Understanding US politics circa 2017

Donald Trump's election last year was shocking and appalling to many people, me included. For the past year I have been reading up on American history in an attempt to understand what the hell happened. I now believe that 1) things are not as bad as they once seemed, and that 2) the next few years will be really interesting to watch. Here's why.

Let’s start with some history. In the study of American politics, there is a popular framework used to think about the various periods of US political history called “realignment theory.” My favorite version of this theory is Stephen Skowronek’s awesome analysis of presidential politics. In his analysis, there is in any given historical period a dominant orthodoxy. A reconstructive US president (think: Lincoln) articulates an orthodoxy and puts together a legislative coalition to enact a corresponding agenda. This orthodoxy dominates over the next decades and the corresponding coalition continues to legislate elaborations to this agenda. However, the orthodoxy eventually weakens in the face of escalating crises to which it has no response. When this happens, another enterprising reconstructive politician with an understanding of the demands of various political factions can articulate a new orthodoxy and build a new legislative coalition under that banner. Such a realignment inaugurates a new period of US political history.

In 1860, Lincoln rallied abolitionists, Whigs, and Northern laborers in opposition to the expansion of slavery, creating a governing industrialist coalition which lasted for 70 years. This industrialist coalition lost credibility in the face of the Great Depression. Amid this crisis, FDR assembled the New Deal coalition, consisting of unions, workers, minorities, farmers, white Southerners, and intellectuals, dedicated to expanding the provision of government assistance to the needy. This coalition was dominant until LBJ’s Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War together sowed the seeds for the coalition’s dissolution. Then for almost forty years until today, the Reagan coalition, made up primarily of business interests and conservative middle/working class whites, rallied around lowered taxes and reducing the wastage of the welfare state.

Today the Reagan orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. In 2008, after the fiasco of the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis, Obama assembled a broad coalition which propelled him to the White House and gave him a supermajority in the Senate. It seemed as if the Republican Party was already in tatters and a new era of US political history was dawning. By 2010, however, Obama’s agenda was already held up by Republicans who had overwhelmingly retaken Congress, a sign that the Reagan coalition and orthodoxy still held considerable support. This Republican Congress opposed Obama’s agenda and sought to preserve Reagan’s orthodoxy, but had little ambition to enact any particular new legislative program. This resulted in the legislative gridlock of the past six years.

The lack of new ideas from conventional Republicans addressing the present and growing needs of voters gave Donald Trump an opening to hijack the Republican party nomination in the primary process by introducing ideas antithetical to Reaganite orthodoxy. The surprise return of Reagan coalition to power in 2016, now led by a non-Reaganite, is evidence both of the orthodoxy’s sustaining power as well as its now obvious internal tensions.

Now the belabored question must be belabored again: So why did Trump win?  Much ado has been made about the impact of fake news on the 2016 election outcome, which I think is a distraction. The Comey letters might have had an impact, but only because the media way overplayed its significance. Fundamentally, I think there are two related reasons Trump won: 1) Blue collar workers are really upset. 2) These Americans still believe in Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics.

To the first reason first. The 2016 election, like many other US elections, can be understood from the viewpoint of good old demographics. In the preceding eight years, Obama’s administration had major legislative accomplishments for the poor (e.g. Obamacare) and for minorities (e.g. same sex marriage), but it also pursued policies such as immigration reform and free trade agreements that the working class disliked. These voters have experience two decades of misfortune — by which I mean the dramatic disappearance of manufacturing jobs due to the double whammy of China’s WTO ascension and the Great Recession (think: unemployment, broken families, opioids — see work by Autor et al.) , and no doubt felt left behind. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to remake America and bring back working class jobs. His rhetoric targeted this segment of White working poor voters who ready to be mobilized. This strategy paid off. Trump rode the excitement of these voters to capture the Republican nomination in the primary and then flipped key swing states in the industrial Mid-West during the general, giving him the presidency. This demographic story should be familiar if you’ve been reading the news for the past year. For example, the New York Times has some very helpful analysis of the election exit polls.

 Source: NYTimes

Source: NYTimes

Now to the second (and more interesting, I think) way to understand the 2016 election. Consider the stark difference in style between the Obama/Clinton team and Trump campaign — really, the difference between the idea of the executive as a rational manager and the idea of transformative politics in the form of “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp.” These two competing visions represents a fundamental tension embedded in the current design of the federal government.

