Remembering Jim Pagels

On the evening of Saturday, April 10, 2021, we lost Jim Pagels. To preserve his memory, I’d like to scribble down a fraction of the man that I remember, before time cruelly takes that away too. Maybe this isn’t the Jim you knew; to others, he was a son, a brother, and a fellow graduate student, among other things. But this is the Jim that I knew — a good friend — and I miss him dearly.

I first met Jim when we had both just moved to DC — a city that he was enamored with — in 2015. We immediately clicked, and as luck would have it, we were placed in tiny little cubicles right next to each other at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he would go on to help out with various economics research projects. In our interactions, he was laughing as much as he wasn’t.

I’ll never forget the last time I physically saw Jim; it was late summer 2020, right as many of us were coming out of lockdown for the first time. I had bought the Nathan for You DVD collection and Jim came over so we could watch every episode with the commentary track. He and I were dying of laughter. To me, Jim was and always will be a collection of such happy memories.

But you had to be on your toes with Jim; as casual as he would pretend to be, he was an irredeemable competitor. For example, he was obsessed with board games. Before I knew him, he competed in Monopoly; by the time I knew him, he would settle for dunking on friends in games like Catan and Carcassonne. He had this flow of straightforwardly explaining the rules to a new player, beating them senseless, and then offering to bake brownies as a consolation.

I once beat Jim at Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and I never let him forget it. If I ever brought it up, he would smile, pretend it didn’t faze him, and suggest that we play again; I was smart enough to be happy with my singular board game victory over Jim, who was far more clever than I’ll ever be.

Among his many fine qualities, Jim was an excellent writer. He had stints at Reason, Slate, Forbes, and FiveThirtyEight, in addition to all of his freelance work. Jim had the rare ability to write with ease on a range of subjects, from Olympic scoring to primetime television to the regulation of sports gambling. One of his article that will forever linger in my mind — and has permanently shifted how I consume TV — was his classic argument against binge-watching. Read it, and pace yourself.

By the time I met Jim, he didn’t want to be a full-time writer; he wanted to be an economist. With an English degree — even one from Columbia University — he was hardly an obvious candidate for any economics Ph.D. program. So he hustled, earning a master’s in mathematics from Georgetown and completing a fellowship at the Federal Reserve, eventually earning a spot in the University of Michigan’s prestigious program. He talked about it like he won the lottery. But he earned it.

As a lover of cities, Jim intended to focus on urban economics. Near the end of his life, he was brimming with research ideas on how to build better cities. He was deeply concerned with the high cost of housing in cities like DC and towns like Ann Arbor and the way we relentlessly privilege and subsidize cars in the United States. The latter set of poor policy decisions would eventually take his life. We honor him by continuing his work.

Jim had so much more left to contribute to the world — as a friend, as a writer, as a scholar. We are all poorer for his loss — particularly his dear family. But so long as we remain thankful for the time we had with him, enriched by his memory, and galvanized by the causes he fought for, Jim Pagels will live on.

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If you would like me to add your memory of Jim to this page, please feel free to share it in the comments or send it directly to me over Twitter.

Here are a few that I have already received:

When we were in high school we got way too obsessed with playing monopoly. We went on a mission trip to Mexico with our church and the thought of being without a monopoly board on the long bus ride compelled us to make our own mobile version, “velcropoly”

We used to go to a lot of rangers games together. The first game he forgot to bring his glove this happened. (me with the ball at the end).

One other tidbit. Was talking with some other friends in Jim’s fantasy league about him today. One of the guys brought up how he claimed to have popularized the term binge watching through. That article. Upon further investigation I think he has a point.

— Harry Weaver

Jim and I met when I organized social gatherings for the Columbia alumni association in DC. No matter which part of DC an event was held in, Jim would either trek over to to the event no matter the weather conditions or apologize profusely to me over text when he couldn’t make it. Jim’s insanely busy schedule- working full-time at the Fed, taking graduate level econ courses, applying for graduate programs- never got in the way of Jim being an outstanding guy.

At his farewell party prior to leaving for Michigan, Jim served up an amusing assortment of leftover pantry items for a late night party- chips and salsa, brownies, and… blueberry pancakes. The last thing I ever got to say to him in person was to hug him and say, ‘I’m so proud of you, Jim. Thank you for being my friend.

