In Praise of Epistemological Skepticism: On Alfred Hirschman (plus obligatory thoughts on the failure of Chinese liberalism)

To say that Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman changed my life is not an exaggeration: after lugging the enormous 740-page hardcover book back and forth to Asia, I finally convinced myself that it was time to buy a Kindle. In 21st century America, this is a major life step.

Given that I did not produce an “annual list of unsolicited book reviews for the best books I read this year” in 2018 (a sincere apology to all zero of my readers), and that it is already halfway through 2019, I will replace a list of unsolicited book reviews for one unsolicited book review. I read plenty of books in 2018—I’m a graduate student, after all—but Adelman’s biography of Hirschman stands out. Adelman’s book is a chronicle of both an extraordinary life and of a powerful, action-oriented liberal worldview that allowed Hirschman to see through the facades of conventional wisdom while remaining both humble and sane.

Hirschman is a clear contender for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World” (see also: Simon Leys). Born into a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1915, Hirschman was active in the youth socialist movement and opposed fascism with such visceral force that he opted to join a regiment of non-Spaniards fighting against Franco in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. (Adelman’s retelling of Hirschman’s experiences fighting for the socialist POUM in Spain mirror those of George Orwell, who detailed the internecine battles between socialists and communists on the anti-Franco left in Homage to Catalonia. Hirschman, like Orwell, survived the war, but not unscathed: both came away with injuries and a deep distrust of Communist dogma. “It was no surprise that the Nazis were awful,” he noted, “But to see people whom one expected to contribute to one’s own struggle turn into the opposite was in some sense worse” 138). Hirschman then wrote a dissertation on international finance while casually helping smuggle 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals out of Europe. Hirschman is an atypical economist for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious of which is that he is simply not boring. (No offense, economists. Ok, a little.)

When Hirschman finally made it out of Europe, he launched a career as an economist in the United States—only to be stymied by Cold War fears, which, in opposing anything possibly communist, could not differentiate between communism and Hirschman’s anti-communism. (As the story goes…) Hirschman’s efforts to save European Jews doubles as an excoriation of mid-century America: not only did U.S. policy make it impossible to find safety across the ocean without incredible acts of subterfuge, once they arrived in the U.S., no good deed would go unpunished. Hirschman volunteered to fight for the U.S. army once again in an effort to defeat the scourge of European fascism, but, he was shunted away from the main action; then, upon returning to the U.S., unsubstantiated suspicions of communism prevented him from moving up the ranks as an economic adviser within the U.S. public sector. Needing a job, he wound up moving his wife and two small children to Bogota, Colombia, to do research. He would spend his entire life globetrotting, mixing work, leisure, and a keen sense of observation wherever he went. Where Simon Leys found a home on the high seas, Albert Hirschman found one anywhere on land, wherever there were projects to observe and people to learn from.

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Breaking Down Admissions Numbers: How Equitable are Elite Universities? (Hint: Still Not Equitable)

When it comes to admissions, elite universities engage in an impressive feat of mental gymnastics: On the one hand, the now-mandatory press releases announcing this year’s class remind us of our love of meritocracy, as the admitted students represent the most talented, intelligent, well-rounded young people in the world. Last year, perhaps, a student with a 4.0 GPA who helped draft a constitution for a democratizing third-world country might have been admitted, but in this year’s class, only those who drafted a minimum of two new constitutions made the cut.

On the other hand, these universities have to acknowledge that they are still far from being as meritocratic as we might want to believe. Or, as it is known in corporate parlance, Even as there is more room to meet our goals of socioeconomic, geographic, and racial diversity, this year’s class represents our most diverse effort yet! Undergraduate education in the United States may be outrageously expensive, but these elite institutions have reached deep into their pockets to offer the most generous financial aid programs in history in order to make elite education accessible to everyone. (Which is why if you tax a giant hedge fund, the people you are really hurting are the poor, or something like that.)

So how equitable are these institutions, really? In other words, how much of the incoming class is made up of wealthy elites, and how much of everyone else? Fortunately, the press releases themselves contain all of this information. I happened to receive Harvard’s announcement in my inbox just last week. Thanks, guys!

After the boilerplate announcement from the admissions director about how this year’s class is the smartest, most talented, and most attractive class in the university’s history (sorry, last year’s class; your reign at the top was short-lived), we learn the following statistics (emphases mine):

Based on current projections, more than half of the Class of 2023 will receive need-based grants, allowing families to pay an average of only $12,000 annually. Harvard will require no contribution from the 20 percent of today’s admitted students’ families with annual incomes below $65,000, and these students will also receive a $2,000 start-up grant that helps with move-in costs and other expenses incurred in making the transition to college.