My favorite political scientist Stephen Skowronek had this to say:

Look, the 20th-century Progressives really screwed up the presidency in the sense that they envisioned every president as a transformative leader. So they instituted primary elections, which gave us these idiosyncratic presidential parties not beholden to any collective. Instead, they are personal organizations which feed this idea of transformational leadership. But at the same time, the Progressives rebuilt the government to create this enormous management apparatus we call the executive office of the president. So now we also expect the president to be a rational coordinator of institutions and actions throughout this massive federal government.

The problem is that those two functions don’t necessarily go together very well. How can you promise to shake the system up, to extricate the special interests and transform politics, while also being a responsible manager of the state? In the 2016 election, we saw a choice between candidates who were essentially caricatures of those two views. Hillary Clinton was all about competence and management and rational decision-making, while Trump was all about popular mobilization and disruption. We already know this doesn’t work. I don’t think we can take that rhetoric at face value. We need to look at what presidents mean by transformation. The closer you look at what Obama was proposing in 2008, we see that he meant was forgetting about transformation in the Jackson/Reagan mode and replacing it with a rational, problem-solving government.

Americans themselves hold these two conflicting expectations: they expect presidents to be transformative figures who shake things up, who redeem American values, and they expect their presidents at the same time to be responsible stewards of their affairs. Presidents need to be both, but you can’t do both well. This problem is not going to solve itself. Tensions between responsible management and transformation are getting more acute, not less so. Our desire to have both is tearing the country apart.

To sum up: In the 2016 election, the economic woes of those without college degrees played a pivotal role. That Trump rose to power with many anti-Reaganite policy proposals (e.g. protectionism, infrastructure investments, and even universal healthcare) also illustrates how Reaganite orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. However, Trump's victory also signals that many Americans still want Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics and not Obama/Clinton pragmatic rationalism. Elements of Reaganite orthodoxy remains powerful in the imaginations of voters.

Now the bureaucracy rebels against Trump. It has now been more than five months since inauguration and Trump has no legislative accomplishments to show. Yes, Trump’s administration is slowly eroding the ability of various bureaucracy to function through budget cuts and vacant leadership position. However, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations have also been seriously checked by the bureaucracy through leaks and insubordination. Think of Sally Yates. Think of the Jim Comey saga, which culminated in a full week of bad press and the associated fall in Trump’s popular support, as well as the appointment of a special prosecutor investigating Trump and his campaign. This is a relief. There was rampant fear after the election, especially in liberal/progressive circles, that Trump will bring banana republic authoritarian politics to the United States and severely damage democratic institutions through power grabs. This looks less likely in the wake of the Jim Comey saga.

That Trump and the “deep state” are battling goes back to Skowronek’s point about the difficulty of redemptive politics as Trump sold to the public. The administrative state that is the US federal government is enormous and entrenched. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but in fact is too politically isolated to push forward any of his own agenda through either the bureaucracy or the legislature. He is letting the bureaucracy decay and shrink through budget cuts and unfilled positions, but can this last without something serious breaking? Meanwhile, Republicans, still stuck in their 1980s orthodoxy but increasingly subject to disparate demands among their constituents, are as yet unable to agree on any significant tax or reform legislation of their own. Will this coalition be further discredited by a continued inability to accomplish anything despite controlling all three branches of the government? Will there be additional mismanagement crises due to Trump? While I'm sympathetic to the view that the US government could use some slimming down and that the influence of special interest should be reduced, I also think poor management will also generate a whole host of problems. If the administration creates more problems, 2016 may be the last time the Reagan coalition will win power in a significant way. The most important legacy of Trump’s presidency may then be to precipitate the next period of US history.

What’s next? Currently the US legislature is gridlocked and dysfunctional. I view realignment is a necessary step to political renewal. While Reagan orthodoxy is slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror, it is unclear what new orthodoxy will replace Reaganism and how soon it will emerge. I see a fairly broad consensus in both parties that a combination of tax and regulatory reform incentivizing capital, infrastructure, and education investments will be good for the country. I suspect (and hope) such pragmatic and centrist ideas will prevail. There are a few interesting trends to watch as the Trump administration wears on.

