Social Learning: People See, People Do/ Monkey See, Monkey Do

It has been studied and proven that human beings learn socially. We observe that it is right and polite to hold the door open for others instead of slamming it in their faces and we learn that you don’t cause a loud ruckus in a crowded library (especially during finals week) or you will be hated by everyone in there.  These are not lessons we are told explicitly; rather these are lessons we learn through observing the behavior of other humans. Similarly, animals learn socially just as we do.

In a study reported on by The New York Times, researchers discovered that monkeys learned socially. The monkeys had been previously classically conditioned to only eat pink or blue-dyed corn and to shun the other colored corn. When the monkeys were moved to a different location in which the other colored corn was the corn that the local monkeys were conditioned to eat, the pink and blue-dyed corn eating monkeys switched to eating the colored corn that the local monkeys were eating.

Humpback whales have also demonstrated that they socially learn, as reported in this article on National Geographic. A renegade humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine made a new method in catching fish that was much different than the normal routine. Soon enough, 40% of humpback whales have adopted the practice to catch their dinner.

These phenomena can be understood through Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models, a new book on social learning that is available this summer.

Many animals, including humans, acquire valuable skills and knowledge by copying others. Scientists refer to this as social learning. It is one of the most exciting and rapidly developing areas of behavioral research and sits at the interface of many academic disciplines, including biology, experimental psychology, economics, and cognitive neuroscience. Social Learning provides a comprehensive, practical guide to the research methods of this important emerging field. William Hoppitt and Kevin Laland define the mechanisms thought to underlie social learning and demonstrate how to distinguish them experimentally in the laboratory. They present techniques for detecting and quantifying social learning in nature, including statistical modeling of the spatial distribution of behavior traits. They also describe the latest theory and empirical findings on social learning strategies, and introduce readers to mathematical methods and models used in the study of cultural evolution. This book is an indispensable tool for researchers and an essential primer for students.

  • Provides a comprehensive, practical guide to social learning research
  • Combines theoretical and empirical approaches
  • Describes techniques for the laboratory and the field
  • Covers social learning mechanisms and strategies, statistical modeling techniques for field data, mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, and more

William Hoppitt is senior lecturer in zoology at Anglia Ruskin University. Kevin N. Laland is professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews. His books include Culture Evolves and Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution

Posting Remorse: Deleting isn’t Permanent on the Internet

The internet is great for sharing. But what happens when you are done with sharing?  The internet isn’t a chalkboard that you can write on and erase at your leisure. Once something is out there in the internet, it will more or less be there forever.

Take such simple things as posting a picture on Facebook to share with your friends. It may be a goofy picture of you and your college buddies but in a few years, that photo seems tasteless and may make you look bad for whatever reason. So, you delete it. Problem solved. However, your picture still lingers on the internet though you may not be able to see it and it can always be dug up to haunt you.

Anthony Weiner was just a regular old politician before his scandal leaked. Now a simple Google search defines him as a sexual deviant with his humiliation dubbed Weinergate. He may bounce back from his shame but the power of the internet will make it hard to forget what he’s done.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Bill Keller discusses why the ability to permanently delete information off the internet is a measure that needs to be taken. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger discusses this idea in depth in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. The ability to forget allows people to move forward in life. Though he does not say that history should be forgotten (like Weinergate), there are certain pieces of information about individuals that should be allowed to be forgotten, such as news stories about convictions that were eventually resolved but did not have any subsequent media coverage discussing their innocence. Mayer-Schönberger proposes expiration dates on information that may help fix this problem among other ideas that may help make internet posting remorse a thing of the past.

Delete looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we’ve searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.

In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.

Delete was awarded prizes in 2010 for its focus on media ecology and science and technology politics from the Media Ecology Association and American Political Science Association respectively.

Edwidge Danticat Awarded Grand Prize for Literature from the Association of Caribbean Writers

Congratulations are in order for Edwidge Danticat whose book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work won the 2013 Association of Caribbean Writers Grand Prize for Literature!

The prize is awarded by members in the Congress of the Association of Caribbean Writers to an author whose work reflects Caribbean culture, identity, and literature.