This is the 15th year of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI). Originally targeting students from low-income backgrounds ($65,000 or less), the program was expanded in 2007 to include middle-income families with incomes up to $150,000 or more. Since launching the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative in 2005, Harvard has awarded more than $2 billion in grant aid to undergraduates, and its undergraduate financial aid award budget has increased by more than 138 percent, from $80 million in 2005 to more than $191 million in 2018.

Shorn of its positive gloss, we learn that 20 percent of students come from families making $65,000 per year or less, and that in total “more than half,” which I take to mean slightly over 50 percent, come from families making less than $150,000 per year. Thus, the remaining “less than 50 percent” come from families making over $150,000 per year.

Median household income in the United States in 2018 was $61,372, according to the Census Bureau, pretty close to Harvard’s “low-income” cutoff. Households making $150,000 are around the 85th income percentile in the country. Assuming that this year’s class is anything like previous years’ classes, we can expect that more than 1/3 of students come from families making more than $250,000, based on surveys from the Harvard Crimson. That approximates to the 95th percentile of households in the country. Of this, based on data from classes of 2020 and 2021, possibly half comes from families making upward of $500,000 per year. That means that the share of students coming from families in the top 1% of the income distribution is only slightly lower than the share of students coming from families in the bottom 50% of the income distribution.

On the positive side, Harvard isn’t lying: if we squint really, really hard, this probably is an improvement of sorts in terms of socioeconomic diversity. A 2004 study found that 74 percent of students at “selective” universities came from the richest quartile of families, and Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and others have found that students from families in top 0.1% are 77 times more likely to attend college than those from families in the bottom 20%—although technically the data provided in Harvard’s press release is not detailed enough to verify that their admissions statistics are, in fact, marginally more egalitarian than these general benchmarks. At the same time, however, that data also suggests that the share of students from the bottom 60 percent of households by income at Harvard and its peers remained basically flat at 20% for students born from 1980 to 1991; fast forward 10 years (this year’s class will mostly be students born in 2001) and Harvard’s percentage is basically the same, perhaps marginally better (since we know that 20% of students come from the bottom 50 percent of households.

A few lifetimes ago I argued that the price discrimination business model of American universities meant that most universities couldn’t become more egalitarian even if they wanted to because they were dependent on full-paying students’ tuition. At wealthy universities such as Harvard, however, such considerations should not be a factor: the sheer size of the endowment/hedge fund renders any immediate financial constraint irrelevant. There is already plenty of money in the coffers to subsidize tuition for an entire class of students; wealthy students are not required to cover the cost of educating poorer students. Yet, even without being reliant on a high-pay, high-aid model, and despite schools’ increasing rhetoric acknowledging socioeconomic imbalance, there appears to be extremely little progress in actually admitting a greater share of poor and middle-class students.

In other words, the student population at elite schools is still heavily skewed toward those who come from elite backgrounds. They are probably some of the smartest, most talented, and most attractive applicants, but the cultural capital they gain is inseparable from the economic capital with which they started. This raises deeper questions: can genuine class-leveling projects in the world of education ever succeed, or will elites always find ways to pass on educational privilege in one form or another? Or if education is not possibly democratized in the most fundamental sense of the term, how can a democratic society keep its aristocratic tendencies in check? In the absence of easy answers, perhaps the best solution is simply to do admissions by lottery. That won’t bother people, right?

Nothing is Real: Some Thoughts on China’s Housing Bubble

My body and I have drawn two conclusions from a couple of weeks of traveling through southwest China and eating copious amounts of tongue-numbingly spicy food: China’s public bathrooms have (very marginally) improved, but the urban planning has not. (I had a lot of time to think about urban planning while utilizing those public bathrooms, due to the aforementioned spicy food). Provincial capitals like Kunming and Changsha were expansive last time I visited a few years ago; the cities have only grown larger since, sprawling further and further from what used to be the city center. Thirty-story apartment buildings sit stacked in neat rows, stretching for miles in every direction, as though they were stamped there by a bureaucrat over-using the copy-paste function on his computer. Huge new tracts of former farmland on the outskirts of the city have been razed and flattened in preparation for further expansion. It takes an hour to drive from one side of the city to the other not because of bad traffic but because there are tens of millions of housing units, spaced far apart, that take up an incredible amount of physical space. It should be obvious to any observer that these cities have way more housing units than people. People may be living in houses in the city center, or they may be living in houses on the outskirts of town, but they can’t be living in both.

For a number of years, fears of a Chinese housing bubble rested on “ghost cities”: brand-new cities, built on local government debt and backroom deals, rising from nothing in the middle of nowhere and devoid of people. Developers were building with no regard for demand, so apartment blocks would sit unbought, unwanted, and slowly crumbling into oblivion. Excess housing stock is a problem in some places, but it pales in comparison to a related, and possibly more sinister issue. Vacant homes sit empty, but they have already been purchased as a second, third, or fourth home. Unwanted and unused are not synonyms in a country with no property taxes, an economy driven by real estate, negative real returns on regular bank deposits, and a volatile stock market.

