In Memoriam: Sherle R. Schwenninger, 1951-2020

Every weekday morning for two-and-a-half-years, I started my day the exact same way: calling Sherle, my boss, to check in. Sherle would pick up the phone from his rent-controlled studio in New York—he refused on principle to live in Washington, D.C., even though he was a co-founder of a think tank based in Washington, D.C.—and clear his throat loudly and thoroughly. Then, in the most unforgettable voice, an inimitable mix of his Nebraska roots and his adopted New York home, he would say, “HellooOOOoo,” undulating the sound of the final “o.” This routine became so drilled into my head that at times I found myself answering my own phone with a throat clear and an undulating hello; still, to this day, if I’m not paying attention, the Sherle hello, as it should be known, will sneak up on me when I pick up a call from a friend.

Sherle passed away unexpectedly last week. He was not a household name by any stretch, but he was an intellectual inspiration and quiet backer of many household names in the world of politics and ideas. Colleagues frequently referred to him the “smartest person you’ve never heard of” in the policy world, and I came to believe that this was probably true. When he spoke, his volume was almost imperceptible, and you had to lean in to catch what he was saying (and you definitely wanted to hear what he was saying, because it was far more insightful than what anyone else was saying). His preference for long, comprehensive answers to simple questions made him ill-suited for political talk shows and live interviews that marked status in the D.C. world. Instead, he made his mark from the sidelines, cultivating young thinkers, convening roundtable discussions, and writing editorials. With Sherle, you didn’t need to know his name; what mattered were his ideas and his impact on future generations.

Sherle maintained a distinct formality even in a world careening toward informality. Everything he did was thorough: thoroughly written, thoroughly edited, and thoroughly researched. Even a response to a question via email would be formatted to the fullest extent. Name, colon, two line breaks, one word, two line breaks, name. It had a palindromic appeal, of sorts, almost comforting in its structure.

Josh: 

Yes.

Sherle

I was supposed to call at “around nine am” every morning, but, being me, it became “between nine and ten,” and then “one minute before ten o’clock.” By the time I had called, Sherle had already read the day’s New York Times and Financial Times from front to back, and was waiting expectantly for my call. 

I didn’t always agree with Sherle on policy issues, and, I soon realized, he appreciated that: he’d rather have an interesting discussion than blind obedience. I doubt I ever convinced Sherle of anything, yet he would always give me room to argue my side and try to make my case. (He, on the other hand, did convince me of many things; and the time I spent working with him and Michael Lind were far more formative for my thinking about politics than my four years in college, or after.) Even when I pursued research interests of mine only tangentially related to the job I was supposed to be doing for our team, Sherle was unfailingly supportive. Like a great adviser, he encouraged me to follow my own path, while also making sure I didn’t veer too far off course. 

What was most evident about Sherle was that he was generous. He was generous with salaries, always giving me the maximum raise possible even when he didn’t have to. He was generous with his time, giving feedback on items that didn’t interest him but were important to others. He was generous with opportunities, never treating me as a mere assistant and instead giving me assignments that should have been reserved for researchers far beyond my years. He was even generous with his clothes, gifting his old neckties to younger colleagues when he was ready to move onto new ones. (The tie that Sherle gave me is still the nicest and best-looking tie I own, and possibly ever will be.) And, of course, he was generous with his ideas, caring more that they got out into the world than that he would be the one to get credit for them.

Sherle’s commitment to substance over style made him an excellent manager and mentor, but he was always the underdog when it came to making a splash on the D.C. donor circuit. By the time he hired me, his program at the think tank he co-founded had been reduced to just four people, then three, and, eventually, it was pushed out altogether in favor of more flashy thinkers who could charm donors by telling them what they wanted to hear. Sherle would rather let the program fold than compromise what he believed in: good research in support of a policy agenda that would offer a better deal for the middle classes, a renewed social contract, fewer foreign wars, and better infrastructure. 

