Banned Books Week: Remembering David Tod Roy & The Plum in the Golden Vase

Over the course of history and across cultures, books have been banned for various reasons: religious and political, sexual and social. From the Princeton University Press archives, perhaps none is more remarkable than The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. Equally remarkable is the book’s translator: Crowning nearly 50 years of scholarship, the late David Tod Roy published the fifth and final volume of his masterful translation of this ‘banned book’ in 2013, and I had the pleasure of working as his publicist. The culmination of this project marked the pinnacle of David’s career, one that too sadly coincided with his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In spite of his physical decline, David was wonderfully engaged and engaging during the months following the book’s publication, as interview requests poured in from The New York Times and beyond. He spoke thoughtfully about his lifelong love of Chinese literature, his adventurous youth as the child of Presbyterian missionaries in China, and what exactly led him to open up The Plum in the Golden Vase for the first time (Hint: it’s a pretty racy read).

Written anonymously, the late sixteenth-century novel that became Roy’s lifelong work is a jewel of Ming-era Chinese literature, presenting an impressively detailed picture of daily Chinese life. Famous for its unprecedented eroticism, the book was described by David Marche in the LA Review of Books as “Jane Austen meets hard-core pornography.” It will come as no surprise that the book was long banned, restricted to high officials in the Chinese government, had its erotic content edited out, or replaced with Latin. The interviews David Roy did about the book before his recent death, this one for the Tableau, touch on its history of censorship:

The Chin P’ing Mei has been banned by various Chinese governments ever since it first appeared, including that of Mao Zedong. Interestingly, Mao’s diary indicated that he was an avid fan of the novel and thought it was a profound work, but he didn’t want his citizens to read it. One edition was published under Mao’s aegis, but it was restricted only to upper levels of the Communist party.

Though the novel is about more than sex—it is also considered significant for its absence of mythical heroes, attention to female psychology, and depiction of everyday life—the level of eroticism in the book has been surprising even to modern day readers. On the occasion of the release of Roy’s translation, the New York Times wrote:

“When I taught it, my students were flabbergasted, even though they knew about the novel’s reputation,” said Patricia Sieber, a professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University. “S-and-M, the use of unusual objects as sex toys, excessive use of aphrodisiacs, sex under all kinds of nefarious circumstances — you name it, it’s all there.”

The book’s pornographic reputation attracted a teenage Roy, but his translation, a three-decade project, reflects a lifelong fascination with Chinese literature and is celebrated today for its exhaustive research that includes 4,400 endnotes. Its publication in 2013 marked a major personal achievement for Roy and a historic publishing event for PUP. As for the book’s availability in modern China, Roy said:

Now the book is available, but it’s not always easy to obtain. Since Mao’s death there has been a flood of scholarship in Chinese on the Chin P’ing Mei; there is even a periodical on Chin P’ing Mei studies. I’ve drawn heavily on that material, but I’ve actually discovered quite a few sources that haven’t been identified yet by Chinese scholars.

You can read more about The Plum in the Golden Vase here, and more about the book’s illustrations on our design Tumblr.

A University of Chicago memorial service will be held for David Tod Roy in October.

Plum

Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.

And…?

It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.

Singer

 

An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics

Westacott

Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.

The search for deep life on Earth… and what it means for Mars

Onstott_Deep LifeThe living inhabitants of the soil and seas are well known to biologists. We have long studied their food chains, charted their migration, and speculated about their evolutionary origins. But a mile down an unused tunnel in the Beatrix mine in South Africa, Tullis C. Onstott, Professor of Geosciences at Princeton and author of Deep Life, is on a quest for mysterious bacteria and microbes that require neither oxygen nor sun to survive. When they open up an old valve, water full of microbes and even little worms flows—a discovery with stunning implications. The New York Times has chronicled Onstott’s research in a feature that asks, was there ever life on Mars? And could it still exist far below the surface? That organisms are nourished by our own earth’s core, thriving in darkness encased in hard rock provides major insights:

The same conditions almost certainly exist on Mars. Drill a hole there, drop these organisms in, and they might happily multiply, fueled by chemical reactions in the rocks and drips of water.