Housing demand is insatiable not because people want to live in houses, but because they want to own houses. As I wrote about last year in Hebei (the New Jersey of China, if you will), even working class families purchase multiple houses. (If you trust the advice of a real estate company’s blog, a single family should buy six homes to feel financially stable: one to live in, one for each set of parents to live in, two for their children’s future use, and one to rent out.) Up to 25 percent of all housing in China is owned but not occupied as of 2015, a rate far higher than in other countries around the world. In China, housing is simply money that you can sometimes live in. There is no tax on holding property, so unused housing can sit there and increase in value. When you earn more money, you want to store it away in a place that is relatively safe and will earn high rates of return, which it seems, in China, means buying houses that nobody lives in but might come in handy later when your children can’t afford to buy one or you need to get a lump sum of cash to send your child to school in the United States.

We tend to think of bank deposits as safe and real estate investment as risky. Such a view, however, is built on the premise that the government will protect our money and that in the long term, interest rates will gradually create a small but stable return. Neither of those is obvious in China. Without much political trust in the banking system (controlled and operated by the state), why would a citizen choose to put their money in an invisible, liquid asset rather than an actual tower of concrete and steel? A fixed asset is more reliable in the minds of many Chinese citizens because it literally cannot be moved or disappeared with one stroke of a pen. After decades of real estate investment, from officials with hundreds of off-the-books apartments to single families saving up to buy a second or third home so their children can be socially eligible to marry, enough people’s assets are in the form of housing that housing has become a de facto banking system.

With so many people’s wealth tied up in the housing market, the ultimate fear is that housing prices will decline. If housing is a bank, allowing housing prices to drop is equivalent to banks losing money and all of their customers taking a hit. It would presage deflationary pressure and financial instability, if not a crisis, for housing prices to take a hit, so the government has to implicitly guarantee that they will not decline. The policy options for corralling an overheated market are somewhat constrained by the simple fact that allowing housing prices to decline, even if they are wildly overvalued, would presage large-scale financial instability. And if you haven’t heard by now, the Chinese government is not a big fan of instability, nor are they looking for massive deflation. Continue reading

Second Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read (2017)

At the end of 2016, I vowed to read at least 50 books in the coming year. This would be an unachievable goal for anybody except in the most exceptional of circumstances; namely, that they are either Vaclav Smil or are enrolled in a humanities or social sciences Ph.D. program in the United States. I am not Vaclav Smil, but as of September my book count shot skyward with no signs of changing course in the next five to seven years, plus or minus a handful of nervous breakdowns.

The benefit of academic study is first and foremost the realization that there are far more excellent books already in existence than you ever thought possible. The thought that, hey, maybe someone should write a book about that – they have, and it’s yours to peruse at your leisure until some obnoxious undergrad “recalls” it from the library and forces you to return it post haste.

This year’s list of book recommendations that nobody asked for will thus be economized into a few select recommendations. If this year’s batch of obscure essays on Chinese politics and the 19th century trajectories of the British and American trade unions doesn’t quite fit meet your interests, let me assure you that next year’s selections are bound to be more esoteric and even less applicable to normal human beings.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
George Orwell: A Life in Letters, by George Orwell

Unsolicited review: Orwell, “the conscience of a generation,” is the greatest Anglophone essayist of the 20th century (don’t argue with me). I say essayist because his essays are better than his novels; and even his novels are essays, in the sense that, as Simon Leys astutely distinguishes in Broken Images, the essay tries to convey a clearly formed idea while a work of fiction succeeds only when it creates room for multiple interpretations. Homage marks a transition in Orwell’s politics and contains the seeds from which his later hallmark essays and novel-essays grew: the perpetual unreliability of elites in the struggle to empower the working class. Although Down and Out is far from a masterpiece, the anthropological deconstruction of the workflow of a hotel restaurant in Paris alone makes the rest of the book worth reading.

The Chairman’s New Clothes, by Simon Leys
Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys
Broken Images, by Simon Leys
The Burning Forest, by Simon Leys
The Analects, by Confucius (translated by Simon Leys)

Unsolicited review: The ghosts of Orwell (and Lu Xun, “China’s Orwell“) pervade the writings of Simon Leys—so much so that I couldn’t write a description of Orwell without citing Leys at least once. The scholar of Chinese art and poetry, frustrated by Francophone intellectuals heaping praise on Mao from the other side of the world, penned what became a tetralogy of essay collections unmasking the destruction taking place during the Cultural Revolution in China. Maoism eventually fell out of fashion, but Leys’s writings have not—they stand the test of time not only as political polemics but also paragons of lucidity and elegant prose.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

Unsolicited review: When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books before moving to China, I thought it was decidedly mediocre. When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books after living in China for a few years, I took back everything negative I ever said. What is striking about reading River Town twenty years after it was written is that much of the cultural attitudes Hessler describes remain omnipresent today, even as China’s economy and physical infrastructure have undergone a complete
makeover.

