UPDATE Thanks for excellent questions. I am leaving now but will return for a cleanup run around 6pm EST today and will answer as many more as I can at that time

Bonus Update at 4:30pm It will be a little later than 6, because I have some other press stuff to do today about my Obama piece in the magazine (no link because it's not online), but I will return some time this evening and spend another hour going through Qs. Thanks for interest.

Next-to-last Update 9:30pm, starting one more hour's pass through the Qs, working down on basis of best ranking. Thanks to all for interest.

Really last update 10:45pm Have to leave now. Have left more questions unanswered than I have dealt with, but have done my best. Appreciate the serious questions and attention. Have gotten a slew of "504 error when storing" problems in saving the last few reponses, so maybe that is a sign. Thanks to all.

Here's a little more background on my career:

I've been a national correspondent for The Atlantic since the late 1970s. Through about half that time I've lived in Washington DC. In the other half, I've lived in and reported from Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. I 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. I'm also an instrument-rated private pilot. Verification

I recently finished a long cover story about President Obama -- success? failure? genius? pawn? -- that will

appear in the next issue of The Atlantic, online next week. Here's a link to my current magazine archive and my blog at TheAtlantic.com. I write often about politics, foreign policy, and technology.

I'll answer as many questions as I can!

Comments: 447 • Responses: 59  • Date: 

jillrshah150 karma

Thanks so much for this opportunity - what are 5 essential books that you think all young people should read? Or people of all ages, for that matter.

Jfallows135 karma

This is one that I will, gasp, actually need to "think" about! I will return to this later in the hour or maybe later today. Thanks for asking.

Jfallows60 karma

Obviously this is an impossible question. So instead of giving 5 "essential" books I'll suggest several that are valuable to have read -- of hundreds possibly in that category.

If you like politics, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, or Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills. These are both oldish -- Cramer's about the 1988 presidential race, Wills's about Richard Nixon's rise through 1968. But they talk about trends in American politics that are both enduring and dated-in-interesting ways. What It Takes reveals more about the process of being a politician than most things you will come across -- fatigue, ability to endure humiliation, etc. Agonistes tells you about the way the current polarization we face got its start. Selling of the President: 1968, by Joe McGinnis, is also valuable in that latter way. __ OK, post break: obviously I am paralyzed by this. Random list of recent books I would like to allude to an assume that people are aware of

  • A Country Made by War, by Geoffrey Perrett, on the very, very long standing role of "national security as a tool of "nation-building" in the US.

  • The Tears of Autumn, by Charles McCarry, a fantasy-novel that does a superb job of explaining the politics of the era that gave way to ours.

  • Growing Up, by Russell Baker, explains the world my parents grew up in, a different America.

  • Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, made an impression on me for its pre-World War I foreshadowing.

  • Yeah yeah, Huckleberry Finn and The Red and the Black and Moby Dick and... (fill in the rest)

The clock has run out and I will stop here.

I'm going to take a break here, answer some "easier" questions, then will come back to add some more here.

atinbc22 karma

Do you have any advice in general for young people who admire you?

Jfallows43 karma

1) Accept my thanks! 2) Talk to my wife and kids.... 3) Will give more weighty reply shortly. But see point #1!

dogplayingpoker75 karma

What frustrates you the most about the news media today?

Jfallows122 karma

It's now been more than 15 years since I got my main frustrations about the media off my chest, with a book called 'Breaking the News.' It was considered quite harsh and "daring" at the time, but in retrospect it seems to reflect an innocent age and sensibility. For instance, cable news was just getting started then (Fox News had not yet started!). And newspapers were not really worried about their long-term survival.

Objectively, everything about the media is worse since then, but I actually direct less of my frustration/ire toward the media now, and more toward our situation of self-government and "public knowledge" in the larger sense. Back in 2010 I did a big cover story on the ways the news business would be able to re-invent itself CONT

Jfallows101 karma

.. and I think we are seeing signs of that occurring. We're now left in a situation where (a) individuals who WANT to inform themselves, about almost anything, have a richer array of sources than ever before in history; (b) people who want to express their views or offer testimony have fewer barriers to do it than ever before; (c) news organizations to address conditions (a) and (b) are able to make a go of it -- but still (d) as a whole political entity, we have a harder time deciding what is "true" and "important."

To sum this up: the news business is evolving and improving, and individuals face a golden age of info-availability. But the foundations of American democracy and self-government are a cause for serious worry.

RidinBiden20 karma

At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I want to thank you and the team at The Atlantic for bringing us news and discussion that's both serious, sane, and good humored.

What can readers/subscribers do to help protect and strengthen serious journalism? And what can we do to resist the insanity/propaganda model of journalism that holds at least a third of the country in its thrall?

