- Jack Kornfield — After the Ecstacy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. A great book written by a Zen meditation teacher on what the spiritual journey is all about, drawing from the personal accounts of practitioners and literature from diverse traditions.
- Will Johnson - The Posture of Meditation. A great little manual for how to meditate.
- Jim Forest - The Ladder of the Beatitudes. A beautiful devotional book dissecting the Beatitudes and the spiritual path that Jesus taught.
- Paulo Coehlo - The Alchemist. A classic tale about following one’s heart. For the first time I feel like I’m beginning to understand this simple spiritual story.
- Thich Nhat Hanh - Fragrant Palm Leaves. The personal journals of a remarkable Zen monk during pivotal years in Vietnam and in his spiritual journey.
- Tim Hartford - Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. A brilliant defence of messiness and diversity as sources of resilience, creativity, and competitive advantage, drawing on history, sociology, and anthropology.
- Richard Baldwin - The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization. This book describes recent structural changes in world trade due to changes in technology. I think it's one of the best explanations for the rise of China in the late 20th century.
- Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh - The Path. A wonderfully easy-to-read book on the essence of what Chinese philosophers thought, with interesting comparisons to Western thought. It is both thought-provoking and very applicable to daily life.
- James C Scott - Against the Grain: The Deep History of the Earliest States. An iconoclastic account of domestication and the rise of early states. Fascinating.
- Leonard Mlodinow - Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. A fascinating pop-science book summarising recent findings in neuroscience, a field rapidly advancing due to the power of fMRI technology to detect subconscious patterns. I was surprised to understand how much happens in our brains we are not aware of.
- Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz - The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook. Amazing accounts of how children can recover from trauma.
耶稣的教导当然还有很多。有兴趣的话，可以读读马太福音，或参考Jim Forest的“The Ladder of The Beatitudes"一书。
I finally got around to reading JPMorgan Chase President & CEO Jamie Dimon’s 2017 annual letter to shareholders. It is required reading for anyone who is looking for hints as to where US politics is headed.
Dimon’s manifesto begins with an assessment of the strengths of American democracy today. He praises the US for having military and diplomatic strength, abundant resources, deep knowledge, rule of law, resilient democracy, work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the world’s deepest and most well-functioning capital market.
He then points to various crises in the American polity. First, a dire need for educational investments. Second, infrastructural decay. Third, high corporate taxes reducing the competitiveness of the American economy. Fourth, dumb regulation damaging business formation.
Then something remarkable: He takes responsibility for the deep frustration expressed in the 2016 election, saying that the leaders of America’s institutions, including businesses, have not done a good enough job for our society. He writes:
The lack of economic growth and opportunity has led to deep and understandable frustration among so many Americans. Low job growth, a lack of opportunity for many, declining wages, students and low-wage workers being left behind, economic and job uncertainty, high healthcare costs and growing income inequality all have created deep frustration. It is understandable why so many are angry at the leaders of America’s institutions, including businesses, schools and governments — they are right to expect us to do a better job. Collectively, we are the ones responsible. Additionally, this can understandably lead to disenchantment with trade, globalization and even our free enterprise system, which for so many people seems not to have worked. [Emphasis added.]
He proposes collaboration between the business sector and the public in fixing educational problems:
We need to work together to improve work skills. I cannot in this letter tackle the complex set of issues confronting our inner city schools, but I do know that if we don’t acknowledge these problems, we will never fix them… Businesses must be involved in this process. They need to partner with schools to let them know what skills are needed, help develop the appropriate curricula, help train teachers and be prepared to hire the students. In addition, this has to be done locally because that is where the actual jobs are. [Emphasis added.]
He advocates for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and demands sustained and improved management and corporate financing for infrastructural investments.
Infrastructure should not be a stop-start process but an ongoing endeavor whereby intelligent investments are made continuously. And the plan could also be sped up if necessary to help a weakening economy… Infrastructure, which could have a life of five to 50 years, should not be expensed as a government debt but should be accounted for as an investment that could be financed separately… It’s important to streamline the approval process, and approvals should run simultaneously and not sequentially…
Dimon then spends some time discussing need for better regulation and decrying how the business sector has become alienated in the public sphere.
Something has gone awry in the public’s understanding of business and free enterprise. Whether it is the current environment or the deficiency of education in general, the lack of understanding around free enterprise is astounding. When businesses or individuals in business do something wrong (problems that all institutions have, including schools, churches, governments, small businesses, etc.), they should be appropriately punished — but not demonized… A strong and vibrant private sector (including big companies) is good for the average American. Entrepreneurship and free enterprise, with strong ethics and high standards, are worth rooting for, not attacking.
The whole document is highly recommended: It is replete with references to credible research and interesting graphics on labor market and business trends. For instance, he includes this damning figure about the effect of regulation and litigation on the ease of starting a new business.
A Druckerian orthodoxy?
Dimon’s manifesto makes for interesting reading partly because of its ideological eclecticism. In one paragraph, Dimon sounds like a conservative emphasizing business formation and growth. In another, he sounds like a liberal demanding better inner-city schools and dignity for the workers. But this seeming eclecticism belies a unity to Dimon’s thinking. Throughout Dimon’s manifesto, one can hear echoes of the critique organizational thinker Peter Drucker posed against Milton Friedman’s libertarian worldview.