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The Unswerving Values of Ye Fei

In Memoriam: 叶飞 (Ye Fei) (1985 – 2017)

On an unremarkable weekday evening in early 2016, as I was preparing to go to sleep, I received a message on my phone from my friend and colleague Ye Fei. It had been almost two weeks since our last message, and this message, sent at nearly midnight, had no introduction or pleasantries. It did not matter that I would see him at the office the next day; such an important question could not wait. Ye Fei asked: “Why is New Hampshire called the first primary state when it’s actually Iowa?”

It would not have surprised me if Ye Fei had sat up all night reading about American politics, analyzing Politico and The New Yorker in English, and then sifting through social media portals like Weibo and WeChat in Chinese. During the day, at his desk, he devoured whatever information he could find online; when it was time for lunch, he plugged in his earphones and turned on a politics podcast, usually BBC or NPR, and, back slightly hunched over, ambled out the door. He would return to his desk, unplug his earphones, and plug back into the internet, digesting and processing the endless stream of politics that flowed across his screen.

He was fluent in English and Chinese; in American politics and Chinese politics; and, most importantly for anyone in China, in both text and subtext. If anyone wanted me to help them peer beyond the news headlines and government pronouncements of the Chinese party-state, I would simply tell them to ask Ye Fei. He would sigh deeply, tilting his head forward or shaking his head while his thoughts coalesced. If you had the patience to wait for the response, when it eventually came, you would be duly rewarded: after the deep sigh and shake of his head would come an incisive answer, slowly spilling forth from Ye Fei’s vast storehouse of knowledge.

Or, even better, in place of a boring response, Ye Fei would offer a snide rebuke aimed squarely at whatever ridiculous phenomenon he was tasked with explaining. His comic timing had the power to deflate even the most hardened bubbles or egos. Our office started a list of memorable quotations; it was, in effect, a list of things uttered by Ye Fei.

I do not write this because I need to share my feelings. I write this because I want there to be a permanent record, somewhere, marking Ye Fei’s life and what he stood for: namely, the ideals of liberal democracy. I didn’t always agree with him, and he never missed an opportunity to tease me for my support of socialism à la Bernie Sanders. My own arguments could not sway Ye Fei: he knew what he stood for, and why it was important. Everything he did—each article he devoured, each comic takedown he delivered, each lesson he taught—was in service of this idea.

Ye Fei had incredible patience for long, drawn out discussions of politics, but he had no patience for people who sympathized with illiberalism. He could laugh off poorly made propaganda, but he could not hide his visceral disgust for wayward intellectuals who used their position to support unjust authority. Ye Fei wanted more than anything to push the world, even marginally, toward a place that was slightly more free and open. Any person or event that stood in the way was not worthy of his sympathy.

Ye Fei was endlessly fascinated by American politics. We watched the 2016 presidential election, the ultimate spectacle of American democracy, together with a few friends. As the results trickled in and we began to see that Donald Trump was going to be president, Ye Fei was even more distraught than any of the Americans among us. For Ye Fei, a black mark on America was a black mark on liberal democracy around the world. What happened in America mattered for the causes he cared about in China. Many of his fellow liberal Chinese intellectuals embraced Trump as part of their general embrace of the US Republican Party, but Ye Fei did not budge. He did not need party lines to define him: the only thing that mattered was free and open expression.

There is no place for someone like Ye Fei in China today. His views were too large; his passions for politics too great. Most people like him left the mainland long ago, but Ye Fei never did. Instead, he surrounded himself—whether on purpose or by accident I am not sure—with people who wanted to learn from him. And learn we did.

A few days before his passing, Ye Fei and I went to lunch. I asked Ye Fei about recent government policies, and his plate of food got cold as he lectured about history far and near. Our wide-ranging conversation, as always, touched on the bigger questions of Chinese development; the next day, unprompted, he sent me an essay by the influential sociologist Sun Liping. Attached to the article, he wrote: “May his essays help you better grasp what’s going on here.”

It encapsulates Ye Fei: overflowing knowledge, a willingness to share and teach, and perfectly manicured English with a touch of formal literary flair. Of course, there was one thing missing—but he duly rectified that a few hours later, again unprompted, by sending me an article ridiculing Donald Trump.

There will be many times in the coming days, weeks, and years, when each of us will want to turn to Ye Fei and seek his counsel, knowing the depth of his passions and for what he stood. It is these moments that will remind us of how deeply we feel this loss.

