The Robe (a retelling of The Platform Sutra)

The Patriarch spent almost all his time alone in his study. Everyone assumed he was in there meditating or reading, but usually he was worrying. The finances of the House were fragile; loans barely covered monthly expenses. Although he was the only one who understood the financial situation, everyone seemed tense and unhappy. The Patriarch often saw people whispering and scowling and scurrying away.

Years earlier, the Patriarch had experienced insights that had brought him peace. He still considered himself a person of wisdom, but its actual meaning was now dim.

“I wish I could retire!” he said aloud. “I wish I could give my red robe to someone else. Then I could return to my inner life, before it’s too late. But who would succeed me? Who has enough skill and integrity to keep our House intact? Would my successor even protect me physically? I wouldn’t it put past some of these people to stab me in the back–quite literally!–if I renounced my robe.” And he pulled it tighter around his skinny frame, as if for protection.

The next day, as he received the usual line of tattered pilgrims, the Patriarch mentally tallied the likely expenses of alms for the poor visitors versus any possible revenue from those who might donate, and his mood sank below even its usual level.

One of the supplicants looked particularly poor, a youth in rags who might also be a foreigner. “And what do you want, boy?”

“Sir, I am only an ignorant street beggar, but I heard a man recite a poem that spoke to me as if I had known it already. He said that it comes from a book that brings unlimited merit. I have traveled all the way here in the hopes of being taught to read this work and other classics.”

The Patriarch’s interest was piqued. “Which verse did you hear?” he asked. The boy replied:

A flash in the night sky, a breeze,
All other things are just like these.

The Patriarch thought: “It is very clever to quote this particular couplet to me. He’s hoping to be admitted to our House. Maybe he simply wants daily rations and a warm place to sleep. Or maybe he has been trained and coached by someone who hopes to profit from his advancement. Still, he has talent–or at least someone does–and talent is scarce around here. I will test his obedience and see if I can make use of him.”

The Patriarch assigned the boy to work in the kitchen and asked the head cook to report regularly on his attitude.

A few days later, after much anguished dithering, the Patriarch decided to move ahead with a succession plan despite his own grave reservations. At the daily House meeting, he announced it:

“It is time for your venerable Patriarch to retire so that he can better serve you through private mental exertions. Someone else may gain merit from holding this burdensome office. All of you, go to your cells and write verses that demonstrate your understanding of our essential teachings. The author of the best poem will take the red robe.”

All the brothers except one thought to themselves: “There is no point. S. will write the best poem, or at least, the Patriarch will prefer it to anyone else’s. S. is obviously his favorite. Let S. write something and become our new leader. Maybe he will prove more competent than the boss we have today, and our living conditions will improve at last.”

As for S., he paced back and forth in his cell, thinking, “I must write a poem, but it probably won’t be any good. The truth always seems to elude my words. Maybe my motivations are wrong: I am striving to succeed when I should cease to strive altogether. But then I would write nothing, and the Patriarch would be disappointed. Besides, someone else would take over, and who could possibly do a decent job? I will do my best and post some anonymous lines on the wall. If the Patriarch approves them, I will acknowledge that I wrote them. If not, life will go on as before.”

He spent the night hours scribbling and erasing, sometimes giving up for a while and even wailing, “I’m finished! I’m finished!” At last, near dawn, S. tiptoed into the long main corridor and wrote these words on the wall in the most generic handwriting he could manage:

The body is a holy tree; the mind is a mirror.
Polish it constantly; make it ever clearer.

He scurried away, feeling ashamed, and lay awake until the morning meal.

When the Patriarch went for his rounds, he saw the poem and recognized S.’s hand immediately. The results did not surprise him: two conventional similes. He made a show of enthusiasm, saying: “Everyone, gather around and read these lines. They will do you good.” Then he went back to his study and put his face in his hands and tried to steady his turbulent thoughts.

S. knocked on the door and the Patriarch admitted him. “I presume you wrote the couplet on the corridor wall?”

“I admit it, sir. Is it any good at all? I meant to express the value of continual polishing, not to imply that the mirror can ever be clean.”

