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: Reviews

  • 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.

  • The independent-minded Gregg Easterbrook

    Gregg Easterbrook -- of the Washington Monthly, the New Republic, the Atlantic, Brookings, ESPN, and probably half a dozen places I am forgetting -- is a long-time friend of mine. He is also is about the most independent-minded, sometimes contrary, person to come out of the Washington Monthly culture, which is saying something. A three-book series over the last decade -- A Moment on the Earth, Beside Still Waters, and The Progress Paradox -- took on liberal conventional wisdom about the environment, spirituality, and the nature of economic life in a brave (and overall convincing) way.

    Consistent with his nature, Gregg has neve been shy about saying, in public, when he disagrees with his friends. Indeed much of the item linked here (from his wonderful TMQ feature, which of course is mainly about football) consists of disagreeing with me, about my preceding book. But the item also had the following to say about my current book, which -- knowing that praise from Gregg is far from automatic -- i gratefully reprint:

    His brilliant new book "Blind into Baghdad" is the most important thing anyone has written about the Iraq War. Read it.

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