China’s Four Reform Futures

In 2012, the liberal sociologist Sun Liping argued that the social strains of China’s embrace of extreme capitalism were starting to show. For Sun, a reform advocate, China was in danger of falling into a “transition trap” in which institutional reform grinds to a halt and vested interests solidify their power.

This week, Sun reposted his article on his WeChat account. It was summarily removed by China’s censors (they weren’t too pleased with his ideas before, either). Fortunately, I forgot to close the tab once I had it open: my natural inability to keep my browser under 100 tabs at any moment is a natural loophole to China’s censorship apparatus.

Sun offers four possible directions in which China can go: return to the past, try to make the best of the current reforms, protect the status quo, or pursue a new reform path prioritizing equality rather than the overzealous pursuit of profit. And despite obvious political institutional difference, the four reform paths that Sun proposes for China are similar to those facing the United States as it faces the need to rebuild public trust in institutions and reduce vast inequalities.

One: At some level, return to the old system
The sentiment underlying the need to “Make America Great Again” would resonate with a growing number of today’s Chinese, who feel like they are falling behind while society leaps forward without moral stewardship. Every year, China is rocked by scandals in which companies insert something toxic into their products to save a few dollars; at the same time, while some people safely climb the ladder of the new economy into China’s emerging middle class, others work tirelessly, only to face wage arrears, lack of retirement benefits, and unaffordable health bills.

A couple of years ago, I attended an informal lecture that proposed an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution. The ruthless campaign that destroyed thousands of years of Chinese intellectual heritage—not to mention families, communities, and even individual lives—was, they argued, a time of unprecedented social coherence. The speakers were frustrated by China’s endless pursuit of profit at the expense of all else; at least during the Cultural Revolution there was an idea of public consensus, even if it was targeted at the wrong places. For those fed up with the moral perversity of today’s society, the past offers a refuge, no matter how wrong-headed it may seem to the outside observer.

“Although there was a short period of equalization, as reform deepened — especially after restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s—the disadvantageous position of those at the bottom rungs of society became even clearer…Therefore, some people look back for hope, and this is natural,” writes Sun. He cites Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model, in which a re-embrace of a strong, centralized Communist past was embraced due to public dissatisfaction about corruption and social polarization. Despite its obvious flaws, Sun writes, we should not overlook how “the Chongqing model positively responded to these very real problems.”

For most people, the horrors of China’s recent history are enough to dispel any further turn toward the past. But if nothing changes, Sun argues, and the struggles of the new wave of “little white collar” (xiao bai ling) service workers continue to grow, the appeal of the past may continue to strengthen.

Two: Continue with the reform path of the last 30 years
Nearly every Chinese policy document contains the words “deepening reform,” and there is a Deepening Reform Leadership Group mapping policy direction at the highest level of the government. But if deepening reform means not going back to the past, what does it say about going forward? The current reform path is “ambiguous and vague,” Sun argues: Continue reading

On Left-wing Politics

Two op-eds in the New York Times (first, second) about the problem of elites in a left-wing political party.

Can the Democratic Party, as it is currently constructed, maintain its commitment to a redistributive agenda?…Asking people to think of themselves as compassionate and to pay higher taxes is one thing — many Democrats have made that leap — but ask them to live in a mixed income neighborhood or ask them to have their kid give up her spot at Princeton, and you get a different response. (Tom Edsall)

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000). (Richard Reeves)

George Orwell, book review, 1939:

In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left­-wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don’t genuinely want.

Destruction as Development

When the Beijing government first started tearing down and bricking up bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city center, I didn’t really care. After all, I rarely go out to these bars and restaurants (by choice, I think), and having to deal with frustrations like the growing pains of a maturing city is probably within the terms of the implicit contract you commit to when living overseas.

But hip hangouts are only collateral damage. The main reason for the demolition, stated both publicly and privately, is to limit the size of the city. The Beijing government has committed itself to reducing the sprawling city’s population; it has decided that the most effective way to do so is, basically, to kick out as many poor people as possible. The poor in Beijing all come from elsewhere in the country; if taking a wrecking ball to their shops doesn’t drive these upwardly mobile migrants out, rising rents elsewhere will. It is an organized campaign of what US Republicans sometimes call “self-deportation”: make migrants’ lives so hellish that they will choose to leave.

The reason Beijing is home to so many migrants, of course, is because of the effects of the last campaign of destruction as development. In the early years of its tenure, Mao’s government decided to show its authority by destroying the old and bringing in the new. They brought in Soviet planners and cast aside the opinions of those who suggested preserving Beijing as a center of culture and administration. In Chinese Shadows, excerpted in the New York Review of Books, the ever-prescient Simon Leys describes the destruction of Beijing, while also throwing some serious shade in the direction of neighboring Tianjin.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin [Tianjin], for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization.