“As long as you can get below the ice, no problems,” Dr. Onstott said. “They just need a little bit of water.”

But if life that arose on the surface of Mars billions of years ago indeed migrated underground, how long could it have survived, and more to the point, how can it be found? Kenneth Chang writes:

If life is deep underground, robotic spacecraft would not find them easily. NASA’s InSight spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will carry an instrument that can burrow 16 feet into the ground, but it is essentially just a thermometer to measure the flow of heat to the surface. NASA’s next rover, launching in 2020, is largely a clone of Curiosity with different experiments. It will drill rock samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission, but those samples will be from rocks at the surface.

In the meantime, what can we learn deep in Earth’s mines? What do we know now about the energy required to sustain life underground? As Chang notes, if Beatrix is a guide, methane could be the answer:

As NASA’s Curiosity rover drove across Gale Crater a couple of years ago, it too detected a burp of methane that lasted a couple of months. But it has not detected any burps since.

Perhaps an underground population of methanogens and methanotrophs is creating, then destroying methane quickly, accounting for its sudden appearance and disappearance from the atmosphere. If Beatrix is a guide, the methane could be providing the energy for many other microbes.

Conventional wisdom is that Martian life, if it exists, would be limited to microbes. But that too is a guess. In the South African mine, the researchers also discovered a species of tiny worms eating the bacteria.
“It’s like Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” Dr. Onstott said. “It was a big surprise to find something that big in a tiny fracture of a rock. The fact it would be down there in such a confined space slithering around is pretty amazing.”

A full account of Dr. Onstott’s work appears in the New York Times feature, Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths.

Read more about Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars, and Beyond here.

Princeton University Press is on Instagram!

Princeton University Press is excited to announce a presence on Instagram, where we’ll be featuring posts on our most visually compelling books, award-winning design, new offerings from our art and architecture list, publishing stories and more. Follow us at @PrincetonUPress !

 

 

The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff (Part II)

Rogoff

This is the second installment of a two-part interview with economist Kenneth Rogoff on his new book, The Curse of Cash. Read the first part here.

Your new book advocates a “less cash” society, phasing out all paper currency notes over (roughly) $10, and in due time even replacing those notes with large coins.(You observe that notes of $10 or less account for only 3% of the US currency supply). How will getting rid of the vast majority of all paper currency help central banks fight financial crises?

KR: It will allow central banks to engage in much more aggressive stimulus with unfettered and open-ended negative interest rate policies, without running up against the “zero lower bound” on interest rates, a bound that exists because cash pays a zero return that any bond has to match. There are other ways to stimulate the economy at the zero bound, some quite elegant, but phasing out cash is simplest and more robust solution. If only large bills are phased out, people could in principle hoard smaller ones, but the cost is far greater (allowing rates to be much more negative), and in extreme circumstances, the government can place other restrictions on redepositing cash into the banking system.

How do negative interest rates work?

KR: The idea behind negative interest rates is simple: they give money that has been hibernating in the banking system a kick in the pants to get it out into the economy to stimulate demand thereby pushing up inflation and output. If successful, negative interest policy could end up being very short-lived because as demand and inflation rise, so too will market interest rates. In other words, if there were no obstacles, central banks could use negative interest rate policy to push down very short term interest rates, but at the same time longer term interest rates would actually rise because people would start to again expect normal levels of inflation and inflation risk. If you are worried about your pension then, on balance, this would be a very good trade.

Are negative rates the main reason to phase out cash?

KR: There are other very clever ways to introduce negative rates without phasing out cash, and the book explains these at length, with one especially clever idea in having its roots in the practices of the Mongol empire of Marco Polo’s time. In any event, the case for drastically scaling back paper currency is very strong even if the central bank is proscribed from setting negative rates. That would be mistake, as negative rates are a valuable tool. In any event, because phasing out cash opens the door wide to negative rates, it makes sense to treat the two topics in any integrative fashion as we do in this book.

Haven’t the early returns on negative interest rates been mixed?