“Perhaps it is good enough,” said the Patriarch, privately acknowledging that he could have done no better. At least his plan was unfolding as he had expected. Soon S. would shoulder the burdens of office. The Patriarch did not think that S. would allow anyone to harm him in his retirement–assuming that the House remained in business at all.

At just this moment, in the kitchen, the beggar boy (who was grinding grain as always) overheard a more senior cook recite S.’s new poem. He asked where it came from and heard the story of the competition to become the new Patriarch.

“May I see the verse as it’s written on the wall?” he asked. “I cannot read a word, but I would like to pay my respects.”

The cook thought that this foreign boy was a good kid, quiet and hard-working. He always accepted teasing in a positive spirit. He showed the lad the poem.

Standing before it, the boy said, “Do you think you could write something for me? I promise I will do your chores as well as my own for a whole week.” And with his guidance, the cook wrote these words on the wall:

What's holy is no solid tree; mind is always clear.
What kind of substance could ever leave a smear?

The boy thought to himself, “The Patriarch will sort of appreciate this. Whatever he may privately experience, he at least understands the logic of his own teachings, and this verse expresses the conclusion more precisely than that ignorant poem by some old monk. But maybe I can do better.”

He asked the cook to write just one more couplet below the previous one.

A mirror with no surface or back:
What could that suffer or lack?

The boy thought: “This is the best answer, I think. At any rate, a paradox is always the most intriguing kind of thought, and someone might actually benefit from pondering this one. I have many ideas for running this House, and surely my skills will now be recognized. I cannot believe how many times these brothers have listened to lectures and readings without learning how to write. Honestly, it’s not that hard to come up with an enigma.”

On his evening rounds, the Patriarch encountered a knot of brothers gathered around the three verses, arguing about their meaning and which one was best. He could tell from the way they treated the beggar boy that he added some of the lines. The Patriarch’s first impression was confirmed; this youth understood the moves that one ought to make. But the Patriarch was not sure what to do as a result.

“All of these are useful,” he said, “but none is truly satisfactory.” And he walked back to his study, cultivating a mysterious air.

This time, it was the youth who knocked on his study door and acknowledged having written the verses.

“You can have my robe,” said the Patriarch. “I certainly don’t want it, and it seems that you do. We can say that I transmitted my teachings to you tonight, although I think you already get the point.

“The question is whether you really want this job. I have not disclosed our financial situation, but you may not want to inherit it. And you must realize what a fractious, quarrelsome group we have here. Frankly, if I were you, I would accept the robe as a sign of authority and go as far from here as you can. Use my gift to justify founding a whole new house. But travel quickly and watch your back; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our friends try to track you down and even kill you for the Patriarch’s mantle.”

“And what of you?” asked the youth. “How will you manage if this House has no leader?” He watched the old man with sudden sympathy.

“Ah” said the Patriarch,

A flash in the night sky, a breeze,
All other things are just like these.

do lower state and local taxes or cheaper housing create job growth?

I keep hearing the argument that “red” or sunbelt states are outpacing liberal, coastal states economically because their policies are more business-friendly or because they offer more affordable housing. These theses don’t align with my own ideological priors, but they could be true, and if so, we should incorporate them into our mental models.

Indeed, in the past year, the top states for job growth have been Nevada, Texas, Idaho, South Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Although this list is heterogeneous, the large and currently conservative states of Texas and Florida are conspicuous.

Looking at any single year is risky because there’s a lot of annual variation. The previous five years have been weird, due to COVID. Therefore, ex ante, I chose the period 2010-2019 on the ground that this was a substantial timeframe before the pandemic.

According to the US Regional Economic Analysis Project, the largest percentage increases in employment during that decade were seen in Florida, Utah, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, California, Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina and Idaho. That cluster leans conservative, with exceptions (notably, California). However, in that period, the fewest jobs were created in a conservative-leaning cluster of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Mexico, Alaska, and West Virginia. My state of “taxachusetts” ranked 14th.