Create Dangerously has been heralded for its personal reflection on art, exile, and immigration and the intricate relationships between the three. Danticat was also featured in the documentary film Girl Rising in which she interviews a Haitian girl about what it means to be a girl in Haiti.

In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat eulogizes an aunt who guarded her family’s homestead in the Haitian countryside, a cousin who died of AIDS while living in Miami as an undocumented alien, and a renowned Haitian radio journalist whose political assassination shocked the world. Danticat writes about the Haitian novelists she first read as a girl at the Brooklyn Public Library, a woman mutilated in a machete attack who became a public witness against torture, and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other artists of Haitian descent. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.

HP & PUP: Hufflepuff’s PUP Reading List

This week we have a couple of PUP books for any prospective Hogwarts student seeking placement in the Hufflepuff house. Hufflepuffs don’t really get too much attention; their only notable student was Cedric Diggory who was killed by He-Who-Can’t-Be-Named. Yet, Hufflepuffs value hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play making them interested in some of our books about art and overall well-being.

1. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor by Ruth Wisse- This book is a perfect balance of scholarly and funny.

Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking–as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that have called Jewish humor into being–and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humor around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian, and Hebrew. Among other topics, the book looks at how Jewish humor channeled Jewish learning and wordsmanship into new avenues of creativity, brought relief to liberal non-Jews in repressive societies, and enriched popular culture in the United States.

Even as it invites readers to consider the pleasures and profits of Jewish humor, the book asks difficult but fascinating questions: Can the excess and extreme self-ridicule of Jewish humor go too far and backfire in the process? And is “leave ’em laughing” the wisest motto for a people that others have intended to sweep off the stage of history?

2. The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency by John A. Hall- Knowing of Hufflepuffs’ desire for cooperation, they would probably praise this book and recommend it to those at the Ministry of Magic.

Civility is desirable and possible, but can this fragile ideal be guaranteed? The Importance of Being Civil offers the most comprehensive look at the nature and advantages of civility, throughout history and in our world today. Esteemed sociologist John Hall expands our understanding of civility as related to larger social forces–including revolution, imperialism, capitalism, nationalism, and war–and the ways that such elements limit the potential for civility. Combining wide-ranging historical and comparative evidence with social and moral theory, Hall examines how the nature of civility has fluctuated in the last three centuries, how it became lost, and how it was reestablished in the twentieth century following the two world wars. He also considers why civility is currently breaking down and what can be done to mitigate this threat.

Paying particular attention to the importance of individualism, of rules allowing people to create their own identities, Hall offers a composite definition of civility. He focuses on the nature of agreeing to differ over many issues, the significance of fashion and consumption, the benefits of inclusive politics on the nature of identity, the greater ability of the United States in integrating immigrants in comparison to Europe, and the conditions likely to assure peace in international affairs. Hall factors in those who are opposed to civility, and the various methods with which states have destroyed civil and cooperative relations in society.

3. Why Philanthropy Matters: How the Wealthy Give, and What it Means for Our Economic Well-Being by Zoltan Acs- I could see a Hufflepuff doing good magical deeds for others and this book shows the necessity of such deeds as philanthropy.

Philanthropy has long been a distinctive feature of American culture, but its crucial role in the economic well-being of the nation–and the world–has remained largely unexplored. Why Philanthropy Matters takes an in-depth look at philanthropy as an underappreciated force in capitalism, measures its critical influence on the free-market system, and demonstrates how American philanthropy could serve as a model for the productive reinvestment of wealth in other countries. Factoring in philanthropic cycles that help balance the economy, Zoltan Acs offers a richer picture of capitalism, and a more accurate backdrop for considering policies that would promote the capitalist system for the good of all.

Examining the dynamics of American-style capitalism since the eighteenth century, Acs argues that philanthropy achieves three critical outcomes. It deals with the question of what to do with wealth–keep it, tax it, or give it away. It complements government in creating public goods. And, by focusing on education, science, and medicine, philanthropy has a positive effect on economic growth and productivity. Acs describes how individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey have used their wealth to establish institutions and promote knowledge, and Acs shows how philanthropy has given an edge to capitalism by promoting vital forces–like university research–necessary for technological innovation, economic equality, and economic security. Philanthropy also serves as a guide for countries with less flexible capitalist institutions, and Acs makes the case for a larger, global philanthropic culture.