First, Dimon asserts that businesses are responsible to the greater community; and that what is good for America is good for business:
It is now more important than ever for the business community and government to come together and collaborate to find meaningful solutions and develop thoughtful policies that create economic growth and opportunity for all. This cannot be done by government alone or by business alone. We all must work together in ways that put aside our “business-as-usual” approaches. The lack of economic opportunity is a moral and economic crisis that affects everyone. There are too many people who are not getting a fair chance to get ahead and move up the economic ladder.
This assertion stands in opposition to the ideology that Milton Friedman propounded — that “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” In the past forty years, as financiers and politicians alike adopted Friedman’s unfettered market ideology, many business leaders have also retreated from engaging in civic life. In a break from this tradition, Dimon urges business leaders to get involved in tackling social problems. This follows Drucker’s belief that businesses have social responsibilities beyond their corporate mission. While Friedman assumed that social responsibilities should be taken up by the state, Drucker argued the state is too poorly organized to be able to take care of social responsibilities. Instead, the state’s work to solve social problems must be complemented by efforts by social enterprises, as well as business enterprises.
Second, unlike Reagan or Trump, Dimon does not seek to tear down or disable bureaucracy, but rather to streamline it, to reduce redundancies between the local and national levels, and to make fair and sensible rules and regulations that work for businesses and average Americans. This need and growing desire for “effective government” — an agenda item that Obama, Clinton, and Dimon share — was something Peter Drucker long ago noted in this remarkable 1995 essay:
By now it has become clear that a developed country can neither extend big government, as the (so-called) liberals want, nor abolish it and go back to nineteenth-century innocence, as the (so-called) conservatives want. The government we need will have to transcend both groups. The megastate that this century built is bankrupt, morally as well as financially. It has not delivered. But its successor cannot be “small government.” There are far too many tasks, domestically and internationally. We need effective government — and that is what the voters in all developed countries are actually clamoring for. [Emphasis added.]
Do Jamie Dimon's Ideas Stand a Chance?
As I have previously argued, today’s politics is pregnant for transformation and realignment. I believe these ideas that Jamie Dimon espouses stand a chance to become part of a new centrist governing orthodoxy.
Whereas both Bernie and Trump offered dystopian diagnoses and ideological panaceas, Dimon offers a clear-eyed, analysis-driven diagnosis of current national woes, along with a centrist vision and pragmatic policy solutions. By and large, I find myself agreeing with Dimon’s analysis of why small business owners are suffering and what forms of help should be given to the working poor. I can quibble with details, but overall, Dimon’s agenda makes the American economy fairer, more inclusive, more internationally competitive, and more dynamic. In my mind, Dimon’s shareholder letter may be the beginnings of a political platform that could command a broad-based coalition.
What’s more, I am hopeful that Dimon possesses both the intellect and the moral character to be a person to lead such efforts. His track record at JPMorgan Chase, a very well-run bank, illustrates his capability as an executive. But more than this, he has quite an attractive public persona, too. To see this, watch his interview with David Rubenstein:
The video is quite remarkable. Dimon has charisma and folksy appeal. He has an incredible ability to make incisive arguments about complex issues. In this aspect, he is very much like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, other brainy political upstarts who seized the Democratic nomination. I imagine that, if Dimon chooses to enter the fray as a presidential candidate and spend sufficient hours talking at town halls and schools in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will have little trouble getting his points across to voters.
The major obstacle that Dimon faces is his identity as a banker. Many of my friends will be horrified at the prospect of a banker leading this country. In a sense, their concerns are valid: The “revolving door” between government and financiers among the “corporatist elite ruling class” seems very unfair in light of ordinary American being left behind. If we believe that bankers are corrupt and that they only look after their own, then a banker as president is surely yet another sign that the system is completely corrupt and rigged.
But the problem with excluding bankers from policy making is that dumb financial regulation stifles the economy and solidifies monopolies, making society even less fair. Designing a better, more equitable system requires a group of people who both deeply understand how the US economy works and are deeply committed to the public interest. This is precisely what Peter Drucker believed: that healthy societies require active private sector participation in public affairs. We do need moral and civic-minded bankers to help design good policy. My fear is that it is too late for any such Druckerian vision to prevail, given the anger and mistrust of elites in the wake of the Financial Crisis especially among those hard hit by globalization, both on the Right and the Left.
Having been selected as chairman of the Business Roundtable last year, a traditionally conservative pro-business lobby group representing CEOs of major corporations, Dimon has a perch using which he can seek to start building a coalition. He’s already used this perch to hire an experience Washington hand and reach out to labor unions, as reported by Business Insider. What else will come out of his effort remains to be seen. Whether Dimon succeeds depends on his ability to earn the trust of insiders through his coalition-building work on the Capitol Hill in these coming few years, as well as his ability to sell his vision to voters.
In any case, I think Jamie Dimon’s growing political involvement is probably a good thing. I hope he succeeds. It’s good to get a bunch of smart and capable people together to find and implement pragmatic solutions to America’s problem, and that’s exactly what he is trying to do.
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.
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.