JeffieM2 karma

To answer for Mr. Fallows... subscribe!

Jfallows3 karma

JeffieM has come up with, in fact, THE IDEAL ANSWER! If you can subscribe, that's a big help! And, beyond that, just showing the kind of engagement evident in this session, for which we're grateful.

zipsweep60 karma

After your time living in China, do you see the country's incredible growth trajectory as sustainable? Do you see China as the likely 21st century superpower?

Jfallows80 karma

Important question, obviously, and one that in a variety of guises I have been wrestling with in Atlantic articles / web posts over the past decade. Also (being well aware that this is not supposed to be a promo session) my upcoming book, China Airborne, is explicitly an attempt to answer that question.

IN SHORT: China has more, and much worse, problems than the US does. Environment (worst problem, IMO). A possible "low wage" trap, as I've written about several times. Official corruption, rising social inequality, pervasive mistrust. It also has obvious strengths. I went into the US-China head-to-head in this article CONT

Jfallows73 karma

.. and will keep going at it in years to come. Here are two useful rubrics for Americans, I think:

1) It is important to TAKE CHINA SERIOUSLY, because of its potential and its impact on the world, but not to be afraid of it. (As in the current idiotic Pete Hoekstra ad) 2) China's problems are worse than America's, and we are far richer to start with. The question is whether we are as likely as they are to address our problems. More on that another time.

Khiva148 karma

I don't know if I'm in too late for you to read this, but I've read a great deal of your coverage of China and, every time I read it, I always wanted to ask one thing:

Why don't you ever say much about Chinese nationalism?

Much of your China coverage was superb and went a long way towards de-mystifying the country to me. I'm extremely grateful for that. I read a great deal of material before I left but the one thing that absolutely gobsmacked me that nothing I read adequately prepared for me is how vociferously nationalistic the population is. It's like you take that one crazy hick uncle you have who believes things so preposterous you wonder where he even hears them and multiply it by everyone you meet.

I've lived in about a dozen countries in my life and I've never seen anything like this, before or since. People cheerfully admitted to being spectacularly pleased by the September 11 attacks. Good friends of mine told me in no uncertain terms that China needs to exact revenge upon Japan "when the time is right." If I casually mentioned China's relationship with Sudan, the typical response I got from otherwise good people was that "it didn't matter so long as China gets stronger."

It's like walking around in Weimar Germany, with the amount of conspiracy theorizing, wounded resentment, repressed anger and air of grievance. It's almost like China completely missed out on the massive cultural changes that took place in the world in the wake of the World Wars and was instead hermetically sealed until only recently. Before I went to live there I was under the impression, as most Westerns are, that China ought to be a democracy and the sooner the better. After about a half a year I'd completely turned around on that opinion. Quite frankly, the typical opinions of the Chinese populace terrifies me. Terrifies me.

The country which is poised to be the next global superpower has a chip on its shoulder which is way, way larger than anybody outside China quite comprehends. Yes, I know how it all goes back to the "patriotic education" campaign that went into place post-Tiananmen, how the government substituted nationalism for communist rhetoric, etc. What people seem to serially underestimate is how effective its been. There's a certain tendency on the part of Westerners to laugh off silly propaganda as useless, which I certainly did too, until you see firsthand how effective it can be. I was on a trip with a genuinely clever Chinese girl and I picked up a book about how great Mao was at the airport just to chuckle over it. She got really confused by all that and explained to me that, in China, the government checks every book to make sure it's all correct before publication.

Again, this all seems silly. But we're dealing with nearly a billion people underneath a system which is astonishingly effective at this sort of thing. I don't know if the people you encountered were generally more reasonable but I personally did not meet a single foreigner with experience in China who wasn't seriously disturbed by the political beliefs of the typical Chinese person. And no one is talking about it. There was a bit of interest back around the Beijing Olympics and there's a bit of attention given to the ultranationalistic bloggers, but I haven't seen anyone give much treatment to how widespread this is.

There are, in my mind, three forces that could realistically destabilize the world order - global climate change engendering a resource crunch, nuclear or biological terrorism, and Chinese nationalism. The first two are generally well known and taken seriously. People seem to have no idea about the third and that has led to more than a number of sleepless nights.

China can't stay authoritarian forever. Imagine a country with more size and power than the United States in which the overwhelming majority of the voting public is as angry, bellicose and subject to misinformation as the reddest part of the Republican primary. I can't see how that doesn't disturb more people. It disturbs me.

