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.
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.
About ten days ago Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself giving a speech and handling a Q&A with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing — and doing it in Chinese. You've probably seen it already, but here it is again just in case.
A few hours later, Isaac Stone Fish of FP posted an item with his answer to the question that most Westerners who've been in China had been asked by their friends. Namely, How did Zuckerberg sound? And his answer was harsh. It began:
I've gotten several emails asking about how Zuckerberg's Mandarin is. In a word, terrible.
Four years ago, when Republicans were sweeping the boards in many midterm contests, the Tea Party faction had one of its biggest and strangest victories in Maine. Biggest, in that the Tea Party Republican candidate who became Maine's governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the most right-wing governor in the country, serving in what is far from the most right-wing state. Strangest, in that he eked out a victory not over the Democratic candidate, who faded badly in the last weeks of the campaign, but over the independent Eliot Cutler.
That race four years ago was full of what-ifs. What if the Democrats, when it became clear that their candidate (Libby Mitchell) was sinking to a distant third, had explicitly or implicitly thrown in the towel or backed Cutler—similar to what is happening now in the Senate race in Kansas? What if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that the real race was between Cutler and LePage? What if the Maine moderate/centrists who have sent the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Angus King to Washington had a clearer picture of how hardline LePage was going to be in office? What if the dynamics had shifted a few days earlier, so that Cutler had caught up in time? In the end LePage beat Cutler by 10,000 votes, with Mitchell another 100,000 behind.
As I wrote back in 2010, Eliot Cutler and his wife Melanie are close friends of ours; their daughter Abby, who is now a doctor, once worked for The Atlantic. That meant I wasn't a dispassionate observer, but also that I knew Eliot well enough to be enthusiastic about what he could have done as governor.
This year two things are similar: LePage has been running as a Republican, and Cutler as an independent. The big difference is that the Democrats have unified earlier, and more powerfully, behind a stronger candidate than last time. This is Representative Mike Michaud, from Maine's northern—and poor, and rural—Second Congressional District.
Two months ago, I noted that Angus King, who won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate as an independent, had endorsed Eliot Cutler. Since then, the race has fallen into a pattern with Michaud and LePage closely matched at just under 40 percent support, with Cutler below 20 percent, even after strong performances in a recent string of debates.
Yesterday two significant press conferences occurred. First, Eliot Cutler said that if people supported him but thought he could not win, they had his blessing to vote strategically—that is, to act as if it were a run-off between the other two candidates, even though he was staying in the race.
Then, his crucial supporter Angus King said that, in effect, he would be voting strategically, and switched his endorsement to Mike Michaud. As King put it (via a Politico story):
“Eliot Cutler is a fine man who would make a good governor of our state,” King said in a statement. “But, like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014 .… The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud.”
These moves obviously change the nature of the race, and they avoid another potential what-if: What if a clear majority of Maine's voters wanted not to have Paul LePage for another four years, but got just that because of a split in the liberal-centrist vote?
This also heightens the importance of what Eliot Cutler said yesterday, after saying that his supporters should feel free to pay attention to the polls when considering their vote:
For those voters who have been seized with anxiety and who don’t want fear to become an indelible hallmark of politics in Maine I have a single request: Regardless of whether you vote for me or someone else, please join me in supporting the proposed citizens’ initiative on ranked choice voting and sign a petition at the polls on November 4 to bring ranked choice voting to a vote of the people in a referendum.
The machinery of democracy is already flawed in enough ways, inadvertent and intentional, and the match between party alignment and popular wishes is already sufficiently askew, that we need to seize any opportunity to fix easily correctible errors. So if I were in Maine, in addition to considering "strategic" voting, I would sign that petition. People of Maine, over to you.
The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.
The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.
• The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;
• It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.
• If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.
• Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.
• Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.
• At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."
Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:
This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.
Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.
There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.
This week Claire Cain Miller of the NY Timesreported on an interesting migration trend. The young, college-educated, professional-and-entrepreneurial class we expect to see concentrating in Brooklyn, the SF Bay Area, DC, Seattle, and three or four other usual-suspect big cities is also now showing up in medium-sized and small places. The story was based on a new study, "Young and Restless," from City Observatory.
This is exactly in parallel with what we've been seeing and reporting on, in locales as non-usual-suspect as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Greenville, South Carolina, or Holland, Michigan, or Redlands, California. Now Deb Fallows has a report on this same phenomenon in the capital city of her home state: Columbus, Ohio.
There was a tragic mid-air collision this afternoon near Frederick airport, KFDK in aviation talk, about 40 miles north of Washington DC. A helicopter, initially reported as a four-seat Robinson R44, collided with a four-seat Cirrus SR-22 airplane as the Cirrus was preparing to land. Three people aboard the helicopter are all reported to have died. The two aboard the airplane were (at current reports) released from the hospital with minor injuries.