Trump support holds steady? Trump's core support seems hardly damaged despite the obvious train-wreck that is the Trump administration since he took office. This is at once remarkable given historic norms, and unsurprising given why Trump won the presidency. While historically low among presidents this early in their terms, popular support for Trump remains substantial at 35-40%, and this is the key factor in determining whether Trump survives four years. I suspect the most likely scenario is that Trump's core support will not boil away quickly. His support will perhaps drop slowly in a series of escalating crises, including perhaps a mismanaged recession or foreign policy crisis, as well as the Mueller investigation. 

Democrats squabble. The 2016 election laid bare internal fissures not only the Republican Party, but also in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism gained a lot of steam during that time, and the Left wing of the Democrats continue to fight with the Establishment wing today. The power struggle can be seen most notably in the recent DNC chair race, which was viciously fought even though differences were papered over ex post. There are those who cheer on the rise of the Left, but I think old-school left liberalism is unlikely to gain enough support to become a dominant orthodoxy.

Hyper-partisanship. Another open question is the consequence of increasing partisan sentiments in the population. While politicians squabble and vie for power within parties, there has been an increasingly high level of party loyalty among voters in the past 20 years or so. Voters increasingly distrust members of the opposing parties and both parties have become more ideologically uniform. (See, e.g. Gentzkow 2016.)

These patterns almost certainly have to do with the growth of partisan radio and cable news which prey on partisan identity and ideological biases. Hypothetically, the current climate of hyper-partisanship could be an impediment to coalition realignment: If both citizens and legislators voted purely out of partisan loyalty, then realignment won’t happen and institutions will continue to decay and fossilize. The election of 2016, however, suggests that populist anger may have finally grown sufficiently loud to overcome blind loyalty induced by hyper-partisanship. Time will tell.

Pop Music 101

When I first moved to the US, Hugh Koeze made five records for me that became my starting point for learning about American pop music. Now it is my turn to pass on the gift with my own highly idiosyncratic playlist. Here is a Spotify playlist that I recently recommended to few Chinese friends and some (probably embarrassing) words I wrote as an introduction.

The Beatles - I’ve Just Seen A Face (1965). We begin with the most classic band of all time, the Beatles, about whom tomes have been written. They were not simply a pop culture phenomenon; they are also really good musicians. Give them a proper listen and you might find polyrhythm, surprising key changes, exotic instrumentation, sweetness, and urgency in their music. Among their many albums Rubber Soul is my favorite. Unfortunately Spotify does not have Beatles songs yet, so here’s a Youtube link instead.

The Beach Boys - God Only Knows (1966). The Beach Boys was the other boy band that drove Baby Boomers completely nuts. They created beautiful sounds, sounds you will hear in shopping malls come Christmas every year, as now suburbanized Baby Boomers shop around for gifts for their kids and imagine their own happy childhoods. Those imagined childhood must be pretty darn perfect.

Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come (1964). Continuing with this theme of protest songs, here is a classic for the civil rights movement in the 60s. Often crowned the King of Soul, Cooke composed this song shortly after his son died. His own life was then cut short by a shooting. The tragic story surrounding it only makes this song all the more poignant.

Aretha Franklin - Respect (1967). Aretha wanted to follow in Sam Cooke’s footsteps and that she did. Hailed as “the voice of black America” and “a symbol of black equality”, she is very culturally important and also very good. This groovy song, as you can probably tell, is a feminist call-to-arms.

Simon and Garfunkel - Sound of Silence (1963). This beautiful song is actually written shortly after JFK’s assassination. Lovely and haunting.

Bob Dylan - Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (1962). I wanted to include at least one breakup song in this list and here it is. But of course Bob Dylan is much more. A counter-cultural figure while Beatlemania raged, he became the voice of the anti-war hippie generation. His song such as “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” were anthems for the civil rights movements and later the anti-Vietnam War movement. When Dylan plugged his acoustic guitar into an amp and made the landmark album, Highway 61 Revisited, the world was electrified. My own favorite Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, is the first track in this album. He continues to play even today after an incredibly prolific career.

Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues - Live (1968). Legendary Johnny Cash performs Folsom Prison Blues in Folsom Prison. A major event in rock history. His music is countercultural and his performances were often volatile, yet he is loved dearly for the power of his lyrics. Of course he never did shoot a man in Reno as he sings in this song, but his ability of the emphasize with prisoners is palpable. You get the sense that he has confronted darkness and understands it. Check out A Girl from North Country (a famous collaboration with Bob Dylan). He continued to write music until he died. His music video Hurt was also a major event. I also quite like his late work, which not many people do, particularly the album American III: Solitary Man.

The Supremes - You Can’t Hurry Love (1966). Who doesn’t love the Motown sound? If you’re like me, this song will make you want to dance.

The Who - I Can’t Explain (1965). What a sound. This is perhaps the best known song by this British Rock band. Writing in Rolling Stone in the early 1970s, the lead singer Townsend mused, “It seems to be about the frustrations of a young person who is so incoherent and uneducated that he can’t state his case to the bourgeois intellectual blah blah blah. Or, of course, it might be about drugs.”

Arlo Guthrie - Alice’s Restaurant Massacre (1967). Yes, this is 18 minutes of someone telling a story while playing acoustic guitar. It’s also portrait of America in the Vietnam years. I would have never learned about this song if not for Hugh Koeze. To be honest I didn’t understand it for many years. But once I did the story was hilarious.

The Stooges - I Want To Be Your Dog (1969). The sound of the Iggy Pop and Stooges is very different from the stuff that came before. The sweet sex revolution and youthful confidence of the 60s takes a dark turn as everything goes wrong–the 70s is a decade defined by events such as Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the Gas crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation. This song came out in 1969 and to me seem to forebode things to come. Wikipedia: “The lyrics have been described as evoking a sense of lubricity and self-loathing, a monument to a state of blue-collar tedium and alienation of their era, late 1960s industrial Michigan.” Quite a contrast to the “Motown sound.”

Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry (1974). At first blush, this song title seems break-up related. But, actually, after properly listening to the lyrics, I realized it’s actually a wholly different kind of song. It’s about about growing up in the ghetto and persuading a woman that things will get better, so there’s no need to cry. Apparently, in Jamaican English, “no” can mean “don’t.” By the way, knowing Bob Marley (“Bob”) songs will give you a lot of credibility when interacting with an important American demographic: the pot-head. In my experience, the first sign of a pot-head is that he owns a Bob poster or he professes love for Bob. But even if you’re not a pot-head, reggae music is really fun too and Bob Marley is the most important reggae artist who ever lived. Of course, I can’t guarantee that listening to his songs won’t be even more fun with a bit of ganja. (Don’t try at home, kids.)

Ramones - Beat on the Brat (1976). Ramones are 70s classic and very important for the development of punk and heavy metal. I don’t know their music very well but maybe you’ll like them. From Wikipedia: “When I lived in Birchwood Towers in Forest Hills with my mom and brother. It was a middle-class neighborhood, with a lot of rich, snotty women who had horrible spoiled brat kids. There was a playground with women sitting around and a kid screaming, a spoiled, horrible kid just running around rampant with no discipline whatsoever. The kind of kid you just want to kill. You know, ‘beat on the brat with a baseball bat’ just came out. I just wanted to kill him.” Pretty funny, if you ask me.

The Clash - London Calling (1979). The last years of the 70s in Britain were very hard. This was the eve of the election of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. There were riots, rampant unemployment, racial conflict, class struggle. All this is captured in the title track of this album by the Clash, who are really, really good. The album is worth listening to in its entirety. My favorite is Lost in the Supermarket, which is one of the best songs responding to the rise of consumerism and suburban life. This is a theme which the Talking Heads later picked up, as well as Radiohead and Arcade Fire.

Journey - Don’t Stop Believing (1981). 80s mainstream pop is over-the-top, gaudy, cheesy, glitzy, and unabashedly sentimental. And honestly? Everybody loves it. And everybody loves this track by Journey. Many a time I’ve felt truly alive when belting this song at the top of my lungs in a room filled with drunk people. I cannot describe how good that feels. You’ll just have to experience it at some point. For example, go here.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime (1981). Now for a completely different sound and subject matter, check out this new wave song from the 80s. It is made by a band called the Talking Heads headed by David Byrne. Let me tell you. All the cool kids listen to the Talking Heads. (Or, if they don’t, they should.) Their songs deal with the confusion of adult life in a consumerist society. You will hear Byrne’s yelping about a mid-life crisis: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Other songs to check out by the Talking Heads include This Must be the Place, Psycho Killer, Burning Down the House. If you like their stuff, we might want to do a viewing of “Stop Making Sense”, which is one of the best rock movie ever.

