Growing up, I have always been extra ordinary. Not in the sense that I can write symphonies at the age of 5, but in the sense that my life was excessively normal.

So when it was time to write the Personal Statement for college application, I sweated. What kind of statement was I to make about me?

“Dear Admissions Committee,

I am a normie.

Always fed, fully clothed, and reasonably cultured with extracurriculars paid for by middle class working parents.

Never struggled, rarely strived, and have never been hurt by anything more than female rejection in high school.

I’m confident that I will bring value and diversity to your campus.”


By definition, the majority of us are normal. Since young people have not lived that many years, it is expected that we have not experienced real tragedies. (Indeed, if a tragedy is common enough that it happens to most of us, we would call it “life.” Like saving an ice cream scoop only to have it melts and slides off the cone onto the street. That’s life.)

For normies like us, motivational stories are a letdown. We would get high on tales of hardship, jacked up with “You can do it too!”, only to deflate as soon as the blinking cursor stared us in the eyes asking for the personal statement. That’s when we start considering whether college application angst is actually woeful enough to be the subject of the essay. (It’s not.)

Like the rest of the world, I used to think that it is ungrateful for normies to complain about their normal lives. One day, a rich friend told me that it took a lot of character for them to simply be decent. It was hard for them to see their parents’ power over people and not be vain, to have every need met and not be lazy. Damn straight. It too takes a lot of character for normies to get on the school bus every day without having worked minimum wage enough to see the value of education.

So what should we write in the personal statement? It does help to have a life full of struggles, but it is worth noting that the struggles themselves are not what the adcom is interested in. In a personal statement, the struggles are just there to setup a person’s reaction to them, a canvas for a person to paint the depth of their observation. Yes, not experiencing hardship prevents you from writing about “a difficult time.” But nothing can prevent you from observing your own life.

Indeed, even a superficial life can be examined closely—just ask “why” a lot and try to answer them.

Why do you have to study? To get into a good college. Why a good college? To get a good job. Why a good job? To make money. Why money? ….. See — it takes only 4 why’s to get from your daily chore to an age-old existential question, one that I’m sure the overworked admissions officer has too as they skip family dinner to read your essay.

Or why do your parents care so much that you do well in school? Why do they say my kids have to be like this and that? Perhaps they grew up without education and understood how difficult that was. Perhaps at their age peers compete not on jobs or cars but kids. Perhaps they want you to fulfill the dreams that they gave up. Hey — maybe you should talk to them about that.

And on that note, why is it so difficult to talk to them? Asian parents, in particular, aren’t so open with their thoughts and emotions. Perhaps they want to maintain authority. Perhaps they too have insecurities too raw to admit. Perhaps they just repeat how they were raised.

Will you repeat how you were raised? Why, or why not?

Try to develop this habit of asking why. When you first start, it will be difficult to know what is why-worthy. There are two ways to overcome this. First, force yourself to ask why 5 times a day, even about extra ordinary things. Given the complexity of life, nothing is really simple, from emotions to machines to economies to politics. Second, read or watch or travel more, and realize that things in your life are not true everywhere, and thus deserve to be asked why.


I was introduced to your blog just this morning (May 12). While browsing I happened to read your post about Political Economy and I think this is what I want to pursue in college (I am a freshman of Class of 2018).

But I need to know better before I make any important decision, so could you explain what exactly Political Economy is, and how it is different from Liberal Economy and the “economy” that is being taught in college (and if possible, differences between these two sub-fields).

Concerning my major, I am oscillating between Economics and Political Science. That is partly because of career-related interests (what job to take if I took Pol Sci – according to my mother), and partly because I’m still uncertain which field suits me better. In some way, I seem interested in political issues but only those that directly affect economical well-being of the country’s population, like (for Vietnam) interest groups and what communism/capitalism has to do with anything, but not much in diplomatic issues like the war in Middle East or public policies like Obamacare.

– Vy


Thanks to this reader’s question, it’s time for a very belated addendum to our Why Political Economics? series (here and here). Four years have gone by since the last instalment — and gone, too, are a lot of ideals and misunderstandings that I held as a second-year-in-college. So, here is a less wrong answer to Why Political Economics? from a second-year-in-PhD-studies.

