that he has just been released, though under the threat of follow-up prosecution. That would probably involve (trumped-up, in the view of the outside world) charges of "tax evasion," probably based on support that the Yale Law School has given to Xu's Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng, 公盟) project. See here and here, with details sketchy but the main fact of his release established. Later on, more about the implications of the case -- including the disappearance of Xu's assistant, as reported here in the Guardian. For now, it is better to have Xu Zhiyong out of jail than in.

  • Today's McCaughey, euthanasia, and general falsehood update

    Several more objections, clarifications, and additional bits of evidence following the much-bruited -- and to me somewhat anticlimactic -- Betsy McCaughey-Jon Stewart smackdown two days ago. (Previous reactions here.)

    On the origins of Betsy McCaughey's argumentative style:

    A reader suggests they have one obvious source:

    The reader explains:

    Cleese's character is armed with all that one could ask for: keen wit, boundless vocabulary, perfect presence of mind, and all the facts on his side. And yet, even he can be played to a draw by a liar who maintains a sufficiently unshakable facade of conviction.

    On the details of why "death panels" are so preposterous
    A reader in Maine writes:

    Another absurdity in the argument of Betsy McCaughey is her claim that there is something wrong with doctors having to follow a patient's wishes as expressed in a living will.  There are two major problems here: 1) People can always change their living will, just as they can change their will at any point.  The later living will supercedes the later one. So if a person makes a living will when healthy and sees things differently when ill, the sick person can express different wishes in the new living will.  2) Why shouldn't doctors have to respect people's wishes on end-of-life care? I have heard countless stories of living wills being ignored.  The provision on living wills is effectively an implementation provision, providing for accountability and for the wishes of the patient to be respected.

    Further on the Living Will point:
    Reader Zach writes:

    I'm surprised you didn't mention this.  McCaughy's twisted logic is basically that after you draft a living will it will be enforced ruthlessly by doctors seeking to up their quality rating even if you personally object.  Backing her up is an anecdote about her apparently hearing a woman telling her to hurry up and help as a doctor suffocated her with a pillow or something.  Her point is that, by rewarding adherence, we're making doctors stick with the patient's initial stated intent.  However, if you're conscious you can amend, annul, or otherwise do whatever you want with your will, living or otherwise, at any time you want.  If you're conscious enough to tell someone not to pull the plug, you haven't triggered your living will yet.

    More »

  • Revisiting McCaughey-v-Stewart

    As I mentioned this morning, I thought Betsy McCaughey was even more blithely disconnected from the world of reality than I had expected -- but that she was weirdly "effective" against Jon Stewart, since there was no way to shame her by pointing out that what she said was untrue. She would just smile, mug at the audience in an "isn't he cute!" way, and say, No, I'm right.

    Not all readers agreed. Below and after the jump, a sample of dissenting views, with brief retort at the end.

    Objection 1: The Audience Is In on the Joke

    ...I disagree that talking over Jon Stewart the way people do in appearances on Fox News is an effective tactic for the guest. It might be better than some of the other options, but it backfires for a weird reason, one that might be harder to see if you don't watch the show regularly.

    From its inception in 1997, the distinguishing shtick that makes the show unique is a type of edited interview segment in which the show's "reporters" interview obscure and completely crazy people. The subjects have received some local press attention for doing something bizarre and they're desperate for media attention. The reporters pretend to be mainstream press rather than comedians, and they use a deadpan style that allows the interviewees to provide most of the humor. What struck me about the McCaughey interview, and the recent interview of Orly Taitz by Stephen Colbert, was that Stewart and Colbert are clearly adapting the "crazy person" interview techniques to their live in-studio host interviews with guests that don't agree with them.

    The normal host interviews vary a lot but they are always a two-way conversation with some socially well-adjusted give and take. In these two recent interviews, as the guest acts more unstoppable and enthusiastic unhinged when discussing "their" topic, the interview slides into the familiar "crazy person" style. That's a cue for the show's regular audience to frame the discussion and the interviewee in a very different way.

    Objection 2: It Worked for Betsy, but It Won't Work for Others

    I expect you are very right about this being an interview that will be studied by right wing operatives for some time to come. However, I feel like you overlooked a couple important pieces which may make this scenario unrepeatable (particularly if those at the Daily Show are paying attention).

    More »

  • McCaughey on the Daily Show

    Well, my TV-owning neighbors were all away last night, so I couldn't watch the McCaughey-Stewart showdown by peering through their windows and had to see it just now on the web. Clips below, starting with the first segment of the interview as broadcast. Three conclusions:

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Betsy McCaughey Pt. 1
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    Conclusion one: I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey. Even when conferring on her the title of "most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person" for the 1990s. She is way less responsible and tethered to the world of "normal" facts and discourse than I had imagined.