Jfallows45 karma

This is more than I can cover here. But to take a few points:

Gobsmacked me that nothing I read adequately prepared for me is how vociferously nationalistic the population is. It's like you take that one crazy hick uncle you have who believes things so preposterous you wonder where he even hears them and multiply it by everyone you meet.<< All I can say is, that simply was not my experience. I don't know how many places you were and what range of people you ran into, but over a range of years and going into nearly all over the country except Tibet (which I could never enter, for visa reasons) and Inner Mongolia, I came away with a different impression. To take it in layers:

First layer: the enormous variety in almost any trait you want to name. Honesty / crookedness, ambition / sloth, worldliness / parochialism, and on down the whole human range.

Next layer: all the very important fracture lines within the country, which mean that most of the time it makes less sense to talk about "China" than to refer to the specific regional, economic, institutional, and other subunits within China.

Skipping several layers down to one final one, that I've written about several times and address in my new book: A very thin-skinned nationalist level that can be evoked in one particular circumstances, which is the suspicion that anyone from the outside world (especially the white, developed world) is "dissing" China. Then you get hair-trigger nationalism. That was the case during the Olympic torch relay in 2008, when the Chinese agitprop media convinced viewers that Europeans who supported Tibetan "separatists" were beating up on brave, loyal (etc) Chinese athletes.

A lot more to say on this, as I've written elsewhere. But basically I found Chinese people, as a group, were more interested in their own family, business, region, career, unless they thought that "the Chinese people" in some grand sense were being looked-down on, in which case you could get some hair-raising nationalism.

joggle135 karma

The only comfort I have is that the rich and powerful in China are worried about internal strife more than problems with foreign countries. There have been articles in the Chinese press about how almost all celebrities have dual citizenship so they can leave the country quickly. The politically connected will send their girls overseas for college while the rich will send both their boys and girls abroad (the politically connected often have to have their boys join the military instead). While having an education abroad makes it easier for them to find good jobs when they return to China, it also makes it easier for them to leave if they have to and make it possible for them to get their parents out of China too.

It seems the primary thing that is maintaining social order in China right now is its growing economy. If it falters due to their property bubble or some other reason, they will have too many internal problems for them to cause anything other than economic problems for the rest of the world (which would, in itself, be pretty severe).

You're certainly correct in everything you said. While I know Asians often hate other Asian countries, they really hate Japan and want revenge. I don't think most Japanese are aware of how much they are truly hated by the Chinese to this day. I saw a poll about a year ago asking Japanese if they would rather have China be the leading super power in the world rather than America. The majority chose China because they're Asian and have a more similar culture. I can't imagine most Japanese would have made that choice if they knew that so many Chinese want violent revenge for WWII.

Jfallows31 karma

Just to weigh in that several of the observations here ring exactly true to me:

  • A sign of problem for the regime that so many people who can, choose to have citizenship / options elsewhere. Eg most of the ruling elite have kids or inlaws at Ivy League or other US / UK schools.

  • Yes, the economy has to keep growing, because the central achievement of the regime over the past 30 years is that life has gotten materially better for most people in most of the country. Before scoffing at that, reflect how it's the main axis of political approval everywhere.

  • Yes, the level of manufactured and genuine anti-Japanese sentiment in China is stunning -- and much greater than is was 25 years ago, when I first traveled in China. I wrote about this in the Atlantic a few years ago.

shagmin19 karma

From what I understand, most Japanese aren't even aware of their atrocities in China, so it's not surprising. It's a taboo subject that doesn't get any attention.

Jfallows41 karma

Right. This is an actual problem with different aspects in Japan and China.

In China, many, many aspects of society are notable for how chaotic and out-of-control they are, rather than being buttoned-up and centrally monitored. But the education system (like the media) is an exception. People who have been schooled within the system generally just don't know about certain "sensitive" topics. They don't know that much of the outside world has a different view of Tibetan history, of the situation on Taiwan, of Tiananmen 1989, etc. They genuinely don't know what you are talking about if you raise those topics -- which is as the regime likes it.

In Japan, there's a more focused deiberate-amnesia, mainly about the "unpleasantness" before and during the "Great Pacific War." My kids went to Japanese public school, where the "history timeline" in one world-history course more or less skipped from the early 1930s (when the militarists were gaining control) to 1945 (when a big atom-bomb cloud showed up as the iconic symbol), with no details in between. When it comes to Pearl Harbor, most Japanese people are generally aware of this as an awkward historical issue between the US and Japan. They generally are not aware of the issues like the Rape of Nanking -- which, by contrast, are refreshed in Chinese consciousness just about every single evening on TV.

ramonycajones16 karma

I have an anecdote to offer: I spent a few months in China interacting with some very intelligent college students (some of whom ended up going to the U.S. for graduate school), and I didn't notice anything like this. They seemed to feel that the more propaganda-consuming, pro-communist type mentality was an older, dying one. Whether or not that feeling is true, it shows their opinion of it. Even if they're not super nationalistic though they're a very specific subset of Chinese people, but maybe that gives you some hope anyway :)

Jfallows15 karma

I would agree with and underscore this, in the sense of recognizing the incredible range of people, views, motivations, and so on within China. In most ways that matter (except ethnic origin), China is more diverse than the United States.