I. The three types of Political Economy

Given its broad and deep lineage, the only appropriate definition of Political Economy is perhaps the study of how politics and economic decision-making intertwine. There have been three main traditions in the field.

First is mercantilism, which espouses the idea that statesmen should use economic policy to enhance their nations’ power. Mercantilism thrived in 16th-18th Europe, when the international system was thoroughly anarchic and populated with equally powerful countries. No one is ever sure about anyone else (Game of Thrones style), leading to frequent wars and ultimately the idea that economic policy is subservient to the survival of the states. While this mode of thinking has gone out of vogue a long time ago, we still see its remnants today in nationalist discourse under name of “protectionism.”

Second is the liberal economics  that dominates economic thinking today. Its famous origin traces back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which was a direct response to the prevailing mercantilist thoughts of his time. While common sensical today, Adam Smith was a radical to propose that free trade benefits all countries (thanks to comparative advantage), and that free market benefits everyone (thanks to free price being an effective way to transmit information about what’s needed and available in the economy). These ideas are still the bedrock of modern economics, yet at the same time the practices of today’s economists are nothing like Adam Smith. (We’ll revisit below).

Third is Marxist economics, which is in turn a critique of the capitalist economy that has been ushered in since Adam Smith’s ideas. Marx critiqued numerous aspects of a capitalist economy. One is the paradoxical crisis of production, when there are enough goods for everyone yet the workers are too destitute to buy them. Another is the alienation of labor,  when individual man is but an inconsequential cog in the production line and thus unable to derive creative satisfaction from labor. Contrary to the mercantilist, for Marx, politics is subservient to economic powers: the ruling economic class promotes certain kinds of political and religious ideology in order to prolong its hegemony.

On the ruin of the Soviet Union, liberal economics raised its triumphant flag and became synonymous with Economics. Yet political economy as studied and practiced today is very unlike Adam Smith’s, and we will see how.

II. The ONE type of Political Economy (if you ask U.S. academics)

Over the 20th century economics has evolved several times in order to grapple with the gap between economic theory and reality.

Once staunch believers in free market, economists started to notice numerous market failures from causes such as natural monopoly (i.e. due to economy of scale) and informational asymmetry (i.e. sellers may have private information about the good that buyers don’t, in which case they can’t agree on a price). The existence of market failure seems to argue for government intervention. For example, the government may put in place anti-trust law or product quality regulations.

But yet again, economists noticed that governments fail, too. We view men as self-interested, maximizing actors in the economic realm — there is no reason why they would be altruistic and benevolent in the political arena. This is in fact and old idea, and as James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Thus, a new area of study sprung up to take the economic assumptions (rational, self-maximizing agent) and methods (dominantly game theory) to investigate political behaviors. It is called Public Choice, and is what Political Economy means today.

III. So, should you study Political Economy / Political Science?

After learning a lot more about Political Economy, I am fortunate enough not to find out that I was wrong 4 years ago. I stood by the claim that, yes, it is foolish to study economic development (or any economic policy-making) without considering politics. The most that economics can give us is a description of various trade-offs, whereas which side of those trade-offs do nations end up choosing is fundamentally a political question.

Having said that, I do feel disappointed with my study of Political Economy, mainly because I came to it with very high expectation (you could see the exuding optimism in the previous instalments in the series.) I thought that if only I could get a PhD in Political Economy I would be able to finally know what countries like Vietnam would need to develop, what I could do to “change lives” and “make the world a better place.”

But development is hard. Many smart people have worked on it for years without a solution. And yet that’s not even the discouraging part. What’s more disheartening about social science is that we are not sure if we are getting any closer to the solution at all. That is because:

  • Without the ability to do experiment (i.e. to re-run history) in order to hold all other factors constant, it is nigh-impossible to decisively conclude what factor is causing what.
  • Yes, there is a surge in Randomized Control Trials in development economics but 1) due to real-world limitations there are certain things we cannot randomize (e.g. political system), and 2) a successful program may fail when scaled-up (basically political actors interfered when the program became a big pot of money).
  • Social sciences study humans, and unlike atoms humans have intentions and wills that change. When something is proven in physics, it stays proven. There is no such law in economics and political science.