It’s not a reliable method to scan ranked lists for patterns. Instead, I correlated job growth for 2010-19 with combined state and local tax rates in 2018, from the Tax Foundation, and with median house prices (for 2023–a minor source of error), from World Population Review. I tested the hypotheses that lower tax rates and cheaper housing correlate with more job growth.

These hypotheses do not hold. Quite to the contrary, the correlation between housing prices and job growth is positive at .3, and the correlation between combined tax rates and job growth is slightly negative at .08 (meaning that higher taxes slightly predict more job growth). In a very simple regression model–with job growth as the outcome and housing and taxes as the independent variables–higher house prices predict more job growth (p = .013) and taxes are not significant.

This is not a causal analysis. Perhaps job growth causes housing inflation (rather than the reverse); and many other factors could be in play. For example, Nevada topped the list for job growth in every decade from the 1970s to the aughts, and Florida has always been in the top ten. But West Virginia ranked last in three of the recent decades and is always in the bottom tier. These specific trends have explanations (tourism, coal). However, I do not think that state ideology or partisan control offer generalizable reasons.

Come work with me: seeking a director of our Generous Listening and Dialogue Center

Program Director, Generous Listening and Dialogue Center – Tisch College

Apply here:


The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life is a national leader in civic education, whose teaching, research and community partnerships are setting the standard for higher education’s role in civic engagement. As the only university-wide college of its kind, Tisch engages Tufts students in transformational learning opportunities via hands-on field-based experiences, community building, and public service. These engagements prepare them to become active citizens and community leaders. Tisch research centers conduct groundbreaking research on young people’s civic and political participation and forge innovative participatory action research partnerships with communities.

Tisch College’s North Star—building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society—seeks to cultivate knowledge, leaders and living experiments that expand possibilities for democratic development in the context of increasing risks to democracy worldwide. Our work supports the University’s efforts to become an anti-racist institution. Our programs and research centers focus on strengthening the political participation and voices of historically marginalized people, especially youth, and on addressing the challenges of building and reviving democratic institutions needed for multiracial/ethnic societies.

The College develops innovative projects and programs to make field-based community knowledge co-creation, practical community-based problem-solving and civic learning opportunities more accessible and impactful for students and communities. Serving as an innovator and incubator, Tisch College collaborates closely with Tufts schools, departments, and student groups to generate an enduring culture of active citizenship across the university.

What You’ll Do

The Generous Listening and Dialogue Center’s mission is to help develop a culture of generous listening and authentic dialogue at Tufts University and to make Tufts a laboratory for research that also benefits external constituencies. The newly re-launched GLAD Center will apply research and test innovative methods, theoretical frameworks, and measures as part of events at Tufts and will educate faculty, staff, and students in the practices of generous listening and deep dialogue, which they can apply in their courses and other programs.

Responsible for all aspects of work related to reframing and growing the Generous Listening and Dialogue (GLAD) Center at Tisch College and directing its daily operations, the Program Director will shape and lead implementation of a strategic plan that positions the Center as a global center of excellence for generous listening and dialogue research and practice by conducting and disseminating cutting-edge research on generous listening and dialogue via summits, convenings, speaker series and professional gatherings. The Program Director is responsible for developing and managing relationships with key stakeholders including but not limited to convening an advisory group, identifying collaborators, and further refining the Center’s brand identity.  The Program Director is responsible for coordinating agendas and logistics for meetings, seminars, lectures, and other special events, coordinating marketing and advertising efforts for programs and projects, guiding program evaluations and reports to stakeholders, monitoring budgets, and executing financial transactions. 

The Program Director is responsible for supervising Center staff including a Senior Researcher and student workers.

This is a hybrid position where you are expected to be in the office 3 days per week.

What We’re Looking For

Basic Requirements:

  • Knowledge and skills as typically acquired through completion of a Master’s degree in a related field with 5-7 years of related experience.
  • Demonstrated potential to establish and supervise a research agenda.
  • Strong interpersonal, management and leadership skills to interact with individuals at all levels.
  • Experience with administration and budgeting.
  • Excellent writing skills including the ability to draft and present program materials and publish in peer reviewed outlets.
  • Unwavering commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and ability to apply these principles to the Center’s work directly.