[deleted]19 karma

Is there a housing bubble or not? No more iffy statements!

Is China's growth model going to be their downfall? Why are the world leaders not discussing this with China? Or is the whole thing really made up and we should be happy for China?

Jfallows89 karma

Yes, there is a housing bubble.

Will it burst? That is what no one can answer.

And here is the meta-point, which is why you should actually welcome rather than scoff at "iffy" statements: If anyone starts telling you with "certainty" what is or is not going to happen in China, you should mistrust that person -- precisely because of the certainty. There are contradictory pressures, trends, and "truths" in every part of the country every day. You can imagine the current system surviving more or less intact for another generation. You can also imagine it blowing up -- and, after it has happened, either would seem "inevitable" and "pre-ordained." So while this may seem like equivocation, it's actually a reflection of how truly complex the dynamic there is. More on this as I get time.

DrakenKor13 karma

So essentially you're saying that we should get used to uncertainty, as this is the nature of reality.

=( My brain, it's wired to crave certainty.

Damn you evolution.

Jfallows4 karma

Nice! Thanks

Captain_DuClark54 karma

Can you convince Ta-Nehisi Coates to do an AMA as well?

Jfallows7 karma

Will try. Unfortunately he has this "you're not the boss of me!" attitude. (Just kidding, he is a great talent and a great person.)

simonowens40 karma

How do you think the ramped-up emphasis on web content has affected The Atlantic's reputation? It's been long thought of as a traditional, elite publication. Do you think the web has Gawkerized the publication at all?

Jfallows47 karma

Obviously this is a question we take very seriously here, and think about every day.

I have worked for the Atlantic longer, probably, than most people asking questions here have been alive. I started when I left the Carter Administration (when I was in my 20s) in 1979. What I've learned over that time is the balance between, on the one hand, the way the magazine HAS to keep changing, continually -- and on the other, the crucial importance of its standards, intelligence, judgment, and so on. If you look back through our bound volumes, you see how dramatically the magazine has changed, and how often, through its existence. While still having some sensibility that makes us think: here is an Atlantic treatment, and not one from (name your other mag).

I wrote last year about the way journalism had to, and could, balance the imperatives of the click-maximizing era with its longer-standing opportunities and responsibilities. And I think that on balance we have done a good job of extending our pre-existing identity into our new, much higher volume and higher velocity web presence.

The extension isn't perfect, and there are things on the site each day that are not perfect or even "good enough." But as a whole, I think the Atlantic's online existence is a quite good early-21st-century extension of what the mid-19th-century founders would have had in mind.

Jfallows31 karma

Note: I've melded some of these previously "CONT" posts, now the newbie length limit is removed!

chrisma086 karma

JHC! You were writing speeches for Carter in your 20s?

thrownshadows3 karma

This seems to be the norm in Washington. I was recently lobbying on the Hill and didn't see anyone in a Senator or Representative's office who was over 30.

Jfallows5 karma

Yes: political aides as a class tend to be young, because the work is physically demanding (fatigue), not that well paid, and risky. Risky in the sense that at the beginning of a campaign season, a dozen different people might run for president, and all their young aides roll the dice in thinking that everything will break right and they'll end up in the West Wing.

In reality the huge majority of them lose, and a tiny minority end up getting the White House jobs. (People on all campaigns are equally hard working and probably equally talented. It's a matter of luck, large-scale political trends, nature of the candidate, etc, as to who ends up winning or not.) So it's a riskier career choice than people with established "real" careers will often take on.

Jfallows2 karma

Yes, see details in the next few replies

fiffers29 karma

This is an interesting question, and I hope Mr. Fallows answers it.

The Atlantic and The New Yorker are the only two magazines I subscribe to because they haven't abandoned long-form journalism, and consistently demonstrate faith in their readership's attention span and intellect. The Atlantic Wire, on the other hand, strikes me as a dumping ground for the water cooler stories that they don't want ending up in the magazine, which I think is actually a pretty smart move. It lets them keep up with the day-to-day news while reserving the print publication for the "bigger picture" stories—those with at least month-long importance.

... that being said, this month's magazine involved writer Wayne Curtis trying to get fucked up on Nutmeg. If that's not Gawkerish, I don't know what is. But it's in sprinkles throughout the magazine, which I actually love.

