Author Archives: jbfreedman

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

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

A Post-Mortem of Post-Mortems

Human beings are always looking for something to blame. My roommates are looking to point the finger at whoever ate all of their avocados (wasn’t me), and the population of Beijing has been searching for years for the real culprit as to why the air we breathe is laced with harmful pollutants (also not me). Now, much of the world is searching for a reductionist, digestible answer as to why Donald Trump, the man who personifies the word ‘bloviating’, has been elected president of the United States of America. (Ok, I took an avocado. So what?) So far, I have been informed that the real reason he won is racismsexismstupidity, the director of the FBIsocial media, the electoral collegeidentity politicsHillary Clintonthe DNCthe Russians, the liberal bubble, the white bubble, and Barack Obama.

It’s got to be one of those. Or maybe all of them. Or maybe some of them?

The Democratic Party, claiming the mantle of cosmopolitan anti-racism that gestures to the working class in an oblique way (“trumped up trickle-down”), suffered a crushing defeat — not only against its own expectations of vainglorious triumph, but in a favorable electoral map and running against a candidate disliked by 60 percent of people. The Republican Party hung onto majorities in the Senate, the House and statehouses around the country, despite facing numerous vulnerable seats; the Democrats could only pick up two seats, both in states won by Clinton. The Democrats now hold a minority of seats while staring headlong into an unfavorable 2018 map. The election of Donald Trump, regardless of what his own views happen to be or become, has emboldened the fringe elements of society who traffic in hate and fear.

In the days since the election, the internet has churned out a pile of ex-post analyses, mixing together a hodgepodge of righteous indignation, justifiable fear, and alarmist doomsaying about the state of liberal democracy (the justifiability of which remains to be seen). And a few people have written things that challenge us to think a bit more deeply about why politics matters, why tens of millions of people would vote for a man who has so openly broken social and political norms, and why the Left cannot uniquely claim the moral high ground. Here are a few of these; I welcome more. There is no comments section, so you have to email me or blockchain me, whatever that is.

They’re Going to Keep Losing” by Freddie DeBoer

You don’t have to get in touch with the rest of the country because that’s the right thing to do. You have to get in touch with the rest of the country because they’re kicking your ass. The Republicans will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, have the chance to appoint at least one and probably several Supreme Court justices, run 68 out of 99 state legislative houses, and hold 31 gubernatorial seats. That is domination on an unimaginable level. Every minute you spend signal-boosting people who say that it’s Republicans who have to get on board with liberal values is a minute you’re not doing anything to change that condition…It doesn’t matter if you should have to change. You do have to change. Or else you have to accept the irrelevance of what you do.

The End of Identity Liberalism” by Mark Lilla

“How should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

“The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.” Continue reading

Administration in China’s Higher Ed System: A Problem of Kind, Not Degree

Where there is a problem in an American university, a university administrator will be hired to address it. It does not matter if the problem has a solution: as Stanford sociologist John Meyer cynically explained in a lecture this week in Beijing, as formal organizations such as universities expand beyond their core mission, the answer is to hire a professional to accommodate each additional new function, no matter how difficult or unnecessary it may seem. “You have to hire a professional,” he said. “That’s how you prove that someone is doing something when they should be doing nothing.”

While the American higher education system has been dominated by growth in the number of administrators, the crux of China’s higher education shift in the last decade-plus has been an unprecedented expansion in the number of students. The Chinese higher education system counted 36.5 million students in 2852 postsecondary institutions in 2015. From 2003 to 2013, total enrollments increased more than 200 percent, more than 10 times the growth in the United States over the same period

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don't read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don’t read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

Since the Chinese government began the latest round of higher education expansion in 1999, at the tail end of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has excelled at enrolling students but struggled to actually educate them. Most students will enter middle- and lower-tier schools, but funding and attention remain concentrated on the most elite schools — even compared to merely elite institutions. Tsinghua University, one of China’s top two schools, is slated to spend 18.2 billion yuan in 2016; more than double every other school in the nation except Peking University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. (see chart, right)

Many scholars and commentators criticize the university’s administrative system for holding back the development of China’s higher education. But although the inequality between schools is reminiscent of problems in the United States, the administrative issue that plagues China’s higher education system is a difference of kind, not of degree. As I explain in my new piece in this month’s Washington Monthly, China’s problem of over-administration is a question of concentrated political power, not of administrative bloat.

Administrative expansion, combined with decreasing state funding, more price discrimination, and the Chivas Regal effect that equates higher price with higher quality, has spurred massive tuition increases in American higher education. It is extraordinarily expensive to go to college in the United States: the annual cost of attending an elite private college, or a public college for out-of-state students, is far higher than the median household income in the country.