4. A Glossary of Chickens: Poems by Gary Whitehead- For some lighter reading, Hufflepuffs would certainly enjoy this collection of poetry.

With skillful rhetoric and tempered lyricism, the poems in A Glossary of Chickens explore, in part, the struggle to understand the world through the symbolism of words. Like the hens of the title poem, Gary J. Whitehead’s lyrics root around in the earth searching for sustenance, cluck rather than crow, and possess a humble majesty.

Confronting subjects such as moral depravity, nature’s indifference, aging, illness, death, the tenacity of spirit, and the possibility of joy, the poems in this collection are accessible and controlled, musical and meditative, imagistic and richly figurative. They are informed by history, literature, and a deep interest in the natural world, touching on a wide range of subjects, from the Civil War and whale ships, to animals and insects. Two poems present biblical narratives, the story of Lot’s wife and an imagining of Noah in his old age. Other poems nod to favorite authors: one poem is in the voice of the character Babo, from Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, while another is a kind of prequel to Emily Dickinson’s “She rose to His Requirement.”

As inventive as they are observant, these memorable lyrics strive for revelation and provide their own revelations.

Now that all four Hogwarts houses have their respective required reading lists, which house do you belong in?

Exploring Fungi’s Kingdom

Some things just don’t get enough credit. The fungi kingdom is a sometimes forgotten but extremely important kingdom within our world. Why are organisms that are so small so important? Jens Peterson, author of The Kingdom of Fungi answers this question and more in BBC The Forum’s latest interview. Check out the interview here.

The fungi realm has been called the “hidden kingdom,” a mysterious world populated by microscopic spores, gigantic mushrooms and toadstools, and a host of other multicellular organisms ranging widely in color, size, and shape. The Kingdom of Fungi provides an intimate look at the world’s astonishing variety of fungi species, from cup fungi and lichens to truffles and tooth fungi, clubs and corals, and jelly fungi and puffballs. This beautifully illustrated book features more than 800 stunning color photographs as well as a concise text that describes the biology and ecology of fungi, fungal morphology, where fungi grow, and human interactions with and uses of fungi.

The Kingdom of Fungi is a feast for the senses, and the ideal reference for naturalists, researchers, and anyone interested in fungi.

  • Reveals fungal life as never seen before
  • Features more than 800 stunning color photos
  • Describes fungal biology, morphology, distribution, and uses
  • A must-have reference book for naturalists and researchers

PUP Authors Win Big

A few of PUP authors have recently won awards for their work on the respective books from various assoications. Here is a round-up of recent award winning authors and books- congratulations!

1. Christina L. Davis  author of Why Adjudicate? Enforcing Trade Rules in the WTO  and Judith G. Kelley author of Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails


Co-Winners of the 2013 Chadwick F. Alger Prize from the International Studies Association


The Chadwick F. Alger Prize recognizes the best book published in the previous calendar year on the subject of international organization and multilateralism. The Award Committee is particularly interested in works dealing with how international organizations interact with nongovernmental organizations and other local civil society actors, as reflected in many of the writings of Chadwick F. Alger.”

2. Christopher P. Loss author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century 

Winner of the 2013 AERA Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association

“The AERA Council established this award for the best book-length publication in educational research and development. To be considered for the Award, a book must be concerned with the improvement of the educational process through research or scholarly inquiry, must have a research base, and must have a copyright date of the past two years in the year in which the award is to be given.


3. Donna R. Gabaccia author of Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective

Winner of the 2013 Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society

“The Theodore Saloutos Award is presented for the book judged best on any aspect of the immigration history of the United States. ‘Immigration history’ is defined as the history of the movement of peoples from other countries to the United States, of the repatriation movements of immigrants, and of the consequences of these migrations, both for the United States and the countries of origin.”

Delbanco to Deliver Fribolin Lecture

Mark your calendars! Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What it Is, Was, and Should Be will deliver the 25th Annual Carl and Fanny Fribolin Lecture on Friday, May 3, at Keuka College in New York. The event is free and open to the public. Read more about the event below.