Jfallows34 karma

Thanks for subscribing. Let me say a word about the subscription "business model" for us and similar magazines:

Obviously the whole journalism biz is in the process of figuring out how to combine the goals of (a) maximum visibility / influence / linkability on the web site with (b) continuing to stay in business and not giving everything away for free. This is what I went into in a story I mentioned previously, about new business models for journalism.)

In asking people to subscribe, as I often do, even though in theory they can eventually find the same info on the web, we're relying on a variety of appeals. One is ergonomic: print technology has evolved over many centuries and is still a better way to absorb long narrative/ exposition. (There are actual studies to this effect, which I don't have on hand now.) Another is convenience -- we try to give subscribers earlier access to info, though that doesn't always work. Another is roll-over to iPad type subscriptions. CONT

Jfallows26 karma

... but behind them all is the knowledge that this is an era of business / tech experimentation. A decade from now, and probably sooner, it will be obvious how the new form of paying for involve will work. (A Spotify model? A "basic cable" model? An iTunes model? etc.) It's not obvious now, and we're all trying to work it out -- publishers, technologists, and readers/consumers alike.

ANewMachine6157 karma

I keep seeing you put in CONT and going on to another comment. I'm not sure why. Why not just put in a paragraph break or something?

Jfallows47 karma

Because this is a brand-new account that appears to have a hard-coded length limit.

dogplayingpoker33 karma

Mr. Fallows, I'm so glad you're taking the time to speak with us today. I've noticed your blog on TheAtlantic.com is often...not news-related. Do your editors ever worry when you post about your favorite beers or a bad experience with a hotel in California?

Jfallows48 karma

Reasonable question, with a little bit of an indirect answer. (in a few parts)

The Atlantic, although it's either the, or one of the, oldest publications in the US (founded: 1857. And BE SURE TO READ our current Civil War issue, full of great stuff we actually published in those days, plus updates from modern authors including one B.H. Obama), was also one of the earliest to go on line. So starting in the early 1990s I would write for what was then called Atlantic Unbound. The idea was to complement what I did in the "real" magazine -- since magazine articles had their obvious formal constraints. The most important of those is timing: a lead time of several months, and a limited number of issues per year. - CONT

Jfallows30 karma

So over now nearly a 20-year run, I've used our online presence, in its different forms, to get into topics that for one reason or another won't last for "real" magazine treatment.

I'm interested in a range of things -- politics, economics, beer, airplanes, music, language, whatever -- and I enjoy having an excuse to keep up with the full range of them. I figure (a) no one has to read something they don't care about, (b) most readers have a range of interests themselves, and (c) not that many people have accused me of not being "serious" enough. So, that's the theory.

Jfallows37 karma

And PS, given your screen name: I trust and assume that you have seen my post about a tapestry of "Dogs Playing Poker," which I found in a little shop in the farthest western regions of China, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a few years ago...

MrDNL31 karma

Jimmy Carter gets a lot of flack for perceived anti-Semitism. If you had to write a speech for him addressing these allegations, what would your main talking points be?

Jfallows50 karma

Important and difficult question.

I think Carter could start out talking about an event that (unlike the killer rabbit etc) I actually witnessed and was impressed by: the Camp David accords in 1978. He could explain how deeply committed he was, on the one hand, to the absolute need for Israel to have the same secure life and freedom-from-assault other nations expect; and, on the other, to the contending rights, demands, dignity, etc of other peoples in the region, including the Palestinians. He could say that having watched -- and helped convince -- both Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin of the historic importance of making a leap of trust and belief, for long term peace, he had committed himself to that process in the longer term. CONT

Jfallows40 karma

Then he could talk about how the only lasting peace would involve consideration of the interests of everyone in that part of the world, and his commitment to see that kind of lasting agreement.

Probably at this stage of his life, he would having nothing to lose by explaining how unfortunate it was -- for him, for America, for the long-term interests of Israel, etc -- if arguments about the right balance of interests in the Middle East were discredited, before they could be considered, with labels of anti-Semitism. And as part of that, he could explain whether he regrets using the word 'apartheid,' which may have kept people from hearing anything else he had to say.

aonetwothree19 karma

I think the Atlantic's blog roll is one of the most consistently interesting and diverse collection online. Do you read the blogs of your Atlantic colleagues? Has keeping up with a blog changed your approach to long-form writing? Do your blog readers ever become sources for the stories you write?

Jfallows31 karma

Thanks, I agree. As I mentioned on a previous thread, I think the Atlantic's online presence IS a reasonable extension -- indeed, and enrichment -- of its previous identity. By that I mean: we have a range of perspectives and personalities and obsessions and styles of discourse, but underneath them all you can seem some similarities in cast of mind. And I think the main one is taking the reader seriously -- trying never to talk down, or take shortcuts, or hector, or otherwise abuse the reader's attention. We don't always succeed in meeting that standard, but that is the goal.

