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.
  • Frankie Jose

    For the next few days I am back in Shanghai, my original home town in China, but earlier this week, while away from the internet, was in the Philippines. There the happiest discovery was that F. Sionil Jose, the writer and political theorist universally known as "Frankie," is still in fine,  feisty shape. This picture makes him look more torpid, and less jovial, than he really is. Click for larger, including detail of the poster on the window of his bookstore.


    Frankie Jose is the main reason I watch the Nobel Prize lists each fall: I'm waiting to see if the Literature panel has gotten around to giving him his award. For decades he has been his country's leading novelist, renowned especially for his "Rosales" series of novels, which depict much of the Phillipines' troubled 20th century history. To compare him to Solzhenitsyn would be misleading, in that Jose rarely goes more than thirty seconds in conversation without breaking out into a guffaw. (This picture is in one of the atypically sober-looking moments.) In his life and in his writing, he has a large dose of Rabelais. If Bill Clinton were a major novelist, he might be a model.

    Every time I've met Jose over the last 20-plus years, he's said, "Jim, I am getting so much fatter!" -- with a big laugh, because he loves food (among other pleasures) so much. But Jose has a deadly-serious claim to being the conscience of his nation - at legal and physical risk during the Marcos years and as a sobering voice in the years since then. An article in Time last week emphasized his impact and role.

    Back in 1991 I wrote* about a trip with Jose through his native Ilocos region of the Philippines. It is not yet on line in our archives. (If our web team can put it up, tThe link will go is here. For now, you can find an expanded version only in Looking at the Sun.) What was remarkable, I thought and still think, was his management of contradictions: his dark view of the Philippines' predicament and his sunnyness as a person; his role as intellectual and artiste with connections around the world, but also as locally-rooted political activist -- and practical-minded businessman and entrepreneur, with his renowned publishing house and bookstore called Solidaridad.


    Solidaridad is in the same site I remember, on Padre Faura avenue in the old Ermita section of Manila. Its stock of books from around the world is better than I remembered, and more extensive than anything I have seen in China.

    If you haven't read any of Jose's books, you have a treat ahead. And Nobel committee: get cracking! Frankie is full of vigor and witticism now, at 84, just as he was in his early 60s when I first met him. At this rate, he could go for decades. But why wait to give him his due?

    With his wife Teresita, to whom his latest novel, Sherds, is dedicated, and his recent visitor:

    * "The Ilocos: A Philippine Discovery'' The Atlantic MonthlyMay 1991

  • Better news out of the midwest: Mischke back in business

    Previous bad news entries reported the dethronement of St. Paul's own Tommy Mischke as a radio talk-show host. My profile of Mischke from eight years ago in the Atlantic is here; it included this photo of the artist at work:


    As reported in MinnPost.com and Czerniec.com, Mischke is back in business -- as of today. Details of the first webcast, which will be weekdays from 2pm to 4pm Central time starting March 4, are in the two previous links plus at CityPages.com, which will host the show. Enjoy.

  • Tom Geoghegan comes in 7th

    Congratulations to Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, who came in first, with 22% of the vote, and gets the Democratic nomination (in an overwhelmingly Democratic district) to succeed Rahm Emanuel as Representative from the 5th District of Illinois.

    Tom Geoghegan, often mentioned here, finished in 7th place with 6% of the vote. After the jump, the email he just sent out to supporters.

    As I've said all along, I don't know the politics of the district but I do know that Geoghegan is an outstanding voice and thinker in contemporary politics. If his run for Congress, unsuccessful at this stage, call more attention to his books and outlook, it will have done some good. And having some idea of how hard it is to run for any political office, my heart is with just about anyone who gives it a try. (Just about....)

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  • Let a thousand-and-one flowers bloom at the Atlantic!

    (Following the previous thousand blooming flowers, here.)

    I hear via my aviation grapevine that my colleague Andrew Sullivan is making fun of Newt Gingrich in general, and in specific for this idea about modernizing the US air-traffic control system:

    [Newt says:] "One of the projects I'm going to launch -- we don't have a name for it yet -- is an air-traffic modernization project... You can do a space-based air-traffic-control system with half the current number of air-traffic controllers, increase the amount of air traffic in the northeast by 40 percent, allow point-to-point flights without the controllers having to have highways in the sky, and reduce the amount of aviation fuel by 10 percent."
    [Andrew asks:] Why would I be even more terrified to get on a plane after that "reform"?

    As for making fun of Newt in general, have at it! But on this idea, he turns out to be saying something smart.