Frederick Airport is well known in the aviation world, as the home base of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, AOPA. This accident is obviously a tragedy for all involved, and one close to home for me. I took my private-pilot exam at Frederick Airport; I've landed there maybe a hundred times, on training exercises or to get my plane repaired or to meet people at AOPA. Also, the plane involved is the same year and model (a 2006 SR-22) as the one we have been flying for our travels.
Points about this episode, starting and ending with sympathies for those involved.
1) Although the most famous airline mid-air collision happened in the middle of nowhere, over the Grand Canyon, nearly 60 years ago, in non-airline flying the main place where this is a risk is right around airports. Flying cross country, you can go for very long periods without coming within a dozen miles of another airplane. But since airplane flights need to wind up at airports, the closer you get to one, the more likely you are to see other planes.
Over the weekend, in No. 13 from the Ulysses-scale saga* of California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, a reader from the Silicon Valley tech industry said that his state should just forget about railroads—normal, high-speed, maglev, or whatever. Instead it should embrace the future represented by self-driving cars. (For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4,No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, and No. 13. Today's is No. 14.)
Almost no one who's written in since then agrees. Here is a sampling of the case made, in dozens of messages, against self-driving cars as a realistic transport hope. Let's start with reader D.G. in the Maryland suburbs near Washington D.C.:
I have been reading your HSR series with great interest, even though I live on the wrong coast, since, as you point out, the decision California makes here will strongly influence the direction the rest of the country takes. I have no expertise in this area, only a strong interest in planning issues, as they relate to quality of life, climate change, safety, and other public policy concerns.
I am moved to respond to the message from your info-tech reader regarding the relative virtues of self-driving car technology and HSR.
First, I observe that the reader's view embodies two infuriating and too-common tendencies when considering any public policy issue.
Rebecca Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy, a friend of our family, and the author of a great new book called War Dogs. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, a man who does not lightly distribute praise, gave it a very positive review in the Post this past Sunday ("exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving"). The NYTBR wrote about the book here, and you can hear her on the Diane Rehm show here.
This evening at 7, I'll be leading a discussion with Rebecca Frankel at the Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington. Tickets are $12, but you get two free tickets with the purchase of one of her books for $26. More details here. I am looking forward to talking with her, and I hope to see you there.
"Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.
For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.
1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.
Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:
But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.
This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*
My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.
By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.
The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:
A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.
Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."
Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.
* For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."
I give the "by friends" disclosure just for the record. I mention these books because, whether or not I'd known their authors, I would think they deserved attention. And I'll mention each as tersely as I can, both so you can discover their virtues for yourself and because if I waited to do "real" writeups I'd probably never get around to it.
1) All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff. Erik and his wife Laura D'Andrea Tyson were friends of ours when my wife and I lived for a while in their home town of Berkeley, and when they lived for a while in our current home town of DC. Erik has been a successful screenwriter and novelist, plus a correspondent here. Two of my favorites from his oeuvre are Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book.
His newest book is a love story, heartbreak story, mystery story, cultural portrait, and character study set in Berkeley from the late 1960s through the present. It is carried by its dialogue, which I mean as a compliment, and every few pages I marked a sharp observation or witticism I wanted to remember. You will enjoy it.
2) The Dog, by Jack Livings. I don't know this author, but I do have friends involved with the book at its publisher, FSG. The book is a collection of short stories set in contemporary China, featuring people very different from those who usually come to foreign attention. You can get an idea by reading the title short story as published in the Paris Review nine years ago.
I am wary of harping too often on the gulf between the varied, chaotic, contradictory, simultaneously horrible-and-uplifting, vividly human on-scene realities of China, and the simplified view of either an economic juggernaut or a buttoned-up central-control state that necessarily comes through many media filters. But I'll harp on it again, because one of the rewards of this book is the range of vividly human experience its presents. Plus, Jack Livings is a very gifted story-teller.
3) China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell It to Them, by Michael Zakkour. I do know and like Zakkour, whom I met with while in China. His book is worth reading alongside The Dog, because it depicts what seems to be an entirely different universe from the one of Jack Livings's stories, but which in fact coexists within the same national borders.
For all the problems the "Chinese model" is now encountering, for all of the doubt about when the supposedly reformist president Xi Jinping will switch from merely cracking down on dissenters and enemies and start loosening up, hundreds of millions of people inside China are moving onto a different economic plane. This is a business-minded book about some of the ramifications of that change.
4) The Tinderbox Way, by Mark Bernstein. This is an odd entry, in that the book is not new, and my occasion for mentioning is a podcast rather than a physical or electronic book.
Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.
Bonus! 5) Also on the "works by friends" theme, please see John Tierney's latest American Futures dispatch, on the surprising new growth industry of, yes, meaderies in an industrial area of Pennsylvania.
I recognize that the social-intellectual ecology of blogging is different from what it was even three or four years ago. Back then—ah, the lost Golden Age of the Blog!—it was easy to assume, or imagine, an ongoing, incremental process of working out concepts in public and exploring evidence as it emerged. This was the era and the mood that Andrew Sullivan captured in his "Why I Blog" cover story for The Atlantic in November, 2008.