There is now so much on our site that no one could read every post on every topic by every writer. But I consistently follow as much as I can, including the people lined up around me on the right-hand column of our site. CONT

Jfallows11 karma

As for the writing-and-sensibility influences of having this extra outlet and connection with readers: I am not aware of it directly influencing my style of longer-form writing, though I am sure it has probably done so. (Maybe in a more conversational style.) I am very clearly aware of its having connected me with readers / commenters from all around the world. I have found that a tremendously valuable source if info, feedback, perspectives, and fun.

brhasc19 karma

I just want to thank Mr. Fallows for his role in killing Microsoft's "Clippy."

Jfallows17 karma

My greatest moment.

hihatfedora18 karma

What actually happened with the swimming rabbit attack on Jimmy Carter?

For the uninformed.

Jfallows30 karma

This is one of SO MANY aspects of the Carter years about which I am happy to say: Hey, I wasn't there any more! (Next in this category: the famed 'malaise' speech.) I had left the administration to join the Atlantic about two months before.

In short: Jimmy Carter had a run of bad luck, including having an apparently rabid wild rabbit decide to make charge at him. On the other hand -- and this takes longer to explain than I have now -- he came close to beating Ronald Reagan, and being re-elected, in 1980. You can look it up -- or read a story I happen to have in the next issue of the magazine.

thegreatgazoo10 karma

The "malaise speech" was basically Carter's equivalent to the "mission accomplished" banner.

Did that writer get fried by the solar panels?

Jfallows31 karma

Actually, no! A book came out two or three years ago, by Kevin Mattson and called something like 'What Are You Up To Mr President?' It established the hard-to-believe-now-but-true point that AT THE TIME Carter's "malaise" speech (which did not include that word) was highly popular. His approval rating went up by nearly 10 points, a HUGE rise.

The problem was that several days later Carter asked for the resignations of ALL the members of his Cabinet, and accepted a number of them. That had a less positive effect, to put it mildly. As I also discuss in my upcoming Atlantic story, because Carter lost in 1980, everything about his time looks "failed" in retrospect. But it wasn't all that way at the time. (And, PS, as with the killer rabbit, I was gone by then!)

jedsundwall17 karma

You've said in this discussion: "the foundations of American democracy and self-government are a cause for serious worry."

I tend to agree with this statement, but I have a hard time pinpointing the biggest fissures in the foundation. I often blame first past the post voting for creating a homogenous legislature. I also worry that national politics self-selects pathologically narcissistic individuals who are easily bought. But that's just me.

What worries you most about American democracy? And could you elaborate on what you mean by self-government?

Jfallows13 karma

Thanks, another good question -- would take a book's worth of blather, or more, to get into all of this, but I'd put the heart of the problem this way:

The genius of America is its constantly-renewing, self-challenging, always-new nature. Immigration means we get a larger share of the world's talent, and cultural abilities, than we could otherwise have. Our businesses (properly) have a culture of "adapt or die." We teach people to be ready for the new. Our universities (should) prepare them to be ready for an unforeseeable future -- really, all schools should do that.

But our political system is uniquely resistance to change. Our Constitution is harder to change than most other countries' -- and is getting quite old now. If "the Founders" were around today, they would never come up with something like today's Senate. They were practical-minded people, and they would have seen it as unworkable that (a) a state with over 30 million people had the same representation as one with half a million people, (b) the modern abuse-in-practice of the filibuster makes it possible for an entrenched minority to block majority well. I don't have the cite here, but a very valuable piece in the NYT a few days ago pointed out that no other countries are copying our Constitution. It no longer makes sense.

Nor do recent rulings that led to Citizens United, which have made it nearly impossible to rein in the role of money in politics. In the past, we've had great moments of reform and deck-clearing about these problems, eg a century ago during the Progressive era. We can hope that some such moment is ahead.

TheSelfGoverned3 karma

could you elaborate on what you mean by self-government?

Self government means respecting the sovereignty of both nations and individuals.

Jfallows4 karma

Self-government involves protecting the rights of the individual, while equipping the nation (state / community) to address the problems it faces as a whole. We're having trouble on both fronts.

MustStopMasturbating17 karma

How is Jimmy Carter compared to Obama? More than just politics, their successes and failures and personality as well.

Jfallows41 karma

I try to go at this, too, in the upcoming Atlantic story.

