Ayn Rand, Me and Yang

Ayn Rand is one of the most influential American thinkers and Andrew Yang is the most energetic Democratic presidential candidate at this time. What do they have anything to do with me?

They do, and the connection starts about twenty years ago, when I was working in New York, at Seven World Trade Center.

At the time, I just received my Ph.D degree and just landed a quantitative finance job. When I walked through the jungle of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan, I was kind of conceited, for I felt I had come a long way to that position. Along the way were years of college and graduate schools, but more importantly, before that a childhood in pre “Reform and Opening Up” China. Although it was in 1997 already, China had changed a lot, I still had a strong feeling of relief that I was lucky, I was so lucky to have escaped from a world of poverty and hopelessness.

But the memory of that world lingered stubbornly in my mind. That little house in which my family of two adults and three boys was shivering in the cold wind of northern China countryside. Inside it, the teenager me was making a dish of the plain stir-fried potato threads, before my parents came back from a long day of work as surgeon and pediatrician. I used only a tiny spoon of lard, because it was necessary to keep the lard going for the whole year. The lard was from our little pig that was just slaughtered during the winter, an annual happy event though we had to say bye to the pig we raised for the year. I was stingy also because I knew I would be praised by my parents for being like that. They had told our neighbors and their colleagues how I had known to take care of the family at that age and those people had all mentioned that to me. Potato was one of the few kinds of vegetables on our table for the winter, the others including pickled Chinese cabbage and dried beans.

As a child, I didn’t know what to do when I grew up. If I could go back to the city where I was born, I would be super happy no matter what I would do. But even that was beyond possible. So my father constantly thought of more realistic plans for me. One day he asked me to practice calligraphy. He said, you should be so good at that, so that they would think of you immediately instead of anyone else any time they need to do a propaganda job like writing a slogan on the wall. Another day he told me: I found a drawing teacher for you. He is one of the “zhi-shi-qing-nian” (intellectual youth from the city). You should be so good at that, so that they would think of you immediately instead of anyone else any time they need to do a propaganda job like painting something on the wall. Then another day came, he said to me: I asked your school teacher to enroll you in the school choir. You should be so good at singing, so that they would think of you immediately instead of anyone else any time they need to do a propaganda task like singing a song on the stage.

So the only hope for me at the time, at least from my father, was that I could be so good at something, such that they would think of me immediately instead of anyone else any time they need to do a propaganda task.

Those were quite selfish thought from us of course, but in the school I was always talking about selflessness. “Altruism” is the word that occurred most frequently in my Chinese composition or speech. I never thought about the contradiction between my private selfishness and my public altruism. Any time the teacher asked me to say something, I could always find a way to switch the theme to “altruism”. I knew the word sound lofty and believed that it could bring me some esteem after saying that.

Then one day, things changed suddenly, because that short but steady Deng Xiaoping came to power. My father said to me, “as you can see, the country now favors mathematicians, physicists, chemists, engineers…you should study these.”

I followed my father’s words. In my composition at school, I began to talk about something like “to be successful one has to be completely wrapped up in one’s work, to neglect one’s sleep and forget about food”, etc.. I was fortunate. I did well in the national college admission exam, and got in to one of the best colleges in China. And then later I came to the United States and got an advanced degree.

That experience, although quite cliche, made me believe in something, that is, in this world, as long as you work hard, you can definitely reach wherever you want to be. Naturally, at that moment when I was in New York, I felt nothing could stop me working even harder and achieving even more. When I stood beneath the Statute of Liberty, looking on the twin towers in the distance, I said to myself: Manhattan, the center of the world, here I am, the kid from the far east!

where I was 20 years ago

That thinking, I’d say, made me destined to meet with Ayn Rand. One day at the lunch time, I walked around and bought a small diary from a convenient store nearby. That diary has a theme around someone named Ayn Rand. Every 30 pages, there is a page with her quotes. I have never heard of her before, but her words quickly thralled me. I was sitting on the edge of the fountain at the center of World Trade Center Square, I suddenly jumped up. Who is this person? She is saying everthying I wanted to say for a long time in an absolutely clear way.

What did she say? Here are some of the examples.

“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”

“Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.”

“Altruism holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only moral justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty. The political expression of altruism is collectivism or statism, which holds that man’s life and work belong to the state — to society, to the group, the gang, the race, the nation — and that the state may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good.”

“Degrees of ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man’s independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man. Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn’t done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.”

“The basic premise of the Founding Fathers was man’s right to his own life, to his own liberty, to the pursuit of his own happiness — which means: man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; and that the political implementation of this right is a society where men deal with one another as traders, by voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.”

“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”

From that day on, I became a disciple of Ayn Rand. For the last twenty years, I have been inspired by her words on individualism and against big government and welfare programs.”

Those words are what I believed adamantly but I have found some new twist recently. That was when my father turned eighty. Watching his older face across the mobile phone screen, I suddenly realized that I have an unusual father. He struggled to expand his vision in the early days of my life so that he could help his son to find a better life. As soon as he told me to study math at the time, he subscribed some academic magazines like “Review of Mathematics”, “Review of Modern Mechanics”, and other professional magazines that I had no way to understand at the age of eleven. And before that, even before Deng Xiaoping was in power, he had tried everything he could to broaden my “world view”. When I was about 8 years old, once we traveled on a slow train from the countryside close to Inner Mongolia where he was assigned to work, to his hometown in the east. We stopped at the capital Changchun, a large city at the time. We were looking for a place to sleep that night. On the way he took me to a big building like a palace, and somehow managed to open the door. Immediately I saw dazzling bright light inside where some foreigners walked around. At the time we didn’t even have electric light back home. He said to me: this is an international hotel. We cannot afford it, and probably we will be chased away very soon, but I want you to take a glimpse, and remember that there is a better life, a different world.