David Bowie/Queen - Under Pressure (1981). David Bowie should need no introduction. Which is an excuse since I don’t know how to write it. If you haven’t given him a good listen yet, please do. He has so many great songs: Be sure to check out Space Oddity or Ziggy Stardust or Suffragette City or Rebel, rebel or Changes. Queen is another very classic band, despite the fact that a good deal of their songs were really “out there.” You have probably heard of Bohemian Rhapsody or We Are The Champions or Another One Bites The Dust (which is potentially a break-up song).

R.E.M. - The One I Love (1987). R.E.M. came out of Athens, Georgia, a sort of Mecca for American music. R.E.M. drew on a lot of punk influences but pioneered a more folksy, clean sound that I really love. They are often considered one of the first alternative bands. But I’m not really sure what that means: “alternative” is a very poorly defined genre which is really a catch-all genre for many kinds of music that isn’t “mainstream”. But what is clear is that R.E.M is enormously influential and was a sort of prototype for many future bands. I love “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and “Losing My Religion”.

The Presidents of the United States - Peaches (1994). Sometimes you just need a real goofy song about something completely unimportant to cheer you up. I don’t know anything about the context of the song and there probably isn’t a whole lot interesting about it. And sometimes that’s fine. Just enjoy.

The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize?? (2002). The Flaming Lips produce this incredibly lush yet edgy sound. Their subject matter is fairly unconventional given song titles like “She Don’t Use Jelly” (as in lubricant) or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, which are both very, very good. But “Do You Realize??” wins as one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I am certainly guilty of listening to it on repeat many, many times. From Wikipedia: ‘In an interview with Mojo, Coyne revealed that during the recording of Yoshimi…, band member Steven Drozd was trying to kick a heroin addiction. When they took breaks from playing, Drozd would have a really tough time with his withdrawal. Listening to him cry, and with the death of his father in mind, Coyne wrote “Do You Realize??”.’

Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (2004). Arcade Fire make big transcendent statements about death, religion, the suburbs, technology. And they sing about tragedy and yet do so in a way that makes you fall in love with life. I cannot describe their sound effectively, so perhaps you read [this famous review from Pitchfork][pitch]. Listening to Arcade Fire probably changed my life and made me a happier person. If you want, come over to my place to check out my speakers. I will gladly play it for you.

LCD Soundsystems - All My Friends (2007). This song is about… well… growing up in the 21st century, and it hits right home.

Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook (2008). Not long after my high school graduation, I walked into a record store in Hong Kong to pass time. They had a few new albums on display, so I put on the headphones to check them out. Little did I know how much the polyrhythmic blissful beauty that then flowed from the headphones into my ears would affect me. So I bought the record, went over to my friend Plato’s home and listened to it again and again. Perhaps there was something magical about the setting. At the time everything was rosy: I was falling in love for the first time. I was heading to college. Life was open and full of possibilities. When I heard this music, it spoke to me like no band ever did. And maybe it’ll speak to you as well.

Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World (1967). Oh! Before you go, let me show you what I think is the greatest Christmas music ever made. I’m pretty sure this song will never get old. So please go find the albums that Louis Armstrong recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. And no, you don’t have to wait till Christmas to play this song. Play it any time and you’ll realize that, actually, you can have Christmas all year round.

Reflections from Beijing

Even though my father is an economist, I had not properly studied the subject before I arrived in Chicago two years ago to be a research assistant. Much of economics was really new to me. I sat in lectures and found myself suddenly understanding things that I never even thought about before and seeing the world wholly anew. Eager to learn I’d in drop in on seminars and classes between working on research tasks. I read textbooks and browsed syllabi in search of more things to learn.

My father was delighted that I had chosen the academic life. But my mother worried that I would grow insulated and solitary. Dismissing her concerns, I told her that she had nothing to worry about: I had plenty of friends and knew how to maintain a balanced life. I had found a passion that I had to follow.