    To play the role of Mr. Gradgrind for a moment, if you're terrified getting on a plane, it has to be for reasons beyond the realm of the statistical or the "reality-based," since on average this is about the safest way you can spend your time. Often entire years pass without a single death from a crash on US airlines - something that can't be said of riding in a car, walking down the street, taking a bath, lying in your own bed, etc. Yes, when things go wrong, they're grisly, but traffic deaths, random murders, bathtub drownings, etc are also bad ways to go.  (And yes, yes, I realize that Andrew is exaggerating for effect.)

    Still, there are risks both real and perceived in flying. The system Gingrich is talking about is designed to reduce at least the real ones.

    What he has in mind is no doubt a variant of what is called "NextGen," for Next Generation Transportation. It involves a satellite-based navigation system (think: GPS) called ADS-B. Not everyone agrees on every detail of these new systems. But the approach as a whole constitutes a mature, vetted, sensible, picked-over-for-years proposal that has most everything going for it except the long, slow process of getting it accepted and implemented. I described its potential back in 2001 in this Atlantic cover story and the related book Free Flight. More available here, here, here, and here.

    As for why this system is more modern: Today's air traffic control system is essentially like a telephone network in which you must ring up a central switchboard and ask an operator's help in placing each call. The new system would allow a lot more automated routing - with less needless, switchboard-operator-type human intervention but (as with anything in aviation) human and automated safety measures piled on triple-depth.

    As for why it could be more efficient and ultimately safer: Today's system funnels a great deal of traffic through a small number of specified routes - which therefore become the only crowded places in the sky. A newer system would allow more planes to take a variety of courses, staying out of each other's way. (It doesn't solve the problem of too many airplanes wanting to land at the same few over-crowded airports, but as a side effect it is designed to make smaller, under-used airports more attractive and practical.) In a sense it's like the difference between cars, which can take a variety of routes through town, and trolleys, which go where the tracks are laid and nowhere else. I am oversimplifying, but there actually is something to Gingrich's plan. It's part of what is good about him, not what's bad.

    Should this be the basis of the GOP's new program? They could do a lot worse -- and, as I'm sure Andrew agrees, they probably will.

  • New hope for Bobby Jindal

    Still in the internet twilight zone, but happened to pass a TV that was, improbably enough, replaying Bobby Jindal's "response" speech from last week. I am the last person to say this, but let me confirm the prevailing view: Wow.

    One way to think of this is: It's been a mixed week for the Rhodes Scholar tribe. Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, known in RS parlance as being of "Tennessee and Balliol College," has just been named the new White House health-reform czar(ina?), and Dominic Barton ("British Columbia and Brasenose College") was chosen capo di tutti capi of McKinsey & Co. Congratulations! On the other hand, we have .... that speech, by Gov. Jindal ("Louisiana and New College.") Maybe they can revoke these things for excessive public embarrassment? This could be called the Mel Reynolds provision? ("Illinois and Lincoln College, plus federal prison.")

    Actually there is both precedent and hope for Gov. Jindal. His speech was no more humiliating a flop than was the 1988 Democratic convention speech by that other boy-wonder southern governor then making his debut on the national stage, Bill Clinton ("Arkansas and University College.") Clinton very quickly figured out that if everyone was laughing at him, the only way to come out ahead was to join in and ultimately lead the hilarity. So within a week he was on the Tonight show trading barbs with Johnny Carson about just how terrible his speech had been. Politicians' self-deprecation can never be 100% sincere, but that doesn't matter. We appreciate the gesture.

    This pirouette is a little trickier for Jindal, because in addition to making fun (as Clinton did) of his ridiculous stage presence he'd probably also have to mock what he actually said, which was more or less the straight Limbaughesque anti-government line. If he's as smart as everyone thought until last week thinks, he'll figure out a way to show that he understands why people would snicker at a governor of Louisiana saying, "Who needs the federal government? Who needs warnings of natural disasters?" while recovery from Katrina is nowhere near complete. Turning the situation in his favor would be an act of Clintonlike dexterity, and would ideally happen under the auspices of today's Johnny Carson, Jon Stewart.

    Daily Show bookers, throw this man a lifeline! Gov. Bobby, follow the trail that Gov. Bill has blazed! And act soon. Self-deprecation delayed is self-deprecation that just makes things worse. I'd love to hear Clinton counsel Jindal on this one.

  • New hope for Bobby Jindal

    Still in the internet twilight zone, but happened to pass a TV that was, improbably enough, replaying Bobby Jindal's "response" speech from last week. I am the last person to say this, but let me confirm the prevailing view: Wow.