They chose Beijing because it was the center of power, and to declare the capital there was to invoke the continuity and legitimacy of their power. Beijing could not just be the center of culture and administration, but it had to be the center of industry, too. An article on the legacy of building expert Liang Sicheng, who argued to preserve Beijing’s historic core, explains the central vision of destruction as development in the eyes of Mao.

Columnist and writer Ma Dingsheng once wrote: in 1949, in the early stages of building the capital, Beijing mayor Peng Zhen told Liang Sicheng on top of the gate tower at Tiananmen: “Standing here, Chairman Mao wants to look out and see chimney smoke everywhere.” Liang Sicheng was surprised; he believed that Beijing was a city of ancient culture and architecture, and it should not develop industry. It would be best for it to be like Washington, DC, to become a center for government and culture.

Liang’s preservationist aims did not come to pass. Eventually, when the economy opened up, people flooded into where there were jobs; and so they came to Beijing. Not because they wanted to, but because they needed to make a living and this, as the center of everything, was where there was money to be made.

It seems to be a key feature of development in modern China that a new government plan must be accompanied by the elimination of whatever existed before. Leys, for one, does not buy the argument that this destruction is necessary. It is not part of any sort of progress, but a mere facade to hide the fact that there is actually limited progress taking place. For the Maoists, it was revolution; for the current regime, it is stable economic development. Leys:

What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks. The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution.

Leaders now realize that the previous destruction was a mistake. The new plan is to make central Beijing an administrative and cultural center, more like Washington, DC. The path to get there is to tear more buildings down. If the government kicks out all of the migrants who live in Beijing, the theory seems to be, it will be able to keep its center of power while avoiding the pesky overcrowding problem it created in the last round of development as destruction.

It is like a live-action version of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: a government overlooks how local society functions and instead reorganizes it in service of an abstract idea. Here, the Beijing government envisions a clean, functional, “international” city — except that there will be nobody to clean or make the city function, because those people will have all been pushed out. And, unfortunately, this performance, although less destructive than previous stagings, is once again more likely to be a tragedy than a lighthearted romp.

Like it or hate it, Beijing feeds off renao — the noise and liveliness on the streets. It exudes life and energy. People come to Beijing because it is where things are happening, and the city responds in kind. But somehow renao has become incompatible with modernization. Beijing will be pushed toward becoming a sterile, lifeless mess until its residents find a way to inhabit the gray areas and make Beijing come alive once again.

Leys describes the aftermath of the first destruction, and it sticks:

For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.

The Inimitable Grandma Stell

In Memoriam: Estelle R. Freedman (1926 – 2017)

On New Year’s Eve in 2013, I took a college friend of mine down to Atlantic City to visit Grandma Stell. We made dinner; then, a few hours before midnight, my friend and I got ready to walk down to the casinos to ring in the New Year. As we bundled up to face the nighttime cold, Stell grew very concerned about our plans to go out. It was dark, Atlantic City was not safe these days, there are lots of crazy people around during the holidays, etc. We told her not to worry, but of course she was going to worry, because Jewish grandmothers worry, and Stell could out-Jewish-grandmother any other grandmother on the planet.

We insisted on going, and Stell’s worries subsequently shifted: she became concerned that we wouldn’t have enough money for the casinos. She wanted to give us money to gamble with. We refused, of course, but she was not pleased with our stubbornness. Take the money, she urged us. The same woman who saved paper shopping bags full of decades-old receipts “in case there was something useful” would not relent: if her grandson was going to go to the casinos on New Year’s eve, well, then, she was going to give him money to do that. Only after a long standoff and my comments about the paucity of the social security system did we manage to reorient her concerns back to safety and the fact that we were going out after dark.

She implored us to be safe as we headed out the door. We stepped inside the elevator when the apartment door flew open and Stell came out, yelling at us. “Hold up, hold up!” she screamed.

“What is it, Grandma?” I asked as we retreated back into the hallway. I thought someone had been hurt, or worse.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Make sure you win some money.”

We returned to the apartment around two in the morning, tiptoeing silently through the door so as to not wake her. But she was wide awake, sitting on the couch, waiting for us to get home.

“What are you doing awake?” I asked.

“I was worried about you,” she said.

My memory tells me that the next thing she asked was, “Did you win any money?”

***

Any remembrance of Stell will focus on two things: worrying and talking. Her care was expressed as worry, and she liked to talk, which meant that you were always fully informed about how much she cared, and thus how much she was going to worry.

In college, I woke up one morning to a distressed phone call from Stell. She had received a scam call saying that I had been arrested for drunk driving in Canada and needed someone to wire me money. She was on the verge of sending money, because she was worried.