— Nate

I’m heartbroken about Jim. Thank you so much for such moving reflections and I’m praying of and thinking of you and his close friends and family.

Something people might not guess about Jim: he was a *fantastic* dancer. I don’t mean like, “good for an economist.” His energy at Caleb and Kat’s wedding was electric — and though that was the last time I saw him, I’m grateful to remember him smiling, laughing, and dancing a little too hard to “Shake it off.”

— Tamara Winter

My first memory of Jim is from the early days of the Koch Associate Program in 2015. While most of our colleagues took the opportunity to go to restaurants and maybe even sneak a midday beer, Jim and I were two of the only people to bring brown bag lunches.

At that time I was making shit money and was very proud of my little lunch hacks that helped me scrimp and save. That mostly meant canned foods, typically beans or tuna, that had been dropped, dented, and subsequently placed on the discount rack.

Jim struck up a conversation and we went on to talk about bananas for a comically long period of time. TLDR: bananas are the perfect food no matter the metric; whether you consider cost, nutritional value or flavor. However, the banana’s only fatal flaw was bruising and browning. So Jim, ever the pragmatist, bought and frequently used a banana guard. And he gave an impassioned case for it. I still crack up thinking about that thing, which you can still get on Amazon.

Jim and I had lots of silly conversations like this. We discussed bananas, voting, crossword strategy, and myriad other things. And what was striking about all those exchanges was the way Jim thought.

He was deeply curious. And as such, was always willing to take an idea and analyze it in ways that few others would or could.

More importantly, Jim did this with a unique warmth and sense of humor. I was invited to his birthday party shortly after we met and had a blast — it was full of cutthroat trivia games and of course, some snacks he had gotten for a great price from the local Safeway. And after reading another one of these tributes, I too remember Jim being a crazy good dancer. That night’s invitation and the ones that followed meant a lot to me. At a time when I was feeling despondent in a new city, Jim was effortlessly kind and welcoming.

One of the last times I remember hanging out we played “Pandemic.” After wrapping up, we went around the room deliberating over what cities best fit each person’s personality. Being a Texan, Jim spoke with authority when he pegged me as an Austin guy. Sure enough, that’s where I would move just a few months later. At the time I didn’t know it but to him it was obvious.

Hearing about Jim’s death, I can’t help but wish I knew him better and longer. He was the type of person who makes you think, “I didn’t know somebody could be so damn smart and so damn good at so many things.” I’m grateful for the brief time I did know him and mourn the loss to his field, his friends, and his family.

— Matt Hartill

Editors Note: Jim’s final Instagram post was of a bunch of bananas at various stages of ripeness.

One of my favorite memories of Jim is of a Halloween a few years ago. Jim came up with the most brilliant costume I have ever seen. The theme: Gross Domestic Product (GDP). He literally put a plastic bag on and had me stick the trash of American products on him (Get it?). Since then I have thought what a great costume that was and how one day I would like to make it for myself. This year, I will definitely dress up as GDP for Halloween and think of Jim.

— Katarina Hall

I first properly got to know Jim when we both attended a work trip to a Nats baseball game and ended up sitting together, chatting and having a wonderful time for the whole game. Being British I knew very little about the sport, and Jim proceeded to fill me in on what was going on and what to look out for, answered my inane questions and he even let me try on his glove, my first ever time wearing one. Although we didn’t keep in regular contact over the years I kept up with what he was up to via social media, and seeing his move back into academia to get his PhD in economics gave me a lot of courage to do the same thing. Jim was sweet, endlessly patient and kind, hilarious, and of course absolutely brilliantly intelligent, I was always so keen to see what amazing thing he would do next, and am devastated that we will not get to see it.

— Alice Calder

I met Jim in a couple snippets. The first was during my last week working as an RA at the Fed in 2017, Jim was just starting in my section in the Global Capital Markets section. My last week (his first week working at the Fed) was kind of a blur, where I walked him through a bunch of datasets pertaining to international equities and things I’d be passing on to him (it was a ton of information all at once)! The second time I met Jim was a couple years later, when he started at Michigan’s PhD program in Economics. We never got more time because of the pandemic, but I feel so fortunate for having had the chance to meet him. He was an incredibly enthusiastic and kind soul and will be missed dearly by friends, family, and everyone who crossed his path.