Whenever I think of the word infrastructure, I think of Sherle. Sherle had thought through infrastructure funding down to the last detail, and worked with politicians, financiers, and various coalitions to try to get somebody—anybody—to try to make good infrastructure policy actually happen. Sherle knew that a program for infrastructure investment could address multiple facets of American malaise at once: provide good, middle class jobs for workers of all education levels; offer a productive (and socially beneficial) target for the overabundant supply of investment capital that otherwise causes asset bubbles; and make America’s economy more productive and efficient in the long-term. He was a tireless advocate for this unsung cause, pressing his case gently even as the tides of political dysfunction swelled around him.

Infrastructure is, I think, a good metaphor for Sherle’s life. It is the solid foundation that makes the humans around it able to prosper and thrive. That was Sherle during my time working with him: he made it possible for me to grow as a researcher, thinker and editor. And his selfless generosity made me a better person as well.

I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from Sherle for so long, and I hope that my own research and writing will be able to meet his impeccable standards. (My fashion sense and choice of neckties certainly will not.) Every time I pick up the phone and want to say a “Sherle hello,” I will remember the voice on the other end of that phone line each morning, wondering why I took so long to call, and ready to get to work to make this country a better place.

The Class Politics of Education: On Markey, Massachusetts, and the Scourge of Meritocracy

For the political left, talking about the problems of class is easier than talking about the problems of education. It is acceptable, and quite natural, to think about the wealthy as a political category that selfishly votes in their self-interest to protect their wallets from the prying hands of the state; it is harder, and certainly more discomfiting, to think of political divides in terms of education without respect to class. Education is less tangible than money, and there is nothing inherent about the idea of education that requires it to be associated with policy preferences outside of the field of education itself. And, most importantly, it is because many of us on the left are highly educated but not necessarily rich. (Hello, academia!)

The polarization of politics in our highly unequal society, however, appears increasingly along the lines of education, rather than income. The shift of more highly educated voters to liberal and left-wing parties is not a solely American phenomenon: as Thomas Piketty found, the parties on the left side of politics in France, Britain, and the United States all shifted “from the worker party to the high education party.” The left-wing parties may advocate for policies that would be more helpful for workers and the less-educated, but their actual base of support is increasingly from more educated citizens.

A decade and a half later, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? continues to rear its ugly head.

Much of the debate on the left has focused on ways to magically enlighten the masses to “realize” their self-interest without analyzing the basis of the values system that undergirds ideas of success and failure: the equation of educational attainment with success.

Nobody wants to be against education! Education, like happy hours, is something for which people who live in cosmopolitan cities seem to universally agree that more is better. But without thinking of the ways in which we have moralized educational attainment—and how we have designed policies to reward a particular vision of academic success—the left will continue to limp along, election after election, failing to make much in the way of forward progress in the United States.

In a recent op-ed and new book, Michael Sandel (whose class I taught for last year) targets squarely the mirage of education as equal opportunity, which he lumps into the idea of “meritocracy.” The idea that educational success implies that people “deserve” their success is corrupting politics, he argues. It allows the highly educated to look down on the uneducated and divides society into the winners (with a four-year college degree) and the losers (those who, ostensibly due to not working hard enough, do not). Although I have not read Freddie deBoer’s new book, The Cult of Smart, I believe he makes a similar argument.

Instead, Sandel argues, the Democratic party (or, in deBoer’s framing, the political left) should move away from the false promise of “equality of opportunity” based on academic credentialism and instead focus on what he calls the “dignity of work.” Work should be valued based on its contribution to society rather than on the educational credentials required to get hired to do so. This idea, Sandel points out, “runs from Aristotle to MLK to Catholic social teaching” and is a good reminder that we should value essential workers on the frontlines more than the highly paid financiers raking in billions on speculation from the comfort of their second homes. In my own conversations, I have argued for a cruder conception: wages should be set by a worker’s proximity to dealing with human shit; or, in other words, that janitors and bathroom cleaners should be making the highest wages, followed by nursing home staff, and, at the very bottom, anybody in a white collar job. (Hello, academia!)