When I moved to Washington, DC, she did not hesitate to share her concerns. “Stay away from the kookaboos,” she warned me. By kookaboos she meant crazy people, and by crazy people she meant kookaboos. And it didn’t matter: if I was thinking about going near them, she was going to worry.

And, of course, then I moved to China. I understand her worries about that one.

Yet despite this, she always maintained that she was not worried. “Joshua,” she would tell me, “I was with the girls, and we were talking about our grandchildren, and I said, ‘If there’s one grandkid I don’t have to worry about, it’s my Joshua.’” I’d inform her that, yes, she told me that the last time we spoke, and the time before that. “Well, it’s true,” she’d say. “Of all my grandchildren, I know I don’t have to worry about you.”

And when there was worry, there was something to talk about. Phone calls to my other grandmother, and nearly any other person in my family, have always been short and utilitarian, never lasting longer than a minute and a half. The key points — safe, healthy, no long-term relationship, no life direction, eating a lot — were satisfactorily established, we said “I love you,” and then we hung up. But phone calls with Stell could last nearly an hour, meandering from topic to topic, circling back around to once more bring up key worries (or lack thereof, because “have I ever told you that, of all my grandchildren, you are the one I never worry about…”). The telephone was basically an extension of her arm. It didn’t matter who was on the receiving end: she would take any opportunity to talk to you about what was going on in her life, about the Phillies and the Eagles and their painful ineptitude, about her grandchildren. She would walk through the Plaza Place apartment building, where most of the residents had long since cleared age 65, and work the room like a suave executive. She would spy her friends on the other side of the main social area — the card playing room — and launch into multiple conversations at once. “Harry, how are you this morning? Rose, what a beautiful day it is outside today!” And, of course, “Harry, Rose—have you met my grandchildren?”

When she got a cell phone, she would call me and leave a message.

“Joshua,” she would holler. “I just wanted to give you a call and hear your lovely voice.” Then, as if there were many octogenarian women who called me by my full first name, Joshua, and claimed I had a lovely voice, she would add, “This is your Grandma Stell, just in case you were wondering.”

It was her voice, and her style of talking, though, that will stick with me. Jahshua, she would say, drawing out the vowel to leave no doubt that she was my grandmother. My grandson Jahshua is coming to visit. It was an intonation grounded in a lifetime of Philadelphia accents; and it carried hints of Yiddish from her parents and older relatives, whose genes I share but whom I never met. When I was little she would pinch my cheek and shake it back and forth like a ringing phone. Shana punim, she’d say.

She even managed to turn a simple negation—“I don’t know”—into something funny in only the way that she can make it funny, something with just a touch of unnecessary shorthand. “Where’s the remote,” I would ask, and she’d look around and say, “Well, I haven’t the foggiest.”

I would talk about Stell to my friends, and even wrote a creative writing essay in my junior year of college about her. I don’t know many grandparents who would let their grandchildren tease them about their age or their verbal idiosyncracies, but I would do my old-Jewish-grandmother voice — modeled off of Stell and, to this day, the only accent I can do with any semblance of accuracy — and she would crack up and tell me that I’ve got plenty of new material for my next comedy show. And all of my friends who met her have memories that will never fade: her combination of unforgettable worrying, loquacity, and love makes even a regular Jewish grandmother look boringly plain by comparison.

***

Visiting Grandma Stell was a yearly ritual from my earliest days, and many of the memories that I retain from childhood are snapshots of time spent with her. The apartment she used to live in, with its rhyming address: three-hundred and twenty-two/north Wissahickon avenue. Bounding up the carpeted stairs on our immature legs to that apartment, where there sat a glass table with garish gold trim that could not have been more out of place in our own home, with its strict modernist decor. An infinite supply of paper shopping bags saved from Casel’s supermarket, and a corresponding number of discussions about the price of corned beef and potato salad. Eating Chinese food with her, in which she would never order her own dish, simply saying that she preferred to eat a little bit of everyone else’s. The story she would tell about her next-door neighbor in Philadelphia, the Italian woman who was aged 39 and already a grandmother. Learning to play, and then to love, the game Spoons. The all-you-can-eat buffet at Caesar’s casino, which she could take us to for $9.99 per person due to her discount from frequenting the penny slots. The smell of the salty marsh water of South Jersey wafting through the streets. That time we tried — and failed — to introduce her to the Internet, giving her the screen name GrandmaStell39. Spending hours thinking about what to eat for lunch, and then, after eating lunch, launching into the process of brainstorming all of the options for dinner. The animatronic teddy bear that lived on her couch, gifted to her by one of her friends, that belted out the oldies song, “Sunshine, lollipops and/ rainbows everywhere.” The number of times I pushed the bear’s paw to kick off the song-and-dance number would have annoyed just about any other human being in the world, but not Stell — she would be-bop along with it, absorbing its positive energy into her own routine.