None of this can apply in China because the state controls all of these levers. Tuition levels are set by the state and have not increased in a decade. Most schools rely almost entirely on government funding for their revenue; few universities except for the most elite schools can draw a significant amount of money from other sources, such as donations or external grants. Continue reading

Profiles in America: The Unexpected Trump Voter

The gig economy may be disastrous for workers, but it’s great for meeting a diverse cross-section of America. In two days of using car-sharing app Lyft in the Bay Area, each of the five drivers I met was of a different ethnicity. A small sample size, sure, but sufficient for making sweeping, unsubstantiated statements about the country.

Enter Michael (name changed), a Lyft driver from San Jose. An immigrant from the east African nation of Eritrea, Michael came to the US fifteen years ago, first to study and then to work to support his family. Now he drives Lyft and travels when he can; recently, he took a trip to Northern Europe. (London is great, but he could never live there — it’s too busy). He was friendly and positive, eager to strike up a conversation about life in the Bay area and my experiences in China.

Also, he’s voting for Donald Trump.

pres slogans4.youknow

pres slogans4.aunt

“Trump is a businessman,” Michael said when I popped the “what do you think of the upcoming election?” question. “The Democrats had their turn to fix the economy. Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the economy.”

On immigration, Michael had similar ideas. “I don’t like the way that Trump says it, but he’s right on immigration.”

“But you’re an immigrant,” I replied.

Legal immigration is fine, he explained, but we need to stop illegal immigration. “If people are coming in illegally, who knows what they’ll do?” Donald Trump’s rudeness is off-putting, Michael said, but at least Trump knows that that stopping illegal immigration is important. In Michael’s view, Trump can create more jobs, and that’s the most important task.

I tried to gently dissuade him from voting for Trump. I launched into a long and rambling explanation of why Trump’s economic policy would not actually create jobs, and then tried to argue why he would be a terrible representative for the United States in the world. Michael listened patiently. I talked uninterrupted for what felt like hours, wrapping together myriad different lines of argument and eventually tripping all over any semblance of a straightforward, convincing argument.  I resorted to technocratic exhortations of “trust me, I’ve studied the economy.” Seeing my sincere efforts to convince him fall flat, I merely asked him to reconsider his choice. He said he would think about it.

As we pulled up to my destination, Michael looked at me and asked, “Who do you think is going to win?”

All of the polls seem to say that Donald Trump had no chance. Clinton holds a consistent lead in all of the swing states, and has even closed in on Trump’s lead in reliable Republican strongholds like Texas and Utah. Despite my concerns, I said, at least I felt confident knowing that Clinton’s chances seemed strong.

He thought about my answer for a few moments before replying. “I think Trump is going to win,” he said.

Donald Trump and the “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” Strategy

When I think of Atlantic City, I think of the Trump Taj Mahal. My family would go down to the shore each summer to visit relatives; every so often, we would find ourselves in Atlantic City. The Taj — a glittering, bombastic, outrageous monument that makes small-scale cultural appropriation look like child’s play — held special appeal for a geography nerd like myself who rarely made it far past the New Jersey suburbs. My aunts and uncles and cousins worked in the casino business, and my grandmother would rack up comps from playing the nickel slots and take my brother, my cousins and me to a big all-you-can-eat buffet in the glittering, smoke-filled halls of the Taj or one of its brethren.

Atlantic City ain’t what it used to be, everyone says these days, and of course it’s true. The Trump Taj Mahal — which no longer has any relation to Trump but bears his name in countless light bulbs and golden letters — is hemorrhaging money and is set to close next month. The number of casinos in town has nearly halved since 2014. Jobs are disappearing; crime is up.

When I visited the area last month, the cover story in the local paper reported on a casino job fair — for casinos in other states who wanted to lure experienced dealers to new facilities in Maryland, New York, and even islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Plenty of casinos are hiring in Atlantic City,” the Press of Atlantic City explained. “But many of the jobs aren’t in Atlantic City.”

Donald Trump, the name and face of Atlantic City at the peak of its glitzy reverie, wants to sever all ties with the struggling city. Atlantic City, in turn, wants to sever all ties with him. When I asked my relatives in the casino industry what they and their colleagues thought of Trump running for president, the response was unequivocal. “The idea of Donald Trump being president is a joke to us,” they said. All he did was take a bunch of other people’s money and run casinos into the ground; the idea of anyone thinking he would be a good president is inconceivable to the people who actually saw him operate.