Of course, despite all these dead-ends the development industry continues to chug along anyway with a new way to change lives every few years. Like fashion, these development ideas come and go in circle with no clear sense of progress. Not only have we been ineffective, some would argue that developmental aid is downright harmful in some cases.

All in all, I think that Political Economy embodies the fundamentally correct insight that we need politics to understand development. However, let us not be mistaken (as I was) that we are anywhere close to achieving that understanding yet.

IV. So, should you major in Economics / Political Science?

Fascinatingly, even if you want to study Political Economy, it is not clear that you should major in Economics or Political Science.

It is important that you think about jobs. My college career was colored by my disdain for material things and my fascination with intellectual pursuit (as you can see from my old, college-era blog entries.) Looking back, I have to admit that I got the balance slightly wrong. Sure, big ideas are exhilarating, but I am not sure any amount of that can offset the months of stress unemployment will bring. (I applied for graduate school and was spared the entire ordeal, but I have seen way too many struggles.) Since most people would advise you to “try new things” and “expand your horizon,” I hope to bring back some perspective and urge you to think about where you want to be after 4 years of college. (Listen to this NPR broadcast about the economic return of different majors.)

The best way to prepare for that moment in 4 years is to learn skills, not facts. In this day and age, when everything can be looked up there is very little value in knowing a lot of facts about an area. In contrast, to learn technical skills you have to study sequentially (e.g. you need arithmetic before algebra before calculus), and the only time to do that well is in school.

(Note that even though I will be mainly talking about how to best prepare yourself as a worker, that is not the only goal of education. Minor in something that best prepare you as a human being and a citizen. In terms of social sciences / humanities, (for me) that means taking Intro to Econs, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, a class on comparative political system, moral philosophy, and arts.)

Back to the main topic: depending on what job you want to get, below are your options.

First, if you want to get a private-sector job, a BA in political science is sort of worthless, and a BA in economics is only slightly less so (unless you go to a top research school OR work on frontier research with professors). The reason is that undergraduate political science training is heavily about facts and teach you little employable skills. Economics BA is slightly better since you will get to learn econometrics, but everything else you have to learn (e.g. microeconomic and macroeconomic theories) is of little value on the job market.

Having said that, employers do hire more Economics major, but not for the economic knowledge. Instead, the Econs label is simple a signal of quantitative skills. I thus recommend you to go straight to the quantitative skills (e.g. Econometrics, Statistics) and bypass all the economic theories that you will never use.

Second, if you want to work in the development sector, understand that it is a crowded field with low pay that typically requires post-graduate degrees. It is crowded with low pay for a reason, of course: many people are more than happy to make that sacrifice in order to do meaningful work. The best way to prepare is still to major in something quantitative (i.e. Statistics, Economics), but also take more of other electives, e.g. Political Science / Economics of Development / History, and get some development-related internships.

Third, even if you want to pursue a PhD in Political Economy, you should not major in BA Political Science. Not only are the readings in BA Political Science very outdated, the BA also does not prepare you for the increasingly quantitative and formal methods in PhD Political Science. So major in Statistics, maybe Computer Science, take multiple electives in Micro / Macroeconomics, study the area of Poli Sci that you are interested in,* and take some History classes for a reality check against the theoretical models in Econs and Poli Sci. Write a research paper in one of these electives in order to prove your interest in Political Economy and get good letters of recommendations. (You can read my entry on how to apply to PhD here.)

(* Political Science has 4 sub-fields: comparative politics (comparing systems across countries), American politics, International Relations, and Political Theory (i.e. political philosophy). If you are only interested in development, i.e. comparative politics, then it’s another reason not to major in Poli Sci so that you can bypass all the other stuffs.)

