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.

James Fallows: Postcards

  • Two Craft Points on Obama's Parliament Speech

    'The queen, the pope, and Nelson Mandela walk into a bar....'

    It was an admirable speech, and so on, but that's not what interests me. Instead let's consider beginnings and endings.

    Beginnings. You can usually see the "light" or "droll" touches in speeches like this coming from miles away. Therefore they are usually met with obligatory polite laughter, masking the inner groans. The second and third jokes Obama made at the opening of the speech were from this proud tradition:

    Of course, all relationships have their ups and downs.  Admittedly, ours got off on the wrong foot with a small scrape about tea and taxes.  (Laughter.)  There may also have been some hurt feelings when the White House was set on fire during the War of 1812.  (Laughter.)

    Hardee-har! When an American President visits the UK, there has to be a "light" remark of this sort about those early "unfortunate misunderstandings" and that time the Brits burned the White House down.

    But the first joke he told was genuinely funny, because in the circumstances it was genuinely daring:

    I have known few greater honors than the opportunity to address the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster Hall.  I am told that the last three speakers here have been the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen, and Nelson Mandela -- which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.  (Laughter.)  

    Daring? Yes. The day after having dinner with the Queen, when addressing the Parliament of which she is nominal supreme leader, to raise in everyone's mind the image of a joke starting, "the Queen, the Pope, and Nelson Mandela walk into a bar..." was a risk. Obama's straight-arrow bearing increases the incongruity and therefore the power of the joke. (Imagine George W. Bush telling it.) I would love to have heard the discussions about whether it was a "seemly" thing to say, in that setting. Glad they used it, because it worked.

    2) Endings. In circumstances where his otherwise-obligatory speech ending obviously does not fit, Obama has found a new and worthy formulation to use. What he said to the Brits is a minor variant of what he said in his speech about the Arab world and the Middle East last week. Today to the Parliament:

    With courage and purpose, with humility and with hope, with faith in the promise of tomorrow, let us march straightforward together, enduring allies in the cause of a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just.

    Last week, in the Arab-world speech:

    Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.

    We have found a theme.

  • Placeholder for later news: Google-China, RMB-China, "cyber war," etc

    Why "cyber threat" is not "cyber war," plus a jazz classic about the filibuster.

    In a different world -- specifically, one in which I was going to be near a computer more than hurriedly today -- I would try to say something about the apparently-impending next crisis point in the Google-China showdown, about a similar intensifying disagreement over China's currency policies, and about the coming health care vote -- and of course about the final outcome of migrating all my email files from Outlook to Gmail. In the world I actually inhabit, here are quick links on two important topics:

    1) Cyber threat (true) versus "cyber war" (false): As I argued last month in the Atlantic, the vulnerability of computerized info systems -- which control our finances, run much of our infrastructure, and in other ways keep the modern world modern -- deserves more sustained public attention than it has gotten. But attention is different from panic; and much of what we have heard recently about the looming cyber danger has the unmistakable tone of faddish exaggeration, and "threat inflation." Threat inflation is a Beltway term of art for hyping public concern about an issue, and then transforming that fear into federal contracting dollars.

    James Lewis of the CSIS in Washington, whom I quoted several times in my story, has a very useful new essay here explaining the difference between "threat" and "war" -- starting with the basic fact that most electronic intrusions so far have been by "normal" criminals or by businesses spying on their competitors. Definitely worth reading. For a broadside against the larger concept of "cyber war," see this, in Wired.

    (Yes, I know that the title of my article was "Cyber Warriors." But, hey! 1) I'm just the writer; 2) the first half of the article talked about the Chinese military in general, or "warriors" in the normal sense; 3) the "to do" part of the article was mainly about non-bellicose, non-budget-inflating ways to deal with the problem. Plus 4) nobody's perfect!)

    2) The filibuster (bad) versus commentary on filibuster (good). There is a lot of movement in this field (and I will link to past items once our previous "category" feature for our website is restored). Soon I'll report on a recent interview I had with former Senator Bob Graham on the topic. For now, it's worth checking out yesterday's commentary by my friend Timothy Noah on CBS Sunday Morning. Bonus points to him for working in Billie Holiday's macabre Strange Fruit and explaining why that song, and not Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, should be the real pop-culture reference point for filibuster discussions. See his comments on embedded player, below.



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  • FT, Economist, and me

    - Very nice brief review of my Postcards book today, by Rahul Jacob in the FT. I am grateful for his seeing just the points I was trying to make.