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Ph.D. in a related field.
  • Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research experience in designing tools, conducting studies, and conducting data analyses.
  • Outstanding attention to detail, strong organizational skills, and the ability to anticipate programmatic needs. Ability to lead and direct others by setting priorities for completing multiple tasks.
  • Strong publication record in peer-reviewed journals, special interest publications and conferences.
  • Experience with donor relations and stewardship.
  • Ability to work collaboratively with research colleagues from varied backgrounds and to interact with practitioners of diverse backgrounds, views, and positions.
  • Demonstrated ability to develop dialogue programs.

the year of school choice

A colleague points out that new state laws that allow parents to use public money to purchase education may represent the biggest US policy trend of 2023–basically, since the Republicans won the US House and stopped further federal progressive legislation. As Libby Stanford wrote in EdWeek last June,

So far this year, lawmakers in 14 states have passed bills establishing school choice programs or expanding existing ones, and lawmakers in 42 states have introduced such bills … Six of the 14 states—Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah—have passed school choice policies making programs universal or near-universal over the next three years. They join Arizona and West Virginia, which in recent years either established or expanded education savings accounts and made them available to virtually all students. That brings the total number of states where virtually all students will be able to use public funds for private schools to eight.

I hold some principled skepticism about school choice, yet I believe it is a valid policy debate–in fact, I have sometimes chosen it as the leading topic in my undergraduate course on public policy, because there are arguments on both (or many) sides.

It’s mainly in the USA that school choice is seen as a conservative cause; many social democracies allow parents to choose among publicly funded and licensed schools. And there have been progressive proponents of school choice in America.

On a political level, the passage of these new state laws is interesting for several reasons.

First, it is happening without a great deal of national attention, which I suspect reflects the national media’s basic lack of interest in state policies, especially in the South.

Second, it challenges the premise (which, I admit, I sometimes share) that the modern conservative movement has run out of policy ideas and is obsessed with performative politics–denouncing “woke” companies and universities without actually passing laws. A wave of school-choice bills reflects a policy agenda.

Third, it challenges the premise that today’s GOP is shifting from quasi-libertarian to quasi-authoritarian. A law that enforces particular ways of addressing contested social issues in public schools verges on authoritarian. But a law that allows parents to opt out of public schools is libertarian–for better or worse.

(However, many parents may seek schools that have authoritarian climates for their own students, somewhat like private homeowners’ associations that enact meticulous rules to control their own residents’ behavior.)

Najwan Darwish on living in doubt

(Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, from Najwan Darwish, Exhausted on the Cross, NYRB Books 2021.)

I don’t know the Arabic word that is the title of this poem. The English word can mean a logical fallacy–changing the meaning of a term between one part of an argument and another–or a deliberate trick. Macbeth calls a promise “that lies like truth” “th’Equiuocation of the Fiend.”

Deceit is a fault, but equivocation can also imply an inability to decide, or even a choice to remain undecided, like Keats’ “capab[ility] of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts. …” One can equivocate because several options seem attractive, or because all seem terrible.

I read Darwish as self-critical. He is confessing his equivocation, his failure (sometimes) to take a stand, much as, in “In Shatila,” he asks himself how he could have turned smilingly away from an old refugee:

How could you smile, indifferent
to the brackish water of the sea
while barbed wire wrapped around your heart?

How could you,
you son of a bitch?

But what should be expected of him? At a time when everyone is supposed to take one side, to state one truth–when we are all our own communications departments, and silence is called complicity–I resonate with the poet’s equivocation. His uncertainty becomes a doubt about who he is, and that doubt becomes the country he dwells in, wherever he goes. It’s the only country he has.

(By the way, I have no idea whether Darwish feels equivocal today, and I don’t mean to attribute any stance to him in this moment. The poem is several years old. It does speak to me today.)