I agree wholeheartedly with this basic argument: the way that modern society values work needs to be turned on its head, and we are long overdue for some kind of radical overhaul that reduces the economic premium we place on fancy academic credentials and, at the very least, ensures that all people can earn enough money to live with dignity. It is a familiar but important argument; see, for example, Sandel’s student Elizabeth Anderson on the point of equality.

I want this argument to be true. I desperately, truly, sincerely want this to be true, because it offers a clear path forward for how to save American politics and achieve some semblance of justice in a country plagued by unnecessary cruelty toward workers and the poor. If the Democratic party could just authentically focus on the “dignity of work,” the theory goes, they might be able to recapture the disgruntled (white) workers who, bristling at elite condescension, have embraced the crass anti-establishment populism of Donald Trump. Thomas Frank would nod his head, and so would I.

My concern, however, is that it might not be so easy. Take Massachusetts—where both Professor Sandel and I voted in the Democratic party primary last week. Or, at least, I hope he voted. I supported Ed Markey’s campaign; I volunteered as an organizer, reaching out to every single person I could think of possibly knowing in Massachusetts to vote for Markey. I took my duties seriously, which is why my ex-girlfriend’s mother received an email for me about why she should vote for Markey. (She did not reply, but I think she voted Markey).

Markey ran as a progressive champion of the working class—the son of a milkman who drive an ice cream truck to pay for college. “Ice Cream Eddie” was just a guy from the working-class town of Malden; in sharp contrast to his opponent, Joe Kennedy, the elite-educated scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty. Yet Markey’s base of support came from the highly educated bastions of the state: Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, voted nearly 4-1 for Markey, and he did even better in Amherst. Kennedy’s strongest showings, by contrast, were in working-class towns. Ed Markey dominated among educated voters precisely by running as a working class guy who understood the dignity of work; Kennedy did better with less-educated voters by running as a dynastic elite.

Such an outcome echoes that of the presidential primary a few months prior: for as much as I wanted Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to win—the candidates who offered a genuine alternative to the farce of “equal opportunity”—they performed better among educated voters than among uneducated voters. Exit polls showed that 44 percent of Democratic primary voters in Massachusetts that never attended college preferred Biden, compared to 31 percent and 16 percent for Bernie and Warren, respectively.

Markey ran on the exact type of platform that emphasized the dignity of work, and his most famous endorsement was from Congresswoman, ex-bartender, and working-class champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The more Markey emphasized the dignity of work, the more he appealed to people like me—highly educated progressives. Paradoxically, it seems, the more the Democrats run as the party of the working class (unions, antitrust, wage boards), the more they attract cosmopolitan liberals, not the workers themselves.

Appealing to the working class is the right thing to do morally, because, as Sandel cogently explains, we have erroneously moralized academic success and stigmatized those who do not thrive in the classroom. The moral policy platform would be one that universally provides social supports so as to ensure that all working people (and even those that don’t!) can enjoy a dignified life and not suffer from the unnecessary pain of economic insecurity. It would also be one that actively curbs wealth, rejects hereditary aristocracy, and redistributes vast quantities of resources. These policies are the right thing to do, and I hope someone who understands the dignity of both mental and manual labor promotes them.

I’m sure that my progressive friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts will be on board. But that might be as far as it gets.

The Paradox of Bureaucracy and the Politics of the Left

Nobody likes talking about bureaucracy anymore. (Ok, there are some people, but they never get invited to fun parties.) Talking about bureaucracy is passé; the main studies of bureaucracy in America were all written at least thirty years ago. The marketization and privatization of everything, and the subsequent dismantling of the administrative state over the last forty years, has made bureaucracy seem irrelevant.