That was a lot to cover. These are the things I wish I had known four years ago, but no one was around to tell me. More troublesome is the fact that I still don’t see anyone telling college freshmen straight-talk about their career like this. Being straight talk, each paragraph of this entry can be controversial and should be more thoroughly argued in a blog post of its own. If there is any advice that does not seem clear of reasonable, I’d be happy to clarify.

Chào anh giai,

We all know that applying to graduate school is not gonna be like college application. Neither is (I presume) choosing an “ideal” grad school/program for your next 5-or-more years. But how so? What should be the major criteria for grad school selection, now that the usual benchmarks to judge an undergraduate institution (e.g. study abroad, diversity, campus atmosphere…) might not matter nearly as much?

Đa tạ anh giai,

– ZerO

The difference between undergraduate and graduate school is that the latter is unequivocally about getting a job. Following one’s dream–the other, oft-mentioned reason for getting a PhD–is not good enough. Five years of graduate school costs half a million dollars ($50,000 tuition + $50,000 lost earning per year). You could deposit that money into the bank and pursue whatever topic that strikes your intellectual fancy.

If getting a PhD is all about training for a job, then you should know about that job market. I highly recommend all PhD applicants to read the following post by a tenured associate professor about the career prospective in Political Science. The take home message is this: there are very few employment opportunities for PhDs that come from outside of top-25 departments. So, only apply to top-25 departments. The post is truthful and informative, if brutally so. I have nothing more to add besides my personal affirmation. Even in my top-10 department, frequent jokes about unemployment are no doubt rooted in a certain degree of self-consciousness.

If one squints his optimistic eye hard enough, he can see a bright side to all this: with only 25 schools to choose from, a typical student that applies to 7-8 schools doesn’t have to digest too much information. Narrowing from 25 to 8 is a matter of finding a fit, as follows, in order of decreasing importance. (Side note for other readers: in top-25, even 50, PhD programs, it is safe to assume that tuition will be waived and stipend provided. So funding is not a significant factor in choosing where to apply.)

Methodological fit: qualitative versus quantitative.
Sub-field fit: IR / American / Comparative / Political Theory.
Regional fit.
Topical fit: specific research topics such as authoritarianism, elections, parties, etc.

What is perhaps less obvious and more helpful than the above list is how to find out about whether you fit into a department. The best way is to look up the departments of authors that inspire your research. Since materials that you learn in undergraduate political science are often classics, a caveat is that those scholars may have moved on to other things. Make sure to look up their current projects. Better yet, find the up-and-coming scholars in latest journal articles that work on your topics.

There are two difficulties with this approach: 1) scholars may not publicly post their current work, and 2) among numerous articles, you’re not sure which one is really a scholar’s pet topic. Consult the professors that know your field on these matters. And don’t ask the tenured professors. Having been out of the job market for a long time, they may be eager to help but not much helpful. Seek guidance from young assistant professors and TAs, whose experience are still raw and advice relevant.

Having said all this about fit, I must also add that at the tip-top departments, where there are numerous faculties of all methodological and substantive stripes, perhaps fit does not matter very much. Anyone would fit there, so they are only keen on finding the “brightest,” whatever that means.

Finally, spread your application list a bit across dream, reach, and safety schools. Ask the aforementioned assistant professors and TAs what your reach school is. They know both you and the state of competition, thus able to give accurate estimates. Plus, by asking them to assess your chances, you get a glimpse into how enthusiastic their recommendation letters will be.

While surfing the Internet and gasping for tidbits of fun here and there, I stumbled upon this April’s Fool post from my Duke colleagues. Extracting Pokemon data from Bulbapedia, he put together some revealing plots. Motivated by grad school to play quite a bit of Pokemon this last year, I saw more potential and thus decided to totally steal the idea and dig a little deeper.

A Pokemon has 5 stats: HP, Attack, Defense, Special, and Speed. I haven’t learned how to plot 5-D yet, so let’s do a Principal Component analysis to reduce the dimensionality a bit.

The biplot below shows how we reduce Pokemon’s 5 stats into 2 dimensions–principal component 1 (PC1) and PC2. The five red arrows demonstrate how each stat can be expressed in terms of the two PCs.