    One way to think of this is: It's been a mixed week for the Rhodes Scholar tribe. Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, known in RS parlance as being of "Tennessee and Balliol College," has just been named the new White House health-reform czar(ina?), and Dominic Barton ("British Columbia and Brasenose College") was chosen capo di tutti capi of McKinsey & Co. Congratulations! On the other hand, we have .... that speech, by Gov. Jindal ("Louisiana and New College.") Maybe they can revoke these things for excessive public embarrassment? This could be called the Mel Reynolds provision? ("Illinois and Lincoln College, plus federal prison.")

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  • Musical Chairs

    Michael Pettis is a finance pundit by day, a Beijing rock impresario by (very late) night.

  • Placeholder

    Am in the boondocks where internet connection is either nonexistent or nearly so. (Essay topic for advanced students: The world is not as knit-together as people think. Discuss!) So I am the one politically-interested American who has heard about but not actually seen either Pres. Obama's State of the Union Address-manque or the now-legendary response by Gov. Bobby Jindal. Just another illustration of the stoicism of plucky foreign correspondent as they roam around to bring you the news! Storing up responses on all these fronts, plus others, for early next week.

  • Interesting little tool to use during tonight's speech

    Speechwars.com, which lets you see how often presidents have used any given word in State of the Union addresses over the years. For instance, here are the varying uses of "freedom" and "liberty" since the earliest days:


    Lots of surprising results available. For instance, here is China-v-India:

    Try it for yourself to see how much is old and how much new in tonight's speech. (I'll be traveling while it happens so can't play along myself.) Hint: no S.O.U. address has yet contained the word "nationalization."

  • 美国欢迎您!

    Or, more simply, "America welcomes you!" The China Daily, beloved staple of my life in China these last few years, has just opened its US edition! Huzzah!

    Where, in today's downcast news environment, are we going to find headlines like this except in the China Daily?

    To understand why I love this paper so much, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and passim. Or put down that copy of The Onion and see for yourself. Welcome!

  • Book Report

    Books I've meant to mention individually, but which I'll never get to if I wait for time to do that. From the left in this first shot:
    Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck, introduction by Robert Kapp. Riveting and hilarious accounts of travels through WW II-era China by an American diplomat (and litterateur and artist), fascinating in their own right and all the more rewarding because of their resonance with the superficially-different China of 60+ years later.

    Typhoon, by Charles Cumming, previously mentioned here and elsewhere. I now have a sense of why this conceivably might have been detained by Chinese authorities when I ordered it before. It is largely about a CIA plot to destabilize the Chinese regime by working with Muslim/Uighur nationalists in Xinjiang region. If you're looking for an action-and-romance driven spy novel, as opposed to one mainly about mood and psychology, check it out.

    Beijing Coma, by the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian. You want dark, about the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen? This will give you very, very dark. Hint: the coma in the title is not simply figurative.

    Still on the China beat: Global Shanghai, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, very interesting historical/ intellectual / cultural analysis of the ways my former home town has been perceived as both a Chinese and a non-Chinese city.


    Finally, for Something Different: A Romance on Three Legs, by Katie Hafner. The author is a good friend, but even if she weren't I would find this a masterful demonstration of how to make a subject you didn't know you were interested in page-turning reading from beginning to end. The description of how the "action" of a piano actually works will stand as an example of how to explain complex processes lucidly.

    Read up!

  • For the record, a review I'm very grateful for

    In Blogcritics, by Xujun Eberlein, about Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a review whose first two or three paragraphs capture what I've been trying to do. I know it's not seemly to point out one's own good reviews, but this one meant a lot to me and I note it for the record. (Reprinted in China Beat here.) In the same vein, gratitude to Fareed Zakaria for a generous mention of the book on yesterday's GPS show.

    And while I'm at it, I'll be doing appearances for the book at the Shanghai Literary Festival on March 7 and 8 and the Beijing Literary Festival on March 19.

    Ok, I've got this out of my system now. Back to the F-22 etc.

  • F-22 fiesta

    A few days ago I said that I greatly enjoyed my colleague Mark Bowden's article about fighter aces but disagreed with his implication that the F-22 was the way to go for the Air Force or the country.

    I have heard from many readers since then -- a few supporting the F-22, most against it. I'll start here with one representative "pro" comment. After the jump, a number of the meatier anti-F-22 arguments.

    To be clear about a potentially awkward intramural point: although I disagree with Mark's conclusion, I am, as I said the first time, grateful for his engrossing article itself and for the opportunity it's created to air a range of opinion about a very important upcoming choice. He also has been extremely (and typically) mensch-like about the debate that his piece has inspired. 