Andrew Delbanco to deliver Fribolin Lecture

Dr. Andrew Delbanco, recipient of the 2011 National Humanities Medal, will deliver the 25th Annual Carl and Fanny Fribolin Lecture Friday, May 3, at Keuka College.

r. Andrew Delbanco, recipient of the 2011 National Humanities Medal, will deliver the 25th Annual Carl and Fanny Fribolin Lecture Friday, May 3, at Keuka College.

One of the highlights of May Day Weekend, Delbanco will discuss “What is College For?” at 6:30 p.m. in Norton Chapel. It is free and open to the public.

The lecture series carries the names of Geneva resident Carl Fribolin, an emeritus member of the College’s Board of Trustees and recipient of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 2004, and his late wife.

Delbanco is Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. He was awarded the 2011 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama “for his writing that spans the literature of Melville and Emerson to contemporary issues in higher education.”

In 2001, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and named by Time Magazine as “America’s Best Social Critic.” In 2003, he was named New York State Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities. In 2006, he received the “Great Teacher Award” from the Society of Columbia Graduates.

Delbanco is the author of many books, including, most recently, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, and The Abolitionist Imagination. Melville: His World and Work was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography, and appeared on “best books” lists in the Washington Post, Independent (London), Dallas Morning News, and TLS. It was awarded the Lionel Trilling Award by Columbia University.

Delbanco’s essays appear regularly in The New York Review of Books, New Republic, New York Times Magazine, and other journals. His topics range from American literary and religious history to contemporary issues in higher education.

Delbanco has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was a member of the inaugural class of fellows at the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Explaining Why They are ‘The Chosen Few’

The Jewish people went from being agrarian and illiterate in 70 CE to literate and money-savy urbanites in 1492. How did they do it? Maristella Botticini & Zvi Eckstein argue in their book The Chosen Few that it was due to educational reform. Read this new essay by the authors on PBS Newshour as they explain further Jewish success.

The Chosen Few: A New Explanation of Jewish Success

Imagine a dinner conversation in a New York or Milan or Tel Aviv restaurant in which three people–an Israeli, an American, and a European — ask to each other: “Why are so many Jews urban dwellers rather than farmers? Why are Jews primarily engaged in trade, commerce, entrepreneurial activities, finance, law, medicine, and scholarship? And why have the Jewish people experienced one of the longest and most scattered diasporas in history, along with a steep demographic decline?”

Most likely, the standard answers they would suggest would be along these lines: “The Jews are not farmers because their ancestors were prohibited from owning land in the Middle Ages.” “They became moneylenders, bankers, and financiers because during the medieval period Christians were banned from lending money at interest, so the Jews filled in that role.” “The Jewish population dispersed worldwide and declined in numbers as a result of endless massacres.”

Imagine now that two economists (us) seated at a nearby table, after listening to this conversation, tell the three people who are having this lively debate: “Are you sure that your explanations are correct? You should read this new book, ours, “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History,” and you would learn that when one looks over the 15 centuries spanning from 70 C.E. to 1492, these oft-given answers that you are suggesting seem at odds with the historical facts. This book provides you with a novel explanation of why the Jews are the people they are today — a comparatively small population of economically successful and intellectually prominent individuals.”

Suppose you are like one of the three people in the story above and you wonder why you should follow the advice of the two economists. There are many books that have studied the history of the Jewish people and have addressed those fascinating questions. What’s really special about this one?

Read the rest of this compelling article at The Newshour website:

[Read more…]

Don Yeomans is one of TIME’s Most Influential

Don Yeomans, author of Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us, is named one of TIME’s most influential people in the world! Yeomans has surely earned his spot on the list for his work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab as they keep an eye on the sky to keep our world safe from near-earth objects- congratulations!

Don Yeomans- Pioneer

Don Yeomans is one of the reasons we can all sleep a little better at night. For over a decade, Don and I have been hunting for incoming asteroids that come too close to Earth, with Don leading the NASA effort to find and track them, while I focus via the B612 Foundation — named for the asteroid home of the Little Prince — on how to deflect them if necessary.

Every night, telescopes make thousands of asteroid observations which go to Don’s premier team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where that data is converted into information about the trajectory of the rocks years or even decades into the future.

One day, without question, it will be Don and his team who issue a warning to the world that it’s time to launch a deflection campaign to prevent an incalculable disaster. We know how things worked out for the dinosaurs; it takes a levelheaded leader like Don to spare us their fate.