    - From the Economist's online site, a thought-experiment designed to show the ultimate folly of protectionism. This item has also been picked up by the Atlantic's own Andrew Sullivan.

    This isn't the place for a full discussion of the differences between the world as laid out in a first-semester ec course and the world as it actually operates. My unified field theory on the topic is in this Atlantic story, "How the World Works," from 1993.

    But this is the place to point out the basic logic error in the "thought experiment." Here's what the Economist's site said:

    "But the idiocy of the whole idea [of tariffs and protectionism] can be understood with a simple thought experiment, which I haven't seen used elsewhere.

    "If tariffs are such a good economic idea, then why stop at national boundaries? If they make everyone richer, why not have customs posts between New York and New Jersey? Cars entering and leaving the Lincoln tunnel would have to pay, on top of the toll, a surcharge on all the goods they contain. Why not, indeed, make New York and New Jersey self-sufficient in all their needs, making all their own cars, growing all their own food etc?"

    Here's the difference between commerce involving New York and New Jersey, and commerce involving, say, the U.S. and China. New York and New Jersey are in the same country. Why does this matter? Let's try a little thought experiment.

    Suppose you grow up in New Jersey. By the time you're looking for a job, the flow of capital, ideas, and innovation may mean that the best opportunities are in New York. Or Idaho, Or California. Sentimentally, perhaps you'd rather not move away from home. But in a pure economic sense, it doesn't matter in where the action is. You're free to move there. Within the national borders of the United States, there are only trivial, incidental impediments to citizens moving wherever they want. All "factors of production" -- money, material, people -- can flow freely throughout the country, for maximum efficiency. That's what the ec textbooks call for, and that's how it can work within a given country, or a free-movement zone like in Europe.

    But it's not the same between countries. If you grow up in New Jersey and the real opportunities are in Shanghai, you can't necessarily move there. You may not be able to move there even if you grow up in Qinghai province, China. People do move across national borders, legally and illegally. Immigration is America's distinctive strength, so I'm glad as many move here as do. But in general, people's economic well-being depends very heavily on the industries and opportunities in the country where they are born.

    Pointing this out doesn't prove protectionism right -- or wrong, as a strategy for developing a national economy. I'm on record as arguing that open Chinese-US trade has been good for both sides. But it does mean that the "thought experiment" makes no sense. There's a first-order difference between the flow of factors within a country and the flow between countries. I suspect this is the reason we haven't seen this powerful analogy "used elsewhere."

  • For the record: three book reviews

    I am grateful for, and note for the record, three recent and positive reviews of my Postcards from Tomorrow Square.

    Here, by Sam Oglesby, in the Philadelphia Bulletin (newspaper from the city of my birth);

    Here, by John Pomfret, in the Washington Post (newspaper from the city where I usually live);

    Here, by John Guise, in the China Economic Review (magazine from the country where I'm living now).

    So where's the Redlands Daily Facts? Newspaper from the city of my childhood. But I digress.

    The nature of the book-writing life is often to grind your teeth about the insights and sublime subtleties of your argument that brutish (or biased!) reviewers have somehow missed. In these cases I feel fortunate in reviewers who saw and explained exactly the points I was trying to make. Also, these writers are Genuine China Hands -- including Pomfret, whose Chinese Lessons is a genuinely important book. Now, back to work.

  • 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.

  • Edging back into connectivity: Kennedy Library Forum

    Ten days ago, in what seems a different lifetime, I was at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston for one of its "Kennedy Library Forum" presentations. Dr. Lincoln Chen, founder of Harvard's Global Equity Initiative, led an hour-long discussion about China and America (just before he went to the airport for a trip to China himself), followed by half an hour of Q-and-A from the audience.

    JFKLibraryImage.jpg

    I enjoyed his questions a lot, plus the general direction the discussion took. Minnesota Public Radio has a webcast of the program here. I believe that Boston's own WBUR will eventually do so here as well. FWIW.

  • 'On Point' interview with Tom Ashbrook

    Twenty-plus years ago, Tom Ashbrook and I were both in Japan, reporting on its ups and eventual downs. He did so for the Boston Globe, I for an outstanding literary-political monthly founded in 1857. He has since been a high-tech entrepreneur, author of a book (which I really liked) about that high-tech adventure, and now a successful WBUR/NPR radio host. I was on his On Point program today, talking about, in part, a compare-and-contrast between Japan and China plus other topics. Webcast here.