David Graeber thinks we’re doing it all wrong. In Utopia of Rules, he argues that we have entered an era of “total bureaucratization”: rather than disappear, the political foundations of bureaucracy have metastasized into all aspects of life. Privatization has not defeated bureaucratization but rather joined forces with it “in a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth.” Bureaucracy is more important than ever; we just don’t even realize it.

Graeber’s critique is particularly provocative when it comes to the relationship between bureaucracy and left-wing politics. We often think of the political Left in America as defenders of a benevolent bureaucracy, protecting welfare state programs against the predations of right-wing politicians hellbent on shrinking the government. Yet Graeber suggests instead that the fundamental assumptions of Left politics make it incompatible with bureaucracy. 

“The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states,” he writes. That “the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state,” is indicative of how American politics has lost its way.

Bureaucracies are arrangements of rules, a particular arrangement of social order that prioritizes predictability, stability, and order. “Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and—-within certain parameters, at least—-treat everyone more or less the same,” he writes. Bureaucracies, then, can be highly effective in certain circumstances—-but they are so only by removing as much humanness as possible.

The departure from human impulses is what makes bureaucracy incompatible with foundational elements of a left political project, he argues, which must be grounded in the idea of imagination. In those youth rebellions of the 1960s, bureaucratic authority represented the fundamental stifling of the human spirit, of creativity and conviviality. The bureaucratic mindset is the rejection of human imagination; a revulsion toward the fetters of bureaucracy is inextricable from the core energy of what motivates a true egalitarian. “The Left, in its essence, is a critique of bureaucracy, even if it’s one that has, again and again, been forced to accommodate in practice to the very bureaucratic structures and mindset it originally arose to oppose.”

Graeber invokes Marx to promote an idea of the political imagination as the inherent human capability of envisioning a better world. In Marx’s terminology, Graeber says, this is production: the ability to envision things, and then bring them into being, unconstrained by the notion that we are limited by what the world currently is.

Imagination does not—-and should not—-be relegated to utopian fantasizing and attempts to use force to impose visions of society from above. It should be a bottom-up project, grounded in the basic creativity of regular individuals. The ability to imagine is not something that is reserved for the prodigies or high-powered elites, while the masses labor purely with their hands and without their minds. Rather, the imagination he speaks of is “the practical common sense imagination of ordinary cooks, nurses, mechanics, and gardeners.”

The combination of the bureaucratic mindset plus the neoliberal belief in markets and individualism creates an environment that seeks to limit the human imagination as much as possible. Graeber’s focus on the importance of political imagination and his sharp critiques of the elite managerial classes echo the more radical writings of George Orwell: “The ultimate imperative of those running the world is choking off the possibility of any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that will be fundamentally different than the world today.”

Even the most benevolent bureaucracies are really just taking the highly schematized, minimal, blinkered perspectives typical of the powerful, turning them into ways of limiting that power or ameliorating its most pernicious effects. Surely, bureaucratic interventions along these lines have done an enormous amount of good in the world…But at the same time, in taking forms of willful blindness typical of the powerful and giving them the prestige of science—for instance, by adopting a whole series of assumptions about the meaning of work, family, neighborhood, knowledge, health, happiness, or success that had almost nothing to do with how poor or working-class people actually lived their lives, let alone what they found meaningful in them—it set itself up for a fall. 

In many arenas, most notably academia, radical critics of the status quo often cling to the strictures of bureaucracy to root out existing networks that favor the well-connected and the closed-off, patronage benefits they promote. Bureaucracy is juxtaposed with a feudal system and arbitrary personal authority. Yet, Graeber notes, the comfortable embrace of bureaucracy is dangerous: it adds more rules and limits creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily upset the order of authority. Channeling his anarchist forebears like James Scott, he argues that bureaucratization 

had to take what had always been a subtle, nuanced form of procedures and turn them into an explicit set of rules. In effect, they had to turn custom into a kind of board game….Such reforms may aim to eliminate arbitrary personal authority, but of course they never actually do. Personal authority just jumps up a level, and becomes the ability to set the rules aside in specific cases.