KR: Some central banks have tiptoed into negative interest policy already, but they can only move so far before investors start to hoard cash, hampering the effectiveness of negative interest rates. If negative interest rates were open-ended, central banks could decisively shift expectations without necessarily having to go to extreme lengths.

Aren’t negative rates bad for financial stability?

KR: Not necessarily, because open-ended negative rate policy would allow central banks to turbocharge out of deflation, so that the low interest rate period would be relatively short-lived. The existing regime, where rates have been stuck at zero for many years at a time, likely presents far more risk to financial stability.

Is expanding the scope for negative interest rates really worth the trouble if the next big financial crisis isn’t expected to occur for many decades?

KR: Well, first of all, the next major financial crisis might come a lot sooner than that. Besides, the option of negative interest rates might matter even for the next “normal” recession if the general level of world interest rates remains as low as it has been in recent years. Clearing the way for open ended negative interest rate policy would not only help make monetary policy more effective, it would clear that air of a lot of dubious policy suggestions that would be extremely damaging in the long run. Too often, the zero bound is used as an excuse to advance politically motivated policies that might or not be a good idea, but should be evaluated on their own merits.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff

Rogoff

What if cash is making us poor?

Called a “fascinating and important book” by Ben Bernanke, The Curse of Cash by leading economist Kenneth Rogoff argues that cash is making us poorer while fueling a corrupt underground economy on a global scale. Even as advanced economies are using less paper money, the amount of cash in circulation is on the rise, a reality Rogoff says feeds terrorism, tax evasion, and human trafficking, among other nefarious activities. Rogoff’s case for eliminating most paper currency is sure to stir serious debate. Recently we asked him to comment on his book and the reasons for his position.

Why do you think paper currency can be a “curse?”

KR: The big problem with paper currency is that a large part of it is used to facilitate tax evasion and a huge spectrum of criminal activities, including drugs, corruption, human trafficking, etc. Most people don’t realize the sheer scale of currency outstanding, over $4200 for every man, woman and child in the United States, with 80% in 100 dollar bills. The vast bulk is unaccounted for; it is not in cash registers or bank vaults. The phenomenon is the same across virtually all advanced economies. The dollar is not special in this regard.

Won’t the government be losing out on huge profits from printing currency?

KR: Yes, governments delight in being able to pay for things by printing money, and the United States government earns tens of billions of dollars each year by doing so. But tax evasion, which is widely facilitated by the use of cash to hide transactions from authorities, costs government far more, in the hundreds of billions for the United States alone, and far more for Europe. If phasing out most paper currency reduces tax evasion and crime by say, 10%, the government should at least break even, and the overall gains to society will be far larger. This is not a quixotic attempt to end all crime and tax evasion, but simply the observation that earning profits by printing large denomination notes is penny wise and pound foolish, a point I first made in an academic paper almost two decades ago.

Are you arguing for phasing out all paper currency?

KR: No, for the foreseeable future, I am proposing a “less-cash” society, not a cashless society. My plan would leave smaller notes, say $10 and below, for an indefinite period. This will help mitigate concerns about privacy, power outages, and the continuing convenience of cash in some small scale transactions. Over the very long run (perhaps several decades), moderately heavy coins would be substituted for small bills to make it even more difficult to transport and conceal large quantities. This last piece is inspired by the experience of ancient China, where paper currency was introduced in part because lower-grade metals were used in coinage, and it proved burdensome to carry large amounts over long distances.

Are you advocating digital currencies such as Bitcoin instead of cash?

KR: Private digital currencies are, in fact, a complete non sequitur, though of course they need to be regulated. Drastically scaling back currency was already a good idea two decades ago when I first wrote on the topic. Credit cards, debit cards, checks and electronic transfers have long been far more important than cash in the legal economy for larger transactions. Today, the role of cash is dwindling even for smaller transactions.

If we get rid of most paper currency, won’t criminals and tax evaders find other ways around the system?

KR: Of course, but there are good reasons why cash is king in the global underground economy. There are other ways to launder money and hide income, but they do not offer the same safety or universal