    Conclusion two: The exchange is significant, because it demonstrates that there is indeed a way to "handle" Jon Stewart. You simply have to ignore what he says, interrupt and talk over him, and keep asserting that you're right. You even can try to usurp his role as host by mugging at the audience and rolling your eyes in a shared "there he goes again!" joke with the viewers.

    In retrospect, this is the crucial weakness that in their different ways both Bill Kristol and Jim Cramer revealed in their appearances on the show. They listened to Stewart and -- even Kristol!!?! -- revealed through their bearing that they recognized there was such a thing as being caught in an inconsistency or presented with an inconvenient fact. McCaughey did none of that. She is just making it up, as anyone who has followed her work over the decades will know. She was not even minimally prepared for her appearance on the show, flipping aimlessly through the giant briefing book (of legislative clauses) she brought on stage. But  she didn't let it bother her. The exchange demonstrated that if the guest reveals no self-awareness or does not accept the premise of factual challenge, Stewart can't get in his normal licks. Future guests will study this show.

    Conclusion three: A good point Stewart made, albeit not registered by McCaughey, concerns the unbelievable inconsistency of attention to "incentives" built into health care systems, today's and tomorrow's.

    That is: when McCaughey admits that there is no literal "death panel" provision in the new health care provision, she goes on to say something similar to what other conservatives, most recently Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post today, contend: that the very act of reimbursing doctors for a  discussion about "living wills" and end-of-life care will have a subtle bias in favor of an euthanasia-like outcome.

    On the merits of this claim, I vehemently disagree. Having had, along with my siblings, first-hand, extended, and very painful experience with this process during my own father's decline and death last year, I would put reimbursement schemes for living-will discussions at the very bottom of the list of factors that make such decisions so wrenching for everyone involved.

    But let's assume I'm wrong (though you'll never convince me of that) -- and that there is some third-order ripple-effect bias that comes from paying doctors for these every-five-year discussions. Why is the potential skewing effect of that payment the only thing we notice -- and not the thousand other life-and-death, rationing-and-queuing incentives that are built into every detail of the medical system now? And that David Goldhill -- no supporter of the Obama plan -- goes into so thoroughly in his cover story in this month's magazine? Yesterday I spent more than an hour on the customer "service" line for my own health insurance company, trying to get the answer to a simple "is this covered?" question. At the end of the hour, when I'd reached the queue to talk to a human agent, I got this recording: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, your call cannot be completed at this time. Please call again later." This has a kind of rationing/skewed incentive effect of its own -- even for someone fortunate, like me, to have good health insurance coverage. So, yes: I will listen to arguments about the hypothetical, subtle, psychological biasing effect of encouraging discussions about end-of-life decisions -- but only if they're in the context of the far more blatant, perverse, and destructive incentives built into today's system.

    But see for yourself.

    Second part of McCaughey's interview as broadcast.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Betsy McCaughey Pt. 2
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    Extended interview, with outtakes, part 1, is here; extended interview part 2 is here.

  • Tonight on the Daily Show: McCaughey v Stewart!

    Now I'm sorry I still don't have a TV. Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey, whose role in public life I have so often marveled at, has agreed to go on the Daily Show this evening.

    Anything is possible, and perhaps Jon Stewart will for once fall down on the job as an interrogator. But at face value you have to wonder: has she ever seen the show? Perhaps the episode with James Cramer?

    Maybe I'll go stand outside a neighbor's window this evening and listen real carefully. (And yes, yes, I know I can see it on the web not long afterwards.) Talk about must-see TV; this is it.

  • More reassuring news: new life for Eclipse?

    This news has been brewing for weeks, but it appears to have reached a critical point. The assets of the ill-fated Eclipse Aviation company, whose rise is described here and here, and demise here and here, may be sold at auction today to a new group of investors doing business as Eclipse Aerospace. The head of the new company, Mason Holland of South Carolina, was a deposit-holder for an Eclipse jet when the company went under. (He also owned and flew a Cirrus propeller airplane, and I know him slightly through the Cirrus pilots' organization.)

    The Eclipse jet was to be the backbone of a new small-jet air-taxi network. Operating on what is often known as the "second mouse gets the cheese" principle, Holland appears to be interested in retaining what was valuable about the airplane's design, after the wreck of the original company's finances. More background on the sale here, here, and here. Interviews with Mason Holland here and here. Good luck!