So those were what I was thinking when I was talking to him on the phone. I thought, what would I be if I hadn’t had my father? Yes, maybe I would still have worked very hard, but I might not have any vision. It is also possible that I would not have worked hard because I wouldn’t know what working hard means to me. Or I might be working very hard, but working hard to ward becoming a great people’s leader, or something else.

Now, the story has another part in it. Things may not have turned out good for me even I have my great father and by working hard, I need an great uncle too. I need an uncle who could bring me some luck. The story and the uncle are instrumental to my life, as it is about how I moved from a local countryside school to an elite high school in the city, which then prepared me for an elite university and a different life later. Here it goes:

On one morning in the summer of 1978, my uncle, the husband of my father’s second younger sister, came by bus to my home in the countryside. He never came before and never told us he would come, so it was a surprise when he appeared in our front yard. As there were few telephones at the time, he couldn’t gave us a call before. He told us that he got a news from the city radio in the early morning, immediately rushed to the bus station, jumped to the bus and two hours later he arrived our home, without going to work. (By that time my father had worked very hard to move our home away from the place close to Inner Mongolia and closer to the city. I guess mainly for his Children)

So my uncle said: “I need Dawei’s HuKou (a registration book that determines where you can live in China at the time and still the case more or less today. Dawei is my Chinese name). The elite №1 high school in the city for the first time will expand its admission to students outside the city. I’ll register for Dawei and then he needs to take an exam. Good luck to him.”

I passed the exam and moved to the city, where that elite high school is. If I didn’t get the opportunity (like a cake from the sky), it would be difficult for me to meet those highly competitive students in the school and make a leap to the next level, and it would be difficult to imagine where I could be today. My different journey started from then on.

Thinking about all these, I just realized that though I was a diligent kid, I was just lucky, so lucky to be at the right time when Deng Xiaoping was somehow able to defeat his powerful opponents and came to power, and somehow want to change the path, so lucky to have a great dad, a great uncle, and the ability to grasp the opportunities I was offered.

I also realized that Ayn Rand is not entirely right though she is so right on calling out the immorality of sacrificing oneself for the collectives and pointing out the virtue to be rationally selfish. People who are lucky should take advantage of the opportunities, not let others to stop you to live what you desire to live, improve the living as much for yourself and your families, or make as much contribution to the world as you can. But people who are not so lucky may not be stupid or lazy, they may simply do not know what lies on the other side is, how to reach to the other side, or even they know it is just damn hard to get to the other side.

There was a famous journalist, who wanted to see how a poor person could get out of their poor situation. She started with just a few thousands dollars, forced herself not using her savings, not to ask for any help from her resourceful friends or relatives, not to use her academic credentials. To save money, she had to live far away and found a simple job with a small salary (that she could find). Six months later, she gave up as it drove a normal person crazy.

Now people may not believe this story, but even without her experiment, we know for fact that most people from the poor neighborhood cannot become rich, though a few did. We usually tell the story of a poor kid who worked diligently and became rich or successful, which is something we should, just to encourage people to work and give people some hope. But let’s be honest, those people are rare, otherwise we do not need to tell the story: if every poor kid can be rich easily, nothing to say about the hard working kid. Let’s face the cold reality, it is pure statistics.

On the other hand, most people from a reasonable neighborhood cannot fail, though a few did. These people usually believe they are diligent, they deserve it and they usually look at the poor people with scorn. But they do not realize, on their way up, they have parents who are more knowledgeable and more resourceful, who “have been there and done that” so they can show to their kids how to to make it and can also throw them some money when they need.

With this new thinking, more comprehensive I’d say, or an enlightenment, it is my destiny now to meet Andrew Yang.

Some mentioned about him, and a few Youtube episodes later, I had become a member of the so called Yang Gang. Why? I do not support big welfare programs as Ayn Rand inspired me, but I also believe it’s not right to leave the poor people to themselves. Even from my pure rational selfishness, I need to give them some help, because, although they are poor, each one of them has one vote, just as I have. So they will elect the one giving them something they feel they deserve. One path is free benefits: free college, free medicare, free this and free that. The other path is free illusion: bringing back the manufacturing jobs, kicking out the immigrants, and so on.

I know these two paths are both dead ends though they seem to lead to somewhere. Still people are happy with one of these. They argue about with one to take. They are calling each other names at the folk, pulling each other and cannot move much.

Andrew Yang provides the third path. It is in the middle, not left, not right, but forward. More importantly it will be the only path to the future, which is a society with highly efficient technology replacing most of the jobs we are familiar with today, and the difficulties more and more people will experience if there are no helping hand, and he proposed, among his policies, the Universal Basic Income (UBI), or Freedom dividend, as a step stone for people to get to the next level or some extra breathing time to cope with the difficulty. Although the ideas are not his original ideas, but he is the first to understand the situation and bring to the American people as a presidential candidiat.

Some people say, the world has seen technological advances since long time ago, every time the society have created more jobs. That may be true at the general society level, but for the individual people who suffered a job loss, it is not easy to deal with. And as the pace of technology advancement is faster this time, the scope is larger, the impact may be more severe so that the society even cannot handle.

Some days ago, I walked out of an airplane and entered the Newark International Airport, I walked to the Custom Check area, I saw all machines, no officers. Where are they, promoted? I had never like them as they have always given me a stern face over the years, but I still feel something for them.

Let’s not pretend that nothing has happened, and nothing is happening. We need to face the issue and solve the issue. All the presidential candidates are blindly pursuing something on the surface, Andrew Yang thinks harder, and will lead us through it.

(I do not support Yang later but this was a record of my thinking at the time)