JAMES FALLOWS came face to face with the notion of class structure in the United States when he and some of his Harvard classmates got out of being drafted by losing weight, gaining weight, or pretending to be gay or mentally unbalanced. Blue-collar kids, he noticed, didn't avoid the draft. They went. The repercussions of the Vietnam war have resounded through James Fallows's experience. They led to one book, ``National Defense'' (1981), and were instrumental in shaping his current one, ``More Like Us.''
That experience ``was the original reason I started on this book 12 years ago,'' he said during a recent interview.
``I think there are two dramatic illustrations of what happens when America gives up its idea of mobility and its idea of equal class status. One is the black lower class. The other is the Vietnam draft. That to me is the starkest illustration of how damaging it is to our society when you start thinking that people of different privileges have different legal rights. It almost tore us apart.
``My main motive is to get readers of this book to think differently about the idea of mobility and class in America.... All I've wanted to do is to focus attention on that trait that does make America different, especially from Japan.''
Living in Japan for three years, he says, highlighted for him many things that US residents take for granted.
``I just want to say to people: Look, it is unusual here. It's unusual that women can compete for jobs with men. It's unusual to think that you can have a society that's made of different races. It's unusual to think that you can marry someone of a different background or class, and that you could change your job at age 30. That's ... worth recognizing.''
Capitalizing on those differences is what will help the country progress, he says, not trying to be like Japan. Or like Britain.
In graduate school in England in the early '70s, he saw a ``palpable hatred between working-class people and the university-class people and the contempt among university-class people for work, actually manufacturing work. I think almost every economist who writes about the British economy says that these attitudes had a real effect there. We can see some of those attitudes here.
``The strength of any economy in the long run depends on whether ordinary people's behavior serves the larger goals of society, and that happens best in America when people feel the most opportunity for themselves: starting businesses, working hard in business, studying, being able to adapt when economic conditions change.''
His master plan for American recovery, he says, is partly concentrating on making our system work the way ``it's supposed to work. Part of it is telling the Japanese government that it will be much easier for us to remain partners if we can get this trade surplus heading back down again. But then rejuvenating ourselves. And I don't think it's too late to do that. This is still a very strong country, dramatically rich-seeming in comparison with daily life in Japan.''