The tension between Left politics and bureaucracy was perhaps most apparent in Maoist China. The antithesis to true mass politics was bureaucracy and its associated diseased ideologies was “bureaucratism” and “formalism”—when bureaucrats become too distant from ordinary people and enslave themselves to rules rather than what people need. Bureaucracy won out in the post-Mao era, and the contemporary Chinese bureaucratic state is beset by the key feature that Graeber attributes to the bureaucratic mindset: a fear of arbitrariness, and, thus, an embrace of power that is deeply wary of uninhibited human creativity.

Against Neo-Pessimism: George Orwell on James Burnham

The political ideas of James Burnham lodged themselves in George Orwell’s mind, horrifying and challenging him, refusing to let go until Orwell could refute them with sufficient authority to declare them fully vanquished. Orwell dedicated three long essays to Burnham’s works, each one painstakingly unpacking the myriad ways in which Orwell saw Burnham’s theories as flawed. In his writing about Burnham, Orwell explains why he rejects what he calls “neo-pessimism”—a line of thinking about global politics that dismisses any possibility of positive change.

Burnham argues that capitalism is a failed system of the past and socialism is unworkable; instead, the world is lurching inevitably toward a new ruling class of the managerial elite. In Orwell’s reconstruction, Burnham believes that “this new ruling class expropriates the capitalists, crushes the working class movements and sets up a totalitarian society governed by the concept of efficiency.”

Burnham’s arguments contain many trenchant insights. Orwell writes in “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” that Burnham has correctly identified some trends underway: 

For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy. The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralized state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party régimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction. 

Yet Burnham’s ideas, Orwell argues, are based on a fundamental error: he believes that the way things are is the way they will always have to be. He uses the animal kingdom to highlight Burnham’s pessimistic and short-sighted obsession with the status quo. “Burnham sees the trend and assumes that it is irresistible, rather as a rabbit fascinated by a boa constrictor might assume that a boa constrictor is the strongest thing in the world.” 

The neo-pessimist claims that a belief in a better future is an act of self-delusion, an exercise in utopian fantasy. He identifies two sources of this flawed line of thinking: the notion that politics must be the same at all times, and that political behavior is the same as any other type of human behavior. In The Machiavellians, Burnham’s follow-up to The Managerial Revolution, Orwell points out the gaping hole in Burnham’s inevitability thesis. “The argument implied all the way through the book is that a peaceful and prosperous society cannot exist in the future because it has never existed in the past. By the same argument one could have proved the impossibility of aeroplanes in 1900.”

To Orwell, the assumption that politics must be the same in all ages ignores the importance of economics—namely, the power of scarcity. What is particularly galling about modern society is that it is, for perhaps the first time, humans existed in a world of relative abundance: it is now technically possible to guarantee a baseline quality of life for all people. Politics in the absence of the fear of poverty must be different from that of the past. “The justifications for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge.”

Orwell rejects the “realism” of neo-pessimism on the grounds that it leaves no room for genuine human decency. If all behavior can and should be reduced to machinations for power, and there are no other forces besides those of power, politics becomes devoid of any sense of humanity and is thus pointless as a human exercise. The realist rejects any positive vision for politics to create a better society; intellectuals strutting around the halls of high society believe it not because it is true, but because it seems “smart.”

Any theory which is obviously dishonest and immoral (“realistic” is the favorite word at this moment) will find adherents who accept it just for that reason. Whether the theory works, whether it attains the result aimed at will hardly be questioned. The mere fact that it throws ordinary decency overboard will be accepted as proof of its grown-upness and consequently of its efficacy.

Orwell is obsessed with Burnham’s ideas because he sees the neo-pessimist school as deeply dangerous. In a separate essay, he associates the power of neo-pessimist thinking, and its misguidedness, to the allure of its temporality. It resonates with those who can only think in the shortest of terms and want to flaunt their superiority.