***

The toll of aging is nonlinear: for a while, time seems frozen and bodies healthy, and then suddenly time works with incredible speed and nobody can keep up. When I was in high school and college, Stell’s signs of aging were still hidden, imperceptible unless you were looking for them or living through them. She had her canasta games, and her friends throughout the building. Her limp was getting stronger and she had more trouble getting to the casinos, but she was still the life of the conversation, in the center of everything. She would go downtown with her friends Selma and Zelda, whose names are forever etched in my memory, and she would attend her weekly or monthly girls’ lunches with all of her friends. She was aging, sure, but she was talking, and worrying, and telling stories about her reluctant visits to her new doctor, a young man, who could not believe that she was already in her 80s. “And I told him,” she said, “I said to this young doctor: age is just a state of mind.”

And then it was no longer just a state of mind. She needed a wheelchair long before she was willing to sit in a wheelchair; too embarrassed to admit that her body was failing, she would say that her refusal stemmed from the fact that she didn’t want to bother other people to have to wheel her around. Soon after she stayed up late into the night on New Year’s to make sure I had done well at the casinos, she couldn’t live on her own any more. She could not pick up new information. The smart and clever woman who would tease us and regale us with stories and generosity couldn’t figure out how to use a simple piece of electronics. Yet she could still remember old information clearly; as long as it happened long ago, it was clear in her mind.

When I visited this past August, we watched videos of her wedding, in 1950. She recognized each of the family members dancing across the screen in the grainy black and white. I had never met any of the people on the screen: they had died decades ago, at least. I never knew her parents, my great-grandparents. Yet she could pick them out with clarity, and drop nuggets of information about their lives. Her body was falling apart, but as long as she had her memory, she had stories, and she could talk, and she could worry, and she could love her grandchildren, even if they were off gallivanting somewhere in Asia.

I never called enough, of course; because we all never call enough. I have been fortunate to travel all over Asia in the last three years, and I made it a mission to send her a postcard from whatever far-off locale I visited. Finding postcards in Asia turned out to be more difficult than anticipated — only weird foreigners like me have any interest in sending postcards — but I could always dig up something to mail to Estelle R. Freedman, c/o Seashore Gardens Living Center, 22 West Jimmie Leeds Road. Sending postcards was an important way for me to stay connected, but it was also insufficient: Postcards are a one-sided conversation; they don’t capture what it means to be fortunate enough to be the grandson of Stell.

Of course, I had it easy. I got only the good parts, in a way. The infrequently visiting grandchild is always rewarded: just by showing up or sending a postcard I could brighten my grandmother’s day. And although I saw the toll of aging, I only saw it through a tiny porthole; if I caught her on a good day, even toward the end, it was almost as if not that much had changed from when she would dance around the apartment singing, “sunshine, lollipops, and / rainbows everywhere.” I didn’t have to be there for the bad days, or care for her when she was at her most vulnerable and feeble. In my infrequent visits, even the most obvious signs weren’t enough: I assumed there would be plenty of time because I thought she was still young at heart, even as she brought up her own mortality, and that Selma and Zelda and all of her friends were long gone, and her surprise that that she was still alive and kicking at the age of 90, and then 91.

I was worried about her, of course, because as her grandson I inherited at least some of the same tendencies. But worrying about her didn’t make much sense to her: she was never worried about herself, only about other people. If I asked how she was doing, she would laugh at the very question. “Of course there’s nothing doing here,” she’d say. She wanted to talk about me, to hear about my life and perhaps to find some new reasons to worry about me.

And even now, it is hard to make her death sink in. It is much easier to see the Stell that is telling the young doctor that “age is just a state of mind.” I still see the Stell that is engaging us all in a comprehensive discussion about the relative merits of each of the deli counter items at Casel’s. I still see the Stell that is hopping from one phone call to the next, filling her retirement schedule with card games and social outings and worries about her grandchildren. Even after she submitted to using a wheelchair, I still remember the Stell who, when I wheeled her out on the Boardwalk, was too worried that my arms were getting tired to appreciate the beach scenery.

***

Our phone conversations, fewer than they ought to have been, always ended with the same repartee. Other grandparents might say, “I love you,” and end the call. But that would not be Stell. “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?” she would ask.

“I believe you’ve said that before,” I would counter.

“Well just in case I haven’t, I want to say it again. I love you.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

And sometimes she would forget something she wanted to say earlier, and we would chat for a little while longer until she would remark that she was probably keeping me from doing something more interesting. And before we actually ended the call, she would ask again, “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?”

“Nope, haven’t heard that one in a while,” I’d say. She would laugh; her memory was fading, but it hadn’t faded yet.

“I love you, Joshua.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

First Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read in 2016

If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.

Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for. Continue reading