All 5 stat vectors point to the positive side of PC1 (x-axis), meaning that we can interpret PC1 as a sort of “Overall strength.” On the other hand, Speed/Special (Brain) diverge from HP/Attack/Defense (Brawn) in terms of PC2 (y-axis), meaning that we can interpret PC2 as a measure of emphasis on Brain over Brawn.

A graph to explore the relationship between pokemon stats

A graph to explore the relationship between pokemon stats

Let’s plot all 151 Gen I Pokemon according to these two principal components.


The plot makes sense. Mewtwo is clear outlier in all regards. Notice the next in line in terms of overall strength are the three legendary birds (Zapdos, Moltres, Articuno) and 2 dragons (Gyarados and Dragonite). This graph pretty much validates my all-time favorite team: Arcanine, Snorlax, Articuno, and Hypno.

It’s a bit hard to spot all Pokemon in the cluttered plot above, so here is the same idea disaggregated across types (which helps greatly to pick the best Pokemon within a type). Choosing a Psychic is a tough decision–I have always wavered between Hypno and Kadabra, for the former has less Brain but more solid overall stat.

Grass type clutters tightly at the middle of PC2, meaning that all of them are average in terms of Speed/Special. On the other extreme, Ground is mostly brawn and Psychic mostly brain (no surprise there).


Just to self-congratulate again on a well-picked team, this graph zooms in the Fire type, showing that Arcanine is the best of the lot (not counting the legendary Moltres).


And lastly, don’t start with Squirtle, kids.pokemonstarter

For my anti-corruption report, let’s first of all demonstrate how severe corruption is in the world. I decided to let the picture say a thousand words. Instead of an interminable paragraph littered with cherry-picked facts, we now have a picture that 1) is pretty, and 2) allows readers to think for themselves, using our (human’s) superb capability of pattern recognition.


But wait — what if we want to visualize the change in pattern over time? Essentially, we just have to create the same map above for each year, and string them all together using the animation package in R.

Stupid does not allow embedded flash, so you will have to take a look at this dropbox link.

Below is the code used to produce the graphs. The corruption data come from World Governance Indicators (WGI), the map data from Here is a link to my cleaned WGI data (.RData — a lot of the grunt work is simply to match the WB country name system with that of the map.

I sincerely wish that all organizations could just go ahead and accomplish simple things like standardized country names before tackling world poverty.

toInstall <- c("ggplot2", "maptools", "animation", "rgdal")
lapply(toInstall, library, character.only=TRUE)
# Load and clean World Governance Indicators (WGI) data
# Can be downloaded here
# Most of the cleaning involving matching World Bank naming system with that of the map
# Load world map shape file (Google "TM_WORLD_BORDERS_SIMPL-0.3") <- readOGR(dsn="./data", layer="TM_WORLD_BORDERS_SIMPL-0.3")
world.ggmap <- fortify(, region = "NAME")
# Check the country names in WGI and world.ggmap and fix the unmatched
# Plot
saveSWF({ # Output a flash
for (i in c(1996, 1998, 2000, 2002:2011)) {
temp <- subset(na.omit(wgi[, c('year', 'country', 'cc_est')]), year==i)
choro <- merge(world.ggmap, temp, by.x="id", by.y="country")
choro <- choro[order(choro$order), ] # order matters in map data, so we must reorder
p <- ggplot(data=choro, aes(long, lat, fill=cc_est, group=group))
p + geom_polygon() + ylim(c(60,85)) + # Fix the y-axis range for consistency between the years
scale_fill_gradient2("Control of\n corruption\n score", limits=c(2.5,2.5)) + # Use scale_fill_gradient2 for contrast
labs(title=substitute(paste("Severity of corruption in the world, year ", i), list(i=i)))
},"world_corruption.swf", interval=1,
ani.width=1200, ani.height=600,
swftools="C:/Program Files (x86)/SWFTools",
saveLatex({ # Output a pdf that can be embedded in latex documents
for (i in c(1996, 1998, 2000, 2002:2011)) {
temp <- subset(na.omit(wgi[, c('year', 'country', 'cc_est')]), year==i)
choro <- merge(world.ggmap, temp, by.x="id", by.y="country")
choro <- choro[order(choro$order), ]
p <- ggplot(data=choro, aes(long, lat, fill=cc_est, group=group))
p + geom_polygon() + ylim(c(60,85)) +
scale_fill_gradient2("Control of\n corruption\n score", limits=c(2.5,2.5)) +
labs(title=substitute(paste("Severity of corruption in the world, year ", i), list(i=i)))
}, ani.basename = "world_corruption", interval=1,
ani.width=900, ani.height=450,
latex.filename = "world.corruption.tex",