PUP Author Geoffrey Robinson in Documentary about East Timor

This weekend the acclaimed documentary Alias Ruby Blade will premiere at the Tribeca film festival. The documentary unravels the history behind the new nation in East Timor after its struggle for independence. The documentary features PUP author Geoffrey Robinson who has written a book about East Timor. Robinson authored “If you Leave Us Here, We Will Die”: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor. For showtime information click here.

Read a review for the documentary from This Week in New York below.

Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution is an intimate, involving documentary that goes behind the scenes of East Timor’s battle for independence, structured like a gripping thriller with a decidedly personal edge. In 1991, Australian Kirsty Sword went to East Timor as part of a team posing as tourists while actually making a secret film about the embattled Indonesian island. Almost immediately, the Australian teacher and activist found herself right in the middle of the violent struggle as bullets flew all around her and her team, but they kept the cameras rolling, compiling amazing footage that helped alert the world as to what was happening there. Sword soon became a courier for the revolution, adopting the spy name Ruby Blade and smuggling in notes and, eventually, electronic equipment to jailed resistance leader Kay Rala “Xanana” Gusmão, who was serving a life sentence in Jakarta’s Cipinang Prison. Armed with a camera, Sword took remarkable footage during those years, most of which has never before been shown to the public; she opened up her archives for husband-and-wife documentarians Tanya Ager Meillier and Alex Meillier and speaks extensively with them in the film, relating her involvement with the independence movement — which included falling in love with the charismatic Xanana. The Meilliers also talk with such key resistance fighters as Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta and diplomat Constancio Pinto as well as historian and human rights activist Geoffrey Robinson and Inside Indonesia editor Pat Walsh, who share their stories about the Indonesian occupation that lasted from 1975 to 1999, followed by a UN-sponsored referendum for independence that led to yet more horrors. But Sword, who narrates much of the film, and Xanana, who appears primarily in archival footage and photographs, never gave up their dream of a free, democratic East Timor while also considering a life together. As much as Alias Ruby Blade delves into the political situation in East Timor, it’s really about how a young, strong woman followed her heart and made a difference in a faraway part of the globe. Alias Ruby Blade will have its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it’s part of the Documentary Competition. (By the way, the less you know about how things turned out in East Timor, the more exciting the film is, so don’t read up on it before going to one of the four screenings.)

Learn more about the film here.

Discovering Descartes

Descartes famously wrote “I am, I exist” and “I think, therefore I am.” But who was he? Kevin Hart of The Australian explores who the man behind these words was and the legacy that he left as described in Steven Nadler’s new book The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes.

Capturing the ‘am’ of a great thinker

MANY people will be familiar with the most familiar image of French philosopher Rene Descartes. It depicts the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with long dark hair, a moustache and a small beard under his lip.

He has a starched white collar that is folded over a black coat in the manner of 17th-century Dutch burghers. A strong aquiline nose and eyes with lids that seem about to cover them mark a face that gazes out at us a little quizzically.

Frans Hals, the great Dutch painter, once had Descartes sit for him. Was the portrait lost? Or did he simply do something small and quick, a portrait composed of short, broad strokes of paint applied roughly? We do not know for sure about a lost, full portrait, but we know the small one because it hangs in a museum in Copenhagen, and has been copied many times.

Steven Nadler’s charming introduction to Descartes begins with an evocation of Hals’s portrait of the philosopher, and the whole book is itself an intimate portrait of the man and his times. More exactly, it tells the story of how the portrait came to be painted.

[Read the complete article at The Australian]

Bretton Woods Today

In a new article on The Money Trap based on Benn Steil’s round table at CSFI, Bretton Woods as described in The Battle of Bretton Woods is put into today’s context. What are the differences between Bretton Woods in the 1940s and the economic climate today? Take a look:

The Battle of Bretton Woods: Why it’s relevant today

Yesterday I kicked off a round-table discussion organised by the CSFI of Benn Steil’s new book which carries this title. This is what I said.

Benn Steil starts this stimulating book by poking fun at those politicians and others who have, in recent years, called for “a new Bretton Woods”. They have all been disillusioned.