    I fear that the Tom Waits-like effects on my voice of 30+ months of breathing l'air Chinois are becoming more evident each time I open my mouth. Oh well. Finally I have an excuse to start smoking.*
    ____
    * Just a little joke. The one thing my parents said they absolutely, completely, unconditionally would not allow would be for their kids to smoke. My dad brought up this point one evening after he had, by chance, spent the entire day at the office telling one patient after another that the cough they'd been having or that tickle in their throat was actually lung- or throat-cancer. And he was a normal internist, not an oncologist! It impressed me.

  • JFK Library event, Boston, January 25

    On Sunday, January 25 (tomorrow as I write), I will be at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston for a Kennedy Library Forum presentation moderated by Dr. Lincoln Chen, at 2pm. Discussion about China, my recent book, Presidential speeches, and so on. Information here. See you there.

  • Fresh Air update, concluding family comments

    Webcast of yesterday's interview on Fresh Air available online here.

    After we'd discussed the People's Bank of China, RMB/$ exchange rates, the "financial balance of terror" between China and the US, and similar worthy topics, Terry Gross asked me in the closing moments about the deaths of my parents. Specifically, why I'd written on this site about my father's death two months ago today. (My mother died unexpectedly, and relatively young, in her sleep nearly five years ago.)

    I didn't know she would ask this but in retrospect am glad that she did. As I fumbled to explain in real time, part of my instinct in making a private matter public was the sense that people with the virtues of my parents -- talented, loving, curious, hopeful people who poured their heart and effort into the betterment of their small community and the well-being of their family -- deserve more celebration than they typically get, precisely because they have chosen not to operate on a broad public stage. My parents were very well known in our home town but unknown outside of it. It gave me heart to think that people who had never encountered them might hear something about the lives they led.
     
    As my siblings have taken turns cleaning out our dad's house, they have come across hundreds of pictures that none of us had ever seen before. Parents are always old to their children. When parents have lived to an objectively advanced age and then physically run down, as my dad did, it is startling to be reminded how vigorous and, yes, beautiful they had once been. My mom and dad's youth is what we are discovering after their deaths.

    Thus, and as the real end to this commemorative series, three pictures I had never seen while my parents were living, part of a huge collection that my brother-in-law Bryan Neider is digitizing from old, brittle prints. The first are of my parents in the late 1940s, around the time of their wedding when she was 20 and he was 23. (His wedding ring is visible in the second shot.) Then, one of the rare pictures of my dad in which he's not smiling. Here he is wearing his game face, as the four-quarters, every-play offensive and defensive lineman known as Tiger Jim. These are people we never knew and are meeting now.

    Fallows - Mackenzie 322.jpg

    Fallows - Mackenzie 345.jpg

    Fallows - Mackenzie 249(2).jpg

  • Selamat Tahun Baru!

    Or Happy New Year, as they put it in the Indonesian language I have been hearing around me for the past week. That week has coincided with enforced separation from the mighty Internet -- not a bad way to spend time with one's family! -- which in turn leaves me behind on various year-end updates still to come.

    But I can't let this day pass, nor this moment of online connection, without mentioning that my new book Postcards from Tomorrow Square goes on sale today, with official pub date early next month. Random House's catalog listings here. Random House's e-book format is here, and Amazon's Kindle format is here.  A very nice set of quotes, for which I'm grateful, here.

    PostcardCover.JPG

    I won't make a habit of book promo, but I include this link to an email Q-and-A that Kate Merkel-Hess, of the influential blog The China  Beat, conducted with me about the book and the general process of writing about China. She evoked from me an admission I'd long managed to avoid:

    Ahah! You have cruelly revealed the trademarked secret of everything I've ever written for the magazine! 

    Further details and secrets at the China Beat site. Further promised year-end updates on software, hardware, the press, and China in this space very soon. New Year's greetings for now.

  • Advance review from Publisher's Weekly

    I won't do this systematically, because that would mean I'd have to include bad reviews too!, but for the record here is an early, nice PW note on my forthcoming collection of China writings, Postcards from Tomorrow Square. It's a "starred" review about halfway down the page that this link brings up. Actual text of the review after the jump. The book is a Vintage paperback original (bargain!) and has a pub date of January.  (Links through Amazon, B&N, Powell's.) 

    PostcardCover.JPG

    _____


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