  • About that "ominous" building in Burma

    Two weeks ago, I posted this photo, with accompanying expert commentary about the possibility that the malign regime in Burma was using North Korean aid to build a nuclear facility:


    Subsequent commentary knocks down that speculation and comes to the (reassuring!) conclusion that it is very likely just a big industrial plant. Eg, Mark Hibbs of Nuclear Fuel, quoted on Arms Control Wonk, says this:

    According to some information that sources said has been made available to Western governments and the IAEA, the "box" in the photos is likely not a reactor but a nonnuclear industrial workshop or machinery center.

    That determination, the sources said, follows from the absence of certain "overhead signatures" for a reactor in the photos and from specific information derived from firsthand knowledge of the site and its activities, deemed to be highly reliable.

    'We can conclude that it's not a reactor with near certainty," the Western analyst said.

    And from Arms Control Verification.org, via The Interpreter in Sydney, extra photos and commentary supporting the same "less than meetings the eye" conclusion. Eg:

    We learned from two sources, independent from each other, that the box-like building has been under scrutiny by the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] Department of Safeguards for quite some time, and that the department is nearly certain that the building does not serve any nuclear programme. An official, associated with a Western intelligence agency, later told us that, "we've been looking at that site for years, since construction started. You cannot hide a reactor in a low building without a basement level". A relatively recent visit to the facility has reportedly confirmed with '99 per cent confidence' that it is a machine shop..

    We'll take our reassuring news where we can find it.

  • Can't get enough Felix!

    Felix_the_Cat_sumka.jpgI think this really could be the end of the Felix the Cat saga, most recently chronicled here and here. Next few items will concern software, China, and of course frogs. But before we turn the page, let us consider Felix's implications for: US-China relations; differences between England and America; and the proud heritage of New Jersey.

    I. Felix as distinguished son of the Garden State
    Walter Maier, curator of the "Famous New Jerseyans" web site, gives Felix a prominent place among the state's honorees. As he points out, "Felix was born in New Jersey." Go here for details.

    II. Felix in the context of Chinese reformers
    Taking an admirably post-racial stance, one reader writes in to say: "Surprised you haven't quoted Deng's 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.'!"
    ("不管黑猫白猫,捉到老鼠就是好猫." If I were king, the standard version in English would be "Black cat, white cat -- as long as it catches mice it's a good cat.") Bottom line: if Deng Xiaoping were writing the notorious "Obama reminds me of Felix" essay, he would have begun, "It doesn't matter whether a president is black or white, so long as he fixes the economy."

    [Deng, left, not with Felix but with another fine American]

    III. Felix as lens for Anglo/American contrasts
    A reader writes:
    Just a stray observation, which may be outdated by now, based on initial Peace Corps experience meeting with Brit expats in Ghana during the late sixties, but remaining fairly intact after 40 more years of sporadic relevant dialogs with random but typically well educated British folks at home and abroad.

    I'm consistently (nearly 100%) struck by the difference between white British and liberal US perceptions of what we both call "racism" or "racialism."

    More »

  • Wrapping up the Felix tale

    myspace layout codes

    Previously here. From a reader in California:

    A point that has fallen through the cracks in the contretemps is that Ferguson's characterization of Felix the Cat is just plain wrong -- he's not lucky, he's plucky and resourceful.  His characteristic pose in the early cartoons is pacing back and forth, hands behind his back, deep in thought as he ponders his way out of the fix he's gotten into.  Then he brightens, and snaps his fingers -- he's thought of a way out.  There's a gag that refers to Felix's trademark pose in Buster Keaton's Go West, which should show you how far back the character goes.  Also parodied on The Simpsons, where the earliest Itchy and Scratchy cartoons adopt the style of silent Felix the Cat cartoons.

    [Felix pacing and pensant, in 1930:] FelixPacing.jpg

    [Felix post-pacing, having figured out the answer:]

    From a reader in Shanghai:
    Mr. Fallows, Mr. Ferguson, it sounds like *somebody* needs a beer summit!

    1930s Felix from here; animated-pacing Felix here.

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

    Let me tell this one in order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dear Paul and James,

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

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

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


    Niall Ferguson.

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


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

    Paul Krugman on the same subject here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • One more on the selling of "death panels"

    A reader writes:

    "I'm not sure if it has been pointed out yet, but the whole "Death Panel" bullshit is especially ironic given that the ability of insurance companies to grant/deny access to healthcare is effectively a death panel. Can't afford a plan? Tough luck. Not eligible for whatever reason? Tough luck."

    This illustrates the biggest change in the rhetoric of health care reform over the past year. Last summer, during the campaign, Obama succeeded in focusing attention on the real problems of the patchwork insurance-and-care system as it actually exists: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. Now, various opponents of a reform plan have succeeded in shifting attention to the imagined problems of a post-reform system: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. It is an achievement to ponder.


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