Indeed, to call for a new BW is to invite derision. It is easy to explain why. Those who talk about a new BW look as if they are driven by nostalgia for a golden age – the 1950s and early 1960s – a period which, as Benn says, was briefer and more fraught than is often thought – at most it lasted for about 10 years to the mid 1960s. But the reason why such calls are made so repeatedly does not just reflect a desire to recapture a lost innocence. It also reflects fear of the future – our sense of foreboding. We have a non-system. There are no agreed international rules governing exchange rates and other key dimensions of international monetary relations. We rightly fear that, in the absence of agreed rules, national policies could easily degenerate into the law of the jungle – everybody for himself, where the collective interest would be sacrificed.


It is this recurring nightmare that haunts our visions today, as it did for the architects of the so-called BW system in the 1940s. This is what makes the comparison between then and now so interesting.


So, to kick off the discussion I would like to use the story Benn tells to illustrate a few of the similarities between the world that he recreates – the world as seen though the eyes of monetary thinkers and planners of the 1940s – and our own. I will then pinpoint one big difference. (To be clear, these are themes I find in Steil’s book – but the comparison with today are my own).


Themes that resonate today

I pick out five:

1. Arguments between debtor and creditor countries. 
In one corner, you have the spokesman for the debtors – ailing Maynard Keynes,the designer of the British plan for post-war monetary cooperation and leader of the negotiations on US financial assistance to Great Britain (GB), like GB spending his last reserves in a fight for justice. In the other corner you have an implacable creditor – a foe masquerading as a friend – in the person of Harry White of the US Treasury with his rival plan (Indeed, the book might have been subtitled “The Ugly American meets Brideshead Revisited”). Keynes’s eloquence in defence of the debtors and in favour of sanctions on an unyielding creditor find an uncanny echo in the way US spokesman castigate China for its refusal to adjust. The roles have been reversed, with the spokesmen for the new surplus countries like China now saying very similar things about the US as the US said about Britain in the 1940s. The general American view was that all the UK wanted from the IMF was a cheap source of credit underwritten by the US. Britain was portrayed as profligate, just as the US is today by China. The achievement of Bretton Woods was to find a language to express such differences – a language of mutual adjustment and conditional assistance – that did not just amount to finger-pointing.

2. The  weapon of debtors. They have the threat to walk away from the table – default, throw their toys out of the bath. The US bullied weak and impoverished GB during and after the war. It wanted to take over UK assets on the cheap. It wanted to move the financial leadership of the world from London to Washington DC. It wanted to eliminate permanently any possibility of sterling to be a rival to the dollar sterling. But it also needed GB’s consent to the new world order. Without GB’s agreement, the US would not have Bretton Woods, which was intended to provide a cooperative wrapping for US power – a velvet glove for the iron fist of military and political hegemony. Through agreement with the principal debtor country, the US obtained a means for enforcing its way of doing things, its view of correct behaviour, on the world. It wanted to build a system where the world would be invited “voluntarily” to finance its neo-imperial ambitions. Now again the roles are reversed; it is the US – as the largest debtor – that the new creditors will need to persuade to acquiesce in their new world order – when they start to articulate it. It is now the US that, like GB 70 years ago, lives in a cloud of illusions. It is the US that threatens default – that has in effect already defaulted.

3. Lack of an agreed mechanism of adjustment
. Without agreed rules, norms and proceedures governing international monetary relations, there is no way of bringing the collective interest to bear – at least in any rigorous and sustained way – on individual national policies. The architects of Bretton Woods recognised this and tried to solve it by institutionalising international cooperation through the IMF. They created a mechanism that combined short-term financial assistance with an arrangement to correct longer-term imbalances by changing the exchange rate. But it was always difficult to apply these rules to large countries and since the breakdown of Bretton Woods in 1971 the effort to use group pressure to discipline any large country has failed. This lack of an agreed adjustment mechanism means that we again run the constant risk, as in the 1930s, of competitive currency depreciations.