The differences are more striking than the similarities. Obama clearly better and more effective as an orator. (And believe me, having been involved with Carter's oratory, this is something I have thought about.) Carter, surprisingly, may have been more effective as a face-to-face negotiator. More details in my story. Obama has often said that he was "unlucky" in all the disasters he inherited on taking office. Carter had even more going wrong all around him. Also, he was governing in an even-sourer time in the national temperament. Carter also had the "luck" of facing an on-the-rise Ronald Reagan as his challenger, after being badly wounded in a primary challenge by Teddy Kennedy. Obama will face ... whoever survives this unbelievable Republican spectacle we're seeing now.

ferndaleacidscene6 karma

As someone who doesn't identify with either party, it seems unlikely to me that any Repbulican challenger can unseat Obama. Do you think the Democrats will see a rise in their Congressional positions? Earlier you mentioned concerns about the current state of our democracy. Do you think one such flaw might be the failure to have viable parties outside of the Big Two?

Jfallows10 karma

I've learned that it is very hard to foresee the future in politics. The fundamentals are working on Obama's side at the moment. (Economy is recovering; the Republicans are running a weak field that is getting weaker and more damaged as time goes on. Also: the Republican pitch is more and more being perfected for: older, white, often-male, often-Southern voters. They have given themselves a huge handicap with non-whites of all sorts; and with younger voters overall; and women overall.) But what exactly will happen we can't know.

In principle it would be better to have some shakeup of the Two Party system. In practice, I'm not holding my breath. It's been about 150 years since the last realignment, and that suggests how difficult it is to shake things up.

Jfallows3 karma

I've learned that it is very hard to foresee the future in politics. The fundamentals are working on Obama's side at the moment. (Economy is recovering; the Republicans are running a weak field that is getting weaker and more damaged as time goes on. Also: the Republican pitch is more and more being perfected for: older, white, often-male, often-Southern voters. They have given themselves a huge handicap with non-whites of all sorts; and with younger voters overall; and women overall.) But what exactly will happen we can't know.

In principle it would be better to have some shakeup of the Two Party system. In practice, I'm not holding my breath. It's been about 150 years since the last realignment, and that suggests how difficult it is to shake things up.

SeattExPat13 karma

What are your daily reads? Do you still flip through a print newspaper?

Jfallows27 karma

Get three real newspapers at home: NYT, WSJ, WaPo. The last is mainly for legacy/sentimental reasons, plus its still-good sports section.

Eric Schmidt, Google bigshot (and friend of mine, by chance, since long before his Google era) had an argument for the virtues of a printed newspaper. He said that he liked the finiteness of it -- and the sense that when you got to the end, you could think you were "finished" in a way that you never can be with an online news source.

To that I would add the ergonomic superiority of newspaper layout to web page layout. You can glance at a front or inside page an, in half a second, get a sense of the importance and range of stories, in a way you can't (as easily) with a site.

bxturbo12 karma

Could you please elaborate on how the speech writing process works? Do you sit with the President and he outlines the points he would like to get across, and you re-word it in the best way possible? Or do you write a draft basically stating your opinion and the President corrects it? How much of your own input/ideas can you include in the speech? How much of an influence/if any does the Presidential speech writer have on the President's viewpoints?

Jfallows8 karma

This is a great question that I just don't have the time to get into now, nearing the end of Hour 2. Main point: the policy in a speech doesn't come from speechwriters. It comes from the policy people, and ultimately (when there's a disagreement) from the President.

The writers are there because ... they can write better than most other people. So it's a job with some influence, especially (a) the more a president features speeches as part of his arsenal, as with Obama or Reagan, and (b) the closer and longer-standing the relationship between the writer(s) and the candidate/president. More some other time.

[deleted]11 karma

I enjoy reading your occasional blog posts on beer. What's your favorite brew?

Jfallows37 karma


When we first traveled in China, in the mid-1980s, we had our two then-young sons with us. People would often -- and weirdly, my wife and I thought -- ask us which was our "favorite" son. We'd say, "Well, both!" and they'd say, "No, really, which one is better."

It's sort of that way with me and beer. This is truly the Golden Age of Brewing in America right now -- one of the creature comforts I most missed in our years in China, apart from breathable air, was the range of American craft brews. In my fridge right now are: Torpedo and Ruthless Rye, both from Sierra Nevada; Headwaters Pale Ale from Victory; Little Sumpin' from Lagunitas; Latitude 48 from Sam Adams; and some others I'm forgetting. I am a friend to all.

Fitz118 karma

What are your thoughts on Kenneth Cosgrove's short story?

Jfallows9 karma


shloky6 karma

Always wondered, how did you came across the Boyd crowd - Chet Richards, Spinney, Vandergriff, Robb, et all?