The other day I stumbled upon this graph, which shows the relative popularity of statistical softwares as a skill requirement in job postings. I was shocked that the top runners are SPSS and SAS, whose programming language is an ad-hoc, inconsistent mess that pales next to that of R. The definite lead of SAS over R is even more surprising considering that, whereas R is completely free, a single licence of SAS cost $8,700, plus a 28% annual fee ($2,436 / year).

Who in their right mind would reject a free, superior product and pay to suffer a clunky piece of software?

Judging by the graph, a lot of people indeed, and they do have working minds. Decades of SAS code is expensive to be converted into R, especially since the programming logic (not just the language) is different between them. Furthermore, unlike in academia, where breakthrough is richly rewarded while sloppiness at the edge is tolerable, industries place utmost value upon a stable and predictable performance. (You wouldn’t be comfortable to be sky high in an “experimental” airplane, would you?) Indeed, there are valid reasons besides the “cheap = bad” mentality to prefer SAS over R, even if we think of companies as a profit-maximizing entity.

What if we think of the firm as a hodgepodge of self-interested, ass-covering individuals instead? Then the cost of SAS also makes cynical sense — it is a great excuse. If the code goes wrong, the mid-level manager can righteously claim that he has ordered the most expensive and popular software in the business. Indeed, how could he have known that something would go awry? The fact that R is free suddenly becomes a negative. It leaves one vulnerable to incrimination, by oneself or others, that “you could have done more.”

This logic closely resembles what I have encountered during conversations about the free SAT database project, mentioned in an earlier post. Like SAS-vs-R, commercial SAT classes are popular, costly, while not being superior than self-study. But most data analysts are aware of the inferiority of SAS — they choose it anyway because of other reasons. Maybe parents stick with SAT classes because they are less informed?

So I informed them. Given how much they paid, I anticipated outraged denial and yet there was very little. They already sort of knew.  When paying huge sums to SAT centers, they are really buying the relieving assurance that someone is looking over their kid, that there is someone to talk to just in case (though few actually avail themselves of this service.) Changing their mind will not be easy. While parents don’t suffer as much from the kind of inertia endemic in organization, nothing is more parental that the worry that “I could have done more.”

This realization upends my initial ideas about the project, which I envision to include an “awareness campaign” of sort about SAT classes. But awareness is already not in short supply. Parents’ expense on SAT is already an informed decision, one that aims to bring, besides the best things for their kid, the assurance that they have done the best for their kids.

With all honesty, seeing people making such decisions give me a slight impulse of frustration. $60 / hour just to have someone recite answer keys and watch over your grown-up kid? (That’s 6 times my pay as a writing consultant at Colgate, by the way.) If I were free to molt and cast my ideal universe, no one would do so.

But this world is the one that counts, and in it parents want reassurance. And thus we must provide, not question, for our goal is to help, not criticize. I am thinking that the SAT answer database cannot be a standalone product, floating in unmarked places run by unknown people. That does not sound reassuring, does it? Instead, it must be incorporated into a study group model, and a structured one at that, with student sorting, progress monitoring, and incentive scheme to punish slacking-off. Building credential is vital, and key to this is a physical and institutional presence (and some, I hate to admit, publicity stunts, such as showcasing test scores and achievements of the people involved).

At the moment, I am looking for student groups that would be able to implement this project. VA Club seems like a good start.