4, The relationship between governments and financial markets also bears comparison. Keynes and White, with the backing of the US government  – especially Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau and President Roosevel – were determined to bring private finance to heel. They wanted make bankers submit to democratic, politically-determined rules and the rule of experts. They wanted “to drive speculators from the temple of international finance”. We face similar challenges today from too-big-to-fail banks, shadow banking, and financial innovation. But what tools can we use? In the 1940s, there were no qualms about using phyisical controls, such as exchange restructions, controls oncapital movements, state direction of credit. Keynes and White believed in state planning. We don’t. So the question, exactly how can governments control private finance without throttling the life out of it, remains open.

(It is ironic, by the way, that US bankers vigorously opposed Bretton Woods – yet one of the fund’s main tasks in the past 30 years has been lending to countries experiencing capital outflows to permit them to service debt to large banks.)

5. Lack of academic consensus on the way forward; then as now, Keynes looms large, but he had opponents from Hayek downwards and today opinion remains split, above all on exchange rate policy. Now most economists favour flexible exchange rates; indeed, many think we need more flexibility; but in Europe 17 countries have opted to join not just a fixed rate system but a monetary union and are making huge sacrifices to keep it going. Many others in effect peg to the dollar or the euro. Some economists favour currency boards or heavily managed rates. Despite obvious huge differences in the geo-political context, and the institutional environment, the lack of an academic consensus on exchange rate policies, as on other elements of the IMS, hampers progress.


But this is where there is such an opportunity. 

What both Keynes and White did in their quite different ways was to make a convincing political case for linking domestic economic difficulties – the Great Depression – with lack of a coherent international order and international money. That is brought out well in Benn’s book. It is the kind of narrative missing today.



The biggest difference between then and now is that at Bretton Woods an anchor was already in place with the dollar fixed at $35 an ounce, the rate chosen by President Roosevelt in January 1934. Bretton Woods merely put clothes on a structure whose most important element was already in place. Indeed, it is President Roosevelt who has the strongest claim to be the unwitting architect of what came to be called BW, but would be better called an anchored dollar system. We don’t have an anchor today. Nobody has any idea what the price level in any country will be in five or ten years time. Prices could be lower than today, or twice what they are today. The world price level is indeterminate. In that respect we are starting from a worse position that Keynes and White did.


Keynes had the last laugh

Finally, on Benn’s main theme – how the tough, wily, arrogant, rude, duplicitous Soviet informer and agent White outmanouvred the sickly, silver-tongued British patriot – I take a rather different view.

 It was Keynes who has had the last laugh. For a start, at least since 1971 the IMF has more closely resembled the Keynesian rather than Whitean vision – like it or not, the Fund’s main role has been as a source of credit. Conditionality – which Keynes fought against though he recognised the need to protect the Fund’s resources – has become more flexible. The Fund’s resources – and so its ability to support countries in difficulties – have vastly increased to an extent that would have horrified Harry White. A country can devalue without seeking IMF approval, as Keynes wanted.

We remember Bretton Woods for Keynes’s not White’s contribution. We hold to the vision that Keynes articulated of a global international monetary system that would provide an appropriate mix of national discretion and external discipline. We remember Keynes’s articulation of a symmetrical system that would apply discipline equally on creditors and debtors. We remember his “new-fangled” creation, the bancor, the benchmark for all proposals for super-sovereign currencies.

Above all, we honour Keynes for insisting on – and demonstrating – the connection between a good international monetary system and good domestic policies.

Bretton Woods was a successful conference because it went beyond business as usual in a practical way, reflecting a revolution in ideas that he brought about. That is what we need today.

18 December 1945, Keynes opened the second day’s debate in the House of Lords on the Bretton Woods and US loan agreements legislation with a passionate plea for his handiwork:

The proposals were, he said, an attempt “to use what we have learnt from modern experience and analysis, not to defeat, but to implement the wisdom of Adam Smith..We are attempting a great step forward towards the goal of international economic order amidst national diversities of policies….Fresh tasks now invite. Opinions have been successfully changed. The work of destruction has been accomplished and the site has been cleared for a new structure”.

Robert Skidelsky labels this as the greatest of all Keynes’s public speeches. Indeed, Skidelsky suggests, perhaps it is in the realm of rhetoric that Keynes’s true greatness lies. Benn Steil also refers to his great rhetorical powers.  Somehow, this rhetoric still echoes to us, still resonates…Benn’s book brings it alive for a new generation.

The big lesson for us is this: no country can get out of this recession by itrs own unaided efforts.