This finding is neither new nor surprising; plenty of reporters have gone to Atlantic City and drawn similar conclusions. It is interesting only in how it sheds light on the most fascinating part of the Year of the Donald: not his candidacy itself, but in his opponents’ complete disempowerment in trying to combat it.

Trump blunders with unrivaled fecundity, yet emerges relatively unscathed — simply by claiming that he has not blundered at all. If mistakes were made, it was somebody else’s fault. “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and left 7 years ago, great timing (as all know). Pols made big mistakes, now many bankruptcies,” Trump tweeted.  Continue reading

China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”) Continue reading

Donald Trump Is Not The Problem; Or, How American Liberals Are Doing It All Wrong

“I can’t wait for when we stop talking about Donald Trump and get to return to normal life again.” My roommate, in Beijing, China, March 2016

Experiencing the 2016 presidential election from China has been a uniquely frustrating experience: the longer I spend living in a non-democratic single-party political system, the greater the fundamental respect I have for American political and social institutions. Yet American politics and media seems determined to undermine my newfound goodwill with the charade that is the current election.

The problem, however, is not Donald Trump. It is the reaction on the Left to Donald Trump. Donald Trump says something offensive, liberal commentators recoil in visceral horror, somebody writes a trend story about the process of obtaining a visa to move to Canada, etc. It is a map dotted with little volcanoes of individual self-righteous outrage: Americans who support Trump must be stupid or racist, liberals say, because there is no other alternative that fits within their current worldview.

Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.”” The economy added 160,000 jobs last month; I assume that at least half of those were for new bloggers to write about how dumb Trump voters must be.

I spent a long time trying and mostly failing to express in words why this attitude frustrates me so deeply, but thankfully Emmett Rensin’s excellent essay at Vox on the ‘smug style’ of American liberalism fills much of the gap. The Left has embraced a smug attitude, Rensin argues, in which there are only two options for human thought: rationality (in which you would support liberalism, as embodied in the Democratic Party), or stupidity (in which you support Trump).

Rensin’s essay, despite its length, is worth reading in full. I want to elaborate on what Rensin writes and push the argument one step further. Those who are not ‘rational’ are likely not only stupid, but also racist. And the proper response to either stupidity or racism seems to be shame: these are unforgivable sins and whoever espouses these views must be beyond rehabilitation.

What is left of the Left is a motley coalition of rich coastal elites and minorities. Its main policy tools are means-tested social programs and semi-privatizations, promoting finance and tech elites while increasing support for the poorest. It is moving ever further away from the pro-labor party that prioritizes the interests of the working class.

Did elites abandon the labor left, or did the labor left jump ship? Both questions are primarily about the intersection of race and class. It is a question of which group prioritized race over class first. Continue reading

In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wanfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice. Read the whole thing on Medium.

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

China’s foreign policy initiatives claim to be forward-looking. Hipster fashion: the opposite. Beijing-based cross-cultural comedian Jesse Appell and I worked together to try to find where they meet. Welcome to: Is this a Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

    1. Belt and Road
    2. Aggregate Supply
    3. Friends and Neighbors
    4. Going Global
    5. Gravel and Gold
    6. The Rising States
    7. Give and Take
    8. The Silk Road
    9. The New Silk Road
    10. Trend of the Times
    11. Band Together
    12. Dream Collective
    13. Community of Shared Destiny
    14. Timeless Trends
    15. Neighborly
    16. Strut
    17. New Stone Age
    18. Peaceful Rise
    19. String of Pearls
    20. Supply and Advise
    21. Iron and Resin
    22. Win-Win
    23. Modern Cooperative
    24. March West
    25. Coolly Observe, Calmly Deal with Things, Hold our Position, Hide our Capabilities, Bide our Time, and Accomplish Things Where Possible

—-

Answer key:

Independent Boutique Shop: 2 [San Francisco, CA], 3 [Austin, TX], 5 [San Francisco, CA], 6 [New York, NY], 7 [Portland, OR], 8 [Bronxville, NY], 11 [Meridian, ID], 12 [Los Angeles, CA], 14 [Thurmont, MD], 15 [Chicago, IL], 16 [South Austin, TX], 17 [Los Angeles, CA], 20 [Miami, FL], 21 [San Francisco, CA], 23 [Chicago, IL]

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative: 1, 9, 10, 13, 18, 22, 24, 25

Both: 4 [Toronto, Ontario] and strategy to encourage business investment abroad, 19 [Elmira, Michigan] and description of China’s military activity in the Indian Ocean