The autumn of 2008 is "only" six years in the past, but it seems a different universe. George W. Bush was still the president. At least for supporters, Barack Obama was most strongly identified with the word Hope. The world economy, rather than being "troubled" as it is now, was in full-fledged panic. (Worth remembering for perspective on today's "volatile" stock markets: The Dow Jones average went from the 14,000s to the 6,000s within a little more than a year.)
Twitter was just a glimmer; Facebook had barely one-tenth as many users as it does today. And online discourse, because of the relative "calm" of that era, seems in retrospect something from the days of Emerson and Melville, of Addison and Steele. Our magazine, The Atlantic, had Andrew Sullivan and a handful of other online "Voices." Collectively we put up a relative handful of items per day.
It's the age of superabundance now in all things digital: opinions, outlets, connections, sources of insight and misinformation and distraction. That makes the thinking-in-public process more complex than it seemed six years ago, since it's harder to assume that any reader has had the time to follow a discussion. There's a greater risk that a single comment will be taken out of context—and a vastly greater likelihood that it won't be seen at all. On the other hand, this may return the thinking-out-loud process to something like its normal, pre-Golden-Age-of-Blogs condition, in which you think mainly to yourself and with a small group of onlookers and every so often try to get broader attention for the results.
Three more installments to go! This is No. 13 in a series, started back in July, on the biggest infrastructure project underway in America, and either the most important one (if you're a supporter) or most misguided (if you are not). That's the proposal for a north-south California High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, which Governor Jerry Brown has embraced as his legacy project and is selling hard in his re-election campaign. For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12.
Today, mail from some readers who say that California needs a better land-transportation system, just not this specific HSR proposal. Their alternative suggestions come in two main categories: taking seriously the possibility of self-driving cars, and changing from a conventional wheels-on-rails railroad system to the maglev systems, for "magnetic levitation," now in use in some other parts of the world. I also get mail in a third category, involving Elon Musk's "Hyperloop" transport vision, but that one is still hypothetical enough that I'll leave it for another time.
Before you point it out: Yes, I'm aware that responding to any proposal by saying, "I like the idea, I'm just not sure of the execution" often has the same effect as "Actually, I don't like the idea." That's for later. My purpose for the moment is to let advocates of these systems lay out the main points in their cases. The grand unification theory is still to come.
We're on the road again, right now in the not-exactly-small city of Pittsburgh. Here we're asking about some of its celebrated successes in downtown revitalization, technology-hub development, and other indicators of civic health, and the lessons they may offer for other parts of the country. More on that anon.
For now, I direct your attention to two new reports from Columbus, Ohio. One, by Deb Fallows, is on the unusual approach that the Cristo Rey religious schools are taking for students from poor backgrounds. The other, by John Tierney, is about how the often-empty buzzword of "collaboration" has real effects for a variety of startup businesses.
Herewith an item from the email inbox. The sender is someone I don't know, and the country he is discussing is one I have never been to or written about.
Most reporters get lots of PR pitches each day. This one seemed worth sharing as a little glimpse into today's news ecology.
We’ve never actually worked together, but I’m hoping to build a stronger relationship between my practice and The Atlantic.
I recently accepted a position in [a big PR firm's] Foreign Governments practice, and will be representing a number of foreign entities that you’ve covered in the past. I’d love to take you out for a drink or a cup of coffee to figure out what topics you’re interested in and discuss how I can connect you with the appropriate foreign officials.
On another note, next week, two human rights experts from [a country sometimes in the news for human rights issues] will be in Washington, DC to discuss the report they’ve just published that directly challenges the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) methodologies in investigating human rights violations. Using [their country] as a case study, their research reveals evidence that raises serious questions about the UNHRC’s impartiality and its ability to be an effective oversight body investigating human rights violations.
Given the heightened activity level of the UNHRC right now and some of the serious charges raised in this report, this is going to be a topic US and foreign policymakers are talking about in the coming months. They have a number of meetings lined up next week, but given your knowledge on the subject, I’d appreciate the opportunity to introduce them to you.
The two experts who are visiting are both [Country X]-based international affairs experts.
[ ... Extensive details on the two experts ... ]
I would be happy to provide you with copies of the report in advance and make both available to you during their visit to Washington.
I will call you later this week to inquire about a possible meeting, but in the meantime, I may be reached by replying to this email or calling 202-xxx-xxxx.
Looking forward to connecting,
For previous installments in the "glamorous life" series, you can start here or here or here or get a big collection here.
The photo above does not include any products of America's largest and best known craft brewery, the Boston Beer Company that produces Sam Adams. But it's a useful reference for several craft-beer-related points.
Today John Tierney has a new item on the Beer Economy of Pennsylvania and the role it plays in the identity and economy of the region. I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health. John Tierney explains more about their role in the historic brewing stronghold of the Lehigh Valley.