The research assistantship turned out to be a dream job. After a year as a business consultant, I craved intellectual stimulation. I found exactly what I wanted in my new job and was constantly excited. Every day I had new puzzles to solve, and loved how I was challenged each day to figure out new things. I was a kid in a candy store, surrounded by new knowledge to take in. I loved, loved my work. I was happy to be totally absorbed.

Thinking back, though, I now realize that my enthusiasm came at a cost. When I left San Francisco, I left a job that I did not love. But I was the healthiest I had been in many years. I ate well. I regularly exercised. I biked each day. I built and was enmeshed in a web of loving friendships. After I moved, I loved my job. But I took less care to eat healthily. I exercised only occasionally. I had opportunities to build up and serve a close community of friends, but often neglected to.

I was fine with the tradeoff because I came to Chicago for a job, and I thought of Chicago as only a temporary stop in my journey. What I didn’t expect is that, because I lost focus on being the best “whole” person I could be, my initial excitement over my newfound profession would slowly morph into a more prideful and painful desire for advancement.

Eager to get my research career started and determined to get into a good graduate program in the past two years, I focused intently on my independent research projects. I saw my extended family less and less. I felt less and less desire to travel and explore. I wrote infrequently on this blog, too. Many academics glorify the life dedicated solely to intellectual pursuit, and I became increasingly unbalanced.

My journal entries from half a year ago show that I was unhappy. I clearly felt that I was losing my relaxed and gregarious self, and I did not like who I was becoming. I was often frustrated from research setbacks, even though I knew setbacks were healthy. Self-doubt and anxieties simmered beneath despite outward success.

I also felt guilty for ever leaving work unattended, and I also began to increasingly depend on research achievements for satisfaction. I felt a need to know that I was worthy; my passion for learning became tainted with a more selfish desire for affirmation. I kept on making research goals and trying to meet them. Perhaps I imagined that if I could achieve some success, then I would feel better.

I wanted to accomplish a lot before I left Chicago. From the end of March until mid May, I had to visit schools, put together my life plans, wrap up a few projects, say goodbye to friends, and pack up all of my stuff. I got into all the top economics programs, but somehow that did not afford me much joy. Instead, leaving Chicago overwhelmed me in a way that leaving SF did not at all. Before I left SF, I planned fun trips around SF and did my best to enjoy my time left. But when I left Chicago I almost never took the time to relax or enjoy. And I was nearing burn out. For my last two months in Chicago, I constantly felt like I was barreling towards a personal crisis.

Thank goodness, though. Now I have a few months off before graduate school. For better or worse I decided come to Beijing to check out the economics scene here. Officially I am visiting a professor. But really I have very little to do. I only have a few friends here. This makes me alone and bored, but it also means that I have in Beijing the perfect occasion for reflection. I have long needed the time and the space to think through many things.


Beijing is an unpleasant place, but it actually brings back some of my fondest memories. I have made two long visits here before. I was only ten on my first trip here with my mandarin tutor. Then Beijing was all dirt and bicycles. Roads and buildings were way underdeveloped, and I had never seen anything like this large, dilapidated capital. We flew kites in Tiananmen Square. We rode a taxi to visit the Great Wall. We ate dumplings and strolled down Wangfujing, back then no more than a busy street with lots of shops and stalls. Overall the place felt backwards and historical. Toilets were filthy and the heat was oppressive. My memory of the trip is patchy, but I do distinctly remember that by the end I was quite glad to come home.

My second visit happened seven years later. It was only a year before the 2008 Olympics, and there was construction everywhere. The city was abuzz with a youthful energy – still yet not confident, but eager and optimistic. That youthfulness mirrored my own. By then I had finished three years of boarding school in the US, and was nearing college age. I was here with my best friend from middle school, Plato, who unlike me had remained in Hong Kong. Despite separation, we managed to stay closest of friends, and reunion in Beijing was sweet as hell.

For the first time in our lives, we were wholly unsupervised by adults and together we explored without a care in the world. Each morning I attended Chinese language and culture courses at Peking University, and Plato visited a violin teacher downtown. And then we’d spend the rest of the day roaming the streets of the vast historical city. A few times I sat on the back of his bicycle while we whizzed from one neighborhood to another. One night we drunk 二锅头 (a nasty Chinese liquor) after eating dirty popcorn from street vendors, and were so boisterous that we got yelled at by a security guard. Another night we danced wildly at a dance club and got kicked out. I even had a very brief fling that started on the steppes of Inner Mongolia.