Jfallows11 karma

Long story, but short version: Was doing an article, on first joining the Atlantic from the Carter years, about how liberals should think more seriously about military issues. Talk about your evergreen topics! Went to interview young Senator Gary Hart. One of his staffers, Bill Lind, told me that I really should get to know an Air Force colonel named John Boyd. And...

gregtmills6 karma

This goes out to Mr. Fallows, as well as whoever set this up: thank you.

This is easily the best IAmA I've read. James, you're answers were thoughtful and not at all skimpy. Thanks for taking the time.


Jfallows4 karma

Thank you!

Milieunairess6 karma

What do you make of Santorum's win in Colorado?

Jfallows6 karma

Romney is in trouble.

JohnJimJoeBob3 karma

A nice surprise to see this on the front page today. My father wrote a couple of guest articles about air traffic control on your blog while you were away in Beijing last year. In high school, I took a US History exam in which I was prompted to write about a quote attributed to you on the subject of draft dodging. What's your opinion on the state of the draft in the United States today? Will it ever be employed again, and if so, how do you think the nation will react?

Jfallows7 karma

I can guess who your father is; he did a great job.

I think the draft is not coming back to the US. It's a growing problem to have the huge divide between the tiny fraction of people involved in the military and everyone else. More on this in the magazine.

MiserubleCant3 karma

I don't have a question, just saying thanks for the AMA, it was very interesting. The quality of your answers has encouraged me to add your (publication's) output into my regular reading mix.

Jfallows2 karma

Thanks too (and please assume a standing "thanks" to all similar notes. I do appreciate it.)

Swissar3 karma


Jfallows3 karma

Writing something that is designed to-be-spoken (speeches, dialogue, lectures) is different from writing something designed to be read on a page (or screen). I like them both, but they're different. Being aware of the difference, and comfortable with the two modes, is probably the main requirement for this kind of job.

lawpoop3 karma

Do you agree with Steve Martin's assessment that a banjo was the one thing that could have saved Carter's presidency?

Jfallows6 karma

Another helicopter (for the Desert One raid) would have mattered even more.

fallacyofcausation2 karma

In your experience, how close is The West Wing to the reality of the day-to-day in the White House?

Jfallows2 karma

The people in TWW look way, WAY better!

Craig_Heldreth2 karma

Question about speech-writing. I had an English teacher who told me that the guidebook for speech phrasing for American political speechwriters is Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass. She said all the presidents' speechwriters have the sucker practically memorized, that the commonality of Kennedy's speech -> Reagan's speech -> Clinton's speech -> Obama's speech is Walt Whitman channeled through their individual speechwriters.


She said reading Leaves of Grass out loud was the single most valuable thing we could do to improve our public speaking.

Care to comment? Or maybe offer alternatives to that work for this purpose--improving our speaking.

Jfallows3 karma

Hadn't thought of this, but rings true.

In general, anything that you read out loud helps in learning how to write material designed to be spoken. It's a different aesthetic than writing for the eye.

LicensedHistorian2 karma

Just wanted to say thanks for your article on David Allen and GTD a few years ago. That article introduced me to GTD, and I would imagine the same holds true for many others. I wish you could have some sort of "referral credit."

Any chance of a follow-up article or blog post about how you still are or are not on the GTD bandwagon?

Jfallows4 karma

I had dinner with David Allen last night!

mattesnakes2 karma

What are your thoughts on the recent debate over Foxconn? Wired just ran a lengthy piece defending the factory's practices. Having spent so much time in China, do see the country's cheap manufacturing base as serving the global good, or something pernicious whose merit is propagated by the neoliberal media consensus?

Jfallows3 karma

This is a big issue I'll try to address in the Atlantic sometime soon.

GaelGuts2 karma

I am a student studying public relations and hope to be a speech winter one day. What is one piece of advice you've found useful throughout your career in the speech writing field?

Jfallows3 karma

Work for someone you basically agree with. Can't agree on every detail but have to agree overall.

[deleted]2 karma

Hi, James Fallon.

I have a pointed question - why doesn't The Atlantic cover the New Apostolic Reformation?

[see: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/24/139781021/the-evangelicals-engaged-in-spiritual-warfare and http://www.talk2action.org/story/2012/2/8/141232/9907/ and http://www.texasobserver.org/cover-story/rick-perrys-army-of-god ]

Last time I knew of when The Atlantic got into such territory was with Philip Jenkins' work. But he was unaware of the NAR.


Jfallows4 karma

Short answer: I don't know. We can cover only so many things -- ie, for each thing we cover, a million we don't. But I'll ask.

PsychoPinkPower2 karma


Jfallows5 karma

Haven't talked to Griffin for a long time, but he is a friend and someone I respect

sugarfreelemonade2 karma

Did you ever meet Hunter S. Thompson?

Jfallows3 karma

Yes. But my lips are sealed.