    Pro comment -- rather, anti-anti -- from someone whose email address identifies him as an employee of a major defense contractor:

    Excuse me, but you seem to be caught up in the propaganda of the F-15 mafia.  The F-15 mafia and others have successfully reduced the numbers of F-22 production to the point where economies of scale are no longer possible.*  Unfortunately, those who really know the issues and the data, are not going to engage in a debate, because the result is to trash our country and our capability.  Because of freedom of speech, you are allowed too participate in a debate that has not helped our country.  No complex aircraft is without problems, but maintainers have never had an aircraft which provided so much capability on day one...

    The per unit cost isn't even the whole picture, the total life cycle cost is.  And cost is relative.  Do you have the numbers for all alternatives?  Anyway, you don't have the numbers, no one in the unclassifed media does. 

     * A major "anti" argument, as originally laid out by Chuck Spinney in 1991, was of course that economies of scale would never have been possible for this airplane, because the cost estimates used for the initial "buy-in" were implausibly low.

    More after the jump:

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  • Chinese viewers' guide to the Oscars! (updated)

    In my earlier report, I should have noted that it's for the benefit of the billion-strong local viewership that the Chinese broadcast of the Academy Awards is being tape-delayed some 12 hours, until airtime 10:30 tonight on CCTV-6. Bigger home audience than if it were shown live during the working day! And, of course, it takes a little while to add the Chinese subtitles and... how do we put this ... to harmonize* the program for domestic tastes.

    It would be unfair and surprise-spoiling to use my crystal ball (aka The Internets) to predict the Best Actor-etc winners. But I confidently make this prediction about harmonization:

    In the version of the Oscars shown in the US a few hours ago, Steven Spielberg got a lot of face time announcing the nominees and winners in the Best Picture category. This is the same Spielberg who one year ago very publicly backed out of planning the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, in protest of China's policies in Darfur.  ("I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue business as usual.") The eventual opening ceremony, under China's own Zhang Yimou, hardly lacked in spectacle -- but people here remember! My prediction: whatever CGI magic can be applied to make a presenter disappear from a presentation ceremony will be employed on Mr. Spielberg.  This gives me an excuse to stay up tonight and find out if I am right.

    (From Reuters: the face they won't see)
    * "Harmonization" = in local lingo, closing down or censoring web sites, publications, or broadcasts to avoid the spread of unwelcome views. Especially important for Oscar ceremonies, because who knows what these crazy Hollywood people will say.

    Update: I'll never know. Wasn't at a place that had CCTV-6 during the show.
    Update #2: According to Nathan Jackson of Shanghai,

    My wife and I watched the Oscars on CCTV6 last night and Spielberg indeed had his entire appearance cut. You can hear his voice for about 1 second, but the whole introduction of nominees is very crudely cut out of the show. Sean Penn also had a few cuts to his speech
  • Even more on US-China climate cooperation

    It can seem odd when something you've been expecting for years actually starts to occur.* Since practically the first discussion I had in China in mid-2006, I've been hearing that the US and China "had to" or "would soon" work together to deal with energy/environment issues, given that they are now the two most-polluting countries in the world. With the change of Administration in the US, it does indeed seem to be happening. At least, talk about it is happening -- including from Hillary Clinton, on her visit here this weekend -- with specifics on what the countries should do next.

    (Subtle reminder of why this would be useful: a recent view of Beijing:)

    I've previously mentioned the Asia Society/Pew and Brookings proposals for US-Chinese cooperation. Here is another one, from the National Resources Defense Council, which has been doing environmental work in and with China for a long time. As a bonus, here is the summary of its 9-point action plan:

    1. Engage in serious bilateral meetings on climate change and address the key sticking
    points to reaching meaningful agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009
    2. Establish a US-China forum on climate change strategies that promote green jobs and
    economic recovery
    3. Mobilize the untapped potential of energy efficiency
    4. Assist in the deployment of renewable energy sources and technologies
    5. Promote low-carbon, high-efficiency vehicles, fuels, transportation systems, and
    community development
    6. Expand research and investment on carbon capture and storage technology
    7. Improve greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and data transparency
    8. Conduct co-benefit analysis on GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions controls
    9. Invest in regular exchanges and sharing of expertise to improve enforcement of
    environmental law and energy efficiency standards.

    The full report spells out steps toward each of these goals. Like the others, worth reading and putting into action sometime soon.
    * And I'm not even talking about the long-predicted current financial meltdown.


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