The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.

The neo-pessimist position is incompatible with Orwell’s view of a more equal, more just, and more decent society—socialism, as he saw it. For the socialist project to have any chance, it would have to overcome the deceptive allure of the neo-pessimists. 

Trying to Make Soccer a “Science”: Video Assistant Referee and the Elusive Technocratic Dream

The most important factor determining who wins or loses in the 2019 Women’s World Cup under way in France is not a soccer player, but a piece of technology. VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is a video review system in which the referee can replay incidents in the match, and subsequently change the call on the field after review. It is easy for referees to miss flagrant infractions in real time, so VAR is there to ensure that something like the “hand of God,” Diego Maradona’s infamous goal with his hand, cannot occur again.

In reality, however, VAR has made refereeing decisions more controversial, not less. In the first-round game between Spain and South Africa, a South African defender cleared the ball and play continued. No foul was called, nor was there any reason to suspect there was a foul; yet whoever was monitoring video replays alerted the referee to a potential incident and encouraged the referee to consult VAR instant replay. The defender had cleared the ball and fallen backwards, and during the follow-through of her kick her cleats came off the ground. The Spanish forward ran into the defender’s cleats as she fell backward; upon reviewing the detailed replays over and over, the referee judged this to have been a “studs-up” tackle, awarded a penalty kick to Spain, and gave the defender a yellow card (her second), which sent her off the field and left South Africa with only 10 players. It changed the tide of the game, and South Africa, which had been leading for most of the game, never recovered and left the tournament without scoring another goal.

As someone watching the game live on television, this call seemed extremely questionable; yet it turned out to precipitate a series of ever-more problematic VAR-influenced results. In the game between Jamaica and Italy, the Jamaican goalkeeper made a fantastic penalty kick save—only to have it called back by VAR for having come off of her line too early. (The retaken kick went in.) The same happened in the game between France and Nigeria, but this one was even more consequential: France scored on the retaken penalty kick, won the game 1-0, and knocked Nigeria out of the tournament. Scotland faced a near-identical fate: a saved penalty was called back, the retake went in, and Argentina eliminated the Scots.

The goal-line infractions were so miniscule as to be impossible to spot in the flow of the game, and only barely noticeable on video replay. Referees have turned a blind eye to far more egregious violations of the rule in the past, such as the Women’s World Cup finals of 1999. Nor would it be a consensus view among soccer players, or even referees, to think that a post-clearance collision should be considered a studs-up tackle. VAR caused such headaches in the opening rounds that FIFA decided to change the rules in the middle of the tournament, realizing that the VAR-enabled stringent enforcement of penalty kick rules were likely to throw the game into turmoil during penalty kick shootouts in the knockout rounds.

VAR is the distillation of the modern technocratic vision to blame human error for society’s ills and believe that the answer lies in replacing the human element of judgment with automated, scientific tools. If we are just able to use more advanced technology, the thinking goes, human error will dissipate and what will be left is something “pure,” untainted by uncertainty or individual judgment. It is the same logic of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management of workers to optimize and rationalize human labor, to reduce gray areas with objective, scientific, and standardized facts. The referee—the sine qua non of poor human judgment, in the eyes of any sports fan—should be rendered irrelevant, replaced by a machine unfettered by the burdens of head or heart. Technology now allows us to make this switch from human to machine, to replace the whims of individual referees with the unfeeling science of a machine.

The desire to avoid disastrous refereeing blunders is well-intentioned, but VAR has once again shown the limits of technology in the fundamentally messy realm of human affairs. Soccer, like any human creation, cannot be reduced to a set of stackable, interchangeable building blocks that can be scientifically maximized. Bringing in technology does not eliminate human error; rather, it makes it much more obvious that soccer is, at its core, human judgment all the way down. It provides more information, but more information in no way guarantees the resulting judgment to be any more “scientific” or “factual” than the original call.

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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.

Continue reading

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.