Author Archives: jbfreedman

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.

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“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

Myanmar: Cautious Optimism for Democracy

Near the top of a long, covered stairway leading to a golden monastery overlooking the administrative town of Kalaw in the hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan state, a Burmese man and I attempted to communicate. He spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese. He tried to say something. I didn’t understand. I tried to tell him that I didn’t understand; he didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’, the global icon of opposition to military rule in Myanmar and head of the National League of Democracy (NLD) party, and I indicated that I knew her name. His face lit up and he broke out into a beaming smile, followed by attempts to aggressively shake my hand and express positive feelings in any way he could without actually being able to say anything that I would understand. For about ten minutes, this was the extent of our conversation, the only point of mutual understanding hidden between myriad ways to say “I don’t understand.”

If this were an isolated incident, I would have let it pass: I wanted to avoid a Thomas Friedman-esque understanding of political change based on the opinions of the first cab driver you encounter. (Important note: the first cab driver I met in Myanmar spoke great English and worked as a radio operator on ships all over the world. We had a great conversation. I learned a lot from him.) But throughout Myanmar, whether on the streets of Yangon or the hills of Kalaw — and in conversations with locals and foreigners alike — it became clear that this was far more systemic. Everywhere, everyone wanted to express similar feelings: “Aung San Suu Kyi — very good!” “I definitely voted for the NLD!” “The military gov’t is corrupt and stupid!” Etc.

Coming from China, whose central government is further cracking down on political dissent and activism, the open and frank discussion of politics and unreserved disdain for the previous era of military rule that pervades the streets of Myanmar is as foreign to me as fish-paste noodles for breakfast (delicious) or clear blue skies (also delicious). There seems to be a collective release among the population of pent up frustrations built up over 53 years of military or military-backed rule, unfair elections, violent suppression of resistance, and economic concentration in the hand of military elites.

But it is a cautious optimism: even ardent supporters of the NLD are trying very hard to keep their expectations in check. State institutions have a long path to go, and so many things can go, and have gone, wrong amid cycles of hope and failure to move toward democracy. The NLD has to maintain a delicate balance to keep many constituencies happy while building effective governance institutions that have been missing for decades. “Hopes are high, but so too is skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise,” writes Trevor Wilson. Continue reading

Life Under the Dome: The Political Economy of Pollution in China

A subset of my thoughts on pollution in China, particularly about why it’s so hard to fix, is up on Priceonomics.

In short, it’s part of the detritus lingering over a larger pattern of uneven development in China. In Beijing, which has reached a much higher stage of development than its neighboring areas, the desire to cut down on pollution has reached levels both high (top government) and low (a growing sense of frustration and awareness from people who previously thought nothing of it).

And of course there is a gratuitous and strangely specific metaphor about pizza-making establishments. Because China is a land of metaphors, in addition to the pollution.

Recent Activity: On China, On China, On China

I have finally had a chance to reflect on some of my experiences being an American in China.

Previously, I reflected on some of my experiences being an unproductive American in China.

I have also had a chance to reflect on some of the major themes that I encountered in my preliminary research in China. These are broad outlines, and my current research is aimed at digging more deeply into these issues, how they are reflected in policy, and what that means for, like, the world or whatever.