— Keshav

I met Jim right before he started first year after he responded to an email I sent to a group about going for a bike ride. We rode about 15 miles along Huron River Dr towards Dexter and back. As we were turning around he asked to stop for a minute to have a snack and pulled from his pocket a banana-shaped plastic case that turned out to be a protective case for an actual banana. I thought it was both goofy and brilliant, and I loved it.

— Jamie Fogel

Jim was so generous with his time, and so eager to share that time and his passions with others, that I know many of my memories with him will be shared by others. Playing (and learning new) board games, being invited to lose at croquet, or meeting up for a walk to discuss topics as heady as dense as his preferred housing options or as light as a 90’s game show.

Jim’s interests were shockingly broad, and he used them to connect with as broad a group of people as possible. As soon as Jim learned of our common interest in piano, he invited me to meet up and check out the ones in the grad student dorms on campus. It was then that I realized that Jim must, somehow, have thrown himself completely into every interest he took up. After I’d played through snippets from a few of my more polished tunes from Elton John or Billy Joel, Jim asked what I thought of his renditions before proceeding to (humbly!) blow me away with complex left-hand progressions.

My most enduring memory with Jim will probably be the last one I have. We were both spending our remote winter semesters in Washington, DC and had met up for a walk around the monuments on our latest wellness day. Our conversation was one full of promise: plans for the next semester, excitement about research ideas, and strong visions of how to improve a city we both loved. We walked past our former office and parted ways at a bike dock after making plans for a board game night that would start integrating each other into the groups of friends we had there. That memory captured much of what I enjoyed about Jim’s friendship, and much of what I will miss with his loss.

— Kelsey

I first met Jim at the GES Thanksgiving dinner. We chatted about cats, house plants and Texas. After that, we’d always stop and talk if we bumped into each other in Lorch Hall or at the IMSB. He was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and I’ll miss seeing him around campus.

— Jennifer Mayo

Jim was an incredible person, in many ways and as many have noted. He was full of passion and ideas for making the world a better place. He was curious, a deep and careful thinker. He was a fierce croquet and board game player. And most of all, he was a great friend.

A few memories I have of Jim:

Playing board games on his porch, and first having to move most of his houseplants out of the way to make room. Pretty much every square inch of space was allocated to the plants, and Jim had figured out how to optimize their locations for the sunlight that made it to that basement apartment.

Serious croquet battles in the park over on Madison St. I would usually start by trying to chat throughout the game, and that would always fail because we would both end up super focused on our gameplay. So we would just play, and chat after!

Getting detailed commentary on local Ann Arbor politics. I could always trust Jim to be in the know, and have well-reasoned opinions about candidates and their policy platforms.

Most of all I remember how generous Jim was in using his time for his friends. I think this was especially impressive given how frugal Jim was when it came to other things. I hope I can carry this spirit of generosity and friendship forward, in Jim’s honor.

— Paul Organ

Jim welcomed me into the DC journalism community when I first moved after college. He immediately found a way to connect — over our shared enthusiasm about new possibilities for data and statistics to enrich storytelling. In this and all things we’d discuss, he was strikingly original and knowledgeable (partly due to his constant and voracious appetite for podcasts and books) but deeply humble and eager most of all to listen and learn. He would have become a thought leader. But his defining characteristic was genuine warmth. When we caught up last month, his engagement with life and excitement for near- and long-term plans were infectious. While we saw each other very sporadically during our overlapping years in the city, every conversation with him was like talking to an old friend.

— Alyza Sebenius

Jim Pagels was a colleague and a friend. We worked together and both ended up moving to Ann Arbor for our graduate programs at the University of Michigan. As we talked over lunch about the challenges of being a first-year PhD student, we discussed our research interests, and I remember being impressed with his passion for economics and knowing that he would make valuable contributions to academia. I respected his kindness — back when I first met him, I mentioned I was applying for a program that he had been in, and he was so helpful giving me advice, even sending over his old application essay so that I had an example to look at. Along with our other friends at the Fed, we had various happy hours and board game nights together. Jim always knew how to make people laugh and had exciting stories to share. I’ll miss him.

— Jessica Liu

the once and future city planner // AICP // @UCLAluskin // kentuckian in california