And now, another eight years later, is my third visit. Some things have changed. Beijing’s subway network has grown from three lines to over fifteen. What used to be a sketchy bar area, Houhai, has commercialized and is now filled with tourist traps. Another sketchy bar area, Sanlitun, has thoroughly modernized and now boasts large outdoor malls and an Apple store. Most of the food around town remains cheap and salty and greasy and carb-heavy, but organic farmer’s markets have now popped up and coffee shops litter the city. Pavements are still dusty but some toilets are now remarkably clean. The streets remain chaotic as ever, but are now filled with Uber cars and fewer bicycles. There is no question that Beijing is growing up to become a thriving modern city.

I biked around Peking U the other day, revisiting some old haunts. The campus buildings have largely remained the same. What has totally changed, though, is my own frame of mind. Wandering through those familiar alleys, I recalled a bliss and innocence eight years ago that I have somehow lost in the past two years. I recalled a bounce in my step that I don’t as often feel now as I used to. Back then there was a feeling of two people against the world. A sense of adventure and a sense of home, too. Now something has gone missing.


In my last month in Chicago, I read David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character. In the book, Brooks draws a distinction between resume virtues, the things that one brings to the market like skills, knowledge, or reputation, and eulogy virtues, the things that one brings to the community–love, leadership, loyalty, honesty. He argues that our culture today has put resume virtues ahead of eulogy virtues, and that we must instead put eulogy virtues at the center of our lives again. To advance this thesis, Brooks depicts the lives of men and women of great character – Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Saint Augustine, to name a few, and uses their lives to illustrate what he thinks a good life is.

I have chosen the academic life, and the rat race has begun. On paper my next ten to fifteen years is a mad dash for me to prove myself to the profession. First the coursework, then the dissertation, then the job market, then the tenure committee. I always knew that it will not be easy to succeed. I did not prepare myself, however, to learn how to stay happy and engaged in all aspects of life even while following my passion. I had thrown myself at my professional goals at the expense of other things, and I have made myself miserable.

Reading Brooks’s book was a wake-up call to me. Brooks sees the good life not as a life of advancement, but as a life of commitment making and devotion. He writes about a steadiness and humility that these great people have achieved in their lives. These people have learned to quiet the self. And they have developed a sort of unstirrable calm that others may depend on. This road to character was not the road that I have been traversing. I had been focused, wholly focused, on the road to achievement.

Recent experiences have made me more acutely aware of the sinful nature we share, the need for us to sink deeper into ourselves, and to surrender to traditions larger than us in order to mitigate our self-centered and prideful tendencies. These experiences have helped me understand why our traditions call for abstinence, self-control, and discipline to curb our selfish excesses, even as we must also nurture our loving and fun selves. It is too easy to forget what is important in life, that we must be good to ourselves and to each other. I don’t want to forget again.


I am a city person, always have been. For this reason I should love Chicago. Chicago is pop culture’s archetypal big city, with soaring skyscrapers and a highly sophisticated public transit system. The subways run all night long. Bars and restaurants litter the streets. There is world class art and world class music. When filming his Batman series, Christopher Nolan shot in Chicago because of its big city feel. Yet, even as a city person, I never felt at home in Chicago.

Chicago is known as America’s “second city”—the younger and edgier sibling to New York City. But the phrase seems truer in history than today. The buildings hint at an age of ambition when people flocked to Chicago in pursuit of opportunity and successively taller skyscrapers punched into the sky. But Chicago no longer hums with ambition the way that Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington DC does. There is a vibrant economy, but today’s Chicago is no city of dreamers. Rather it is a city of hardened practicality. And so there is something incongruent, even empty, about the grand architecture that Chicago loves to extoll to its visitors.

At heart Chicago really is a Midwestern city. Many locals in Chicago share the Midwest mentality of just going about their daily lives and not getting too worked up about the crazier things in life. Many work good corporate jobs. They are a hard-working bunch, but they don’t want drama nor yearn for glamour. Instead they look forward to going home and spending quality time with friends and family. The city is filled with artistic and historical displays, but for many residents cultural engagement does not run deep. To them art and history are not things that give meaning to human life, but curiosities and tourist attractions. The thing that makes Chicago different from the rest of the Midwest is that it combines Midwest groundedness with the amenities of a big city. I think that’s why Midwesterners love Chicago. Many Chicagoans move here from other locales of the Midwest and never leave.

There is something really wonderful about the Midwestern outlook on life. Few Chicagoans are ever bitter or angry. People are not too rushed to be nice. There is an egalitarianism in the way that people treat each other. People are friendly and open to chatting in line at a store, no matter who you are. Social status does not hold much currency. But the daily concerns of Chicagoans can seem mundane and parochial. Here the weather is a genuine topic of conversation rather than a filler for awkward small talk. There are only small pockets of edginess in a few industries—improv comedy and satire are the main things that comes to mind. The suburban life of a lawn and a dog is the ideal for many. This makes me—an international with outsized dreams—somewhat of an oddball here. I want to talk politics and big trends in the world but my desire seems to confuse many locals. Perhaps I just never found the right crowd.

Unsurprisingly, my experience in Chicago has largely been defined by people who are not from the Midwest originally—coworkers at the University of Chicago and friends I knew from school on the East Coast. For many of these friends Chicago is but a stop in their journey. Many are visiting scholars or students. They stay only a few months or a couple years. Every now and then I’d have to bid a friend goodbye.

I too leave Chicago soon.

Will I look back at my time in Chicago with the same sweet fondness as my college years in Cambridge or my stay in San Francisco?

There are many things that I will miss. I will miss the hearty meals with my cousins, my uncle’s dirty jokes, and my aunt’s motherly concern. I will miss the summer when I biked nine miles to work every other day, frequented outdoor concerts, and cooked each day with my roommates. I will miss the funky jazz played at the Green Mill and the bookshops of Hyde Park.

But these two years have not been the sunniest. There were times when I felt lonely or inadequate. There were times when I felt homesick and disenchanted. There were failed research projects. There was unrequited love. And there were the bleak months of Occupy Central when my hometown was torn asunder and barricaded and tear-gassed. Feeling like a foreigner in Chicago did not make things easier.

I know that I will nevertheless take something away from Chicago. It was in Chicago that I found a dream job. It was here that I formulated my first serious plans to become an academic economist and got to work. In Chicago I encountered two great books—Stoner by John Williams and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Both are set in the Midwest and each depict the incandescent inner life of an ordinary person who spent their life engaged in meaningful but otherwise obscure and unremarkable work. Whether it was because of the city, or the books, or my newfound professional calling, I leave Chicago with greater willingness to do unglamorous work. So even though I never quite felt at home in this windy city, Chicago did change me after all.

Gary Becker

Prof. Gary Becker passed away yesterday. Prof. Becker was a big influence in my life–both directly, as I had the chance to interact with him in the past year as I took his famed course on price theory, and indirectly, as he was a dear mentor to my father. Because of my father’s love for his teacher, Prof. Becker had been a hero and a father figure of sorts for our family since I was little.

Prof. Becker cared deeply about people. His scholarship focused on topics that affected everyday life, including families, education, discrimination, addiction, social interactions, to name just a few. He was incredibly attuned to how people thought and his papers often begin with an puzzle about human behavior. Why are there lines in front of restaurants? Why do people walk across the street to avoid beggars but still give money when asked? Simple questions that led to path-breaking insights.

To Prof. Becker economic analysis was a tool to help people. When I introduced myself to him after arriving at Chicago and told him that I intended to take his course, he was glad, and he said he thought it might be helpful. I got the sense that he meant that very sincerely: economic analysis would be helpful not simply for my career, but for my personal well-being. His concern and warmth showed in the way he interacted with peers and students. In the economics profession he was known to be a very decent human being–a fact that helped him win over many critics that were initially hostile to his research agenda. I experienced his kindness personally last fall, when he spontaneously offered to meet me to his office to see how things were going.

Prof. Becker was very active and sharp even just a few months ago, engaging in workshops and giving full length lectures. I had looked forward to attending his lectures on human capital this quarter, but since he had not been feeling well he did not teach as usual for the past few weeks. I did not imagine that he would not be among us so soon.

After hearing this news of his passing, I listened to a recording that a friend made of his lecture on marriage matching. I also read his interview with John Cassidy in the New Yorker. I could hear exactly how the transcript would have sounded. He left behind much for this world that will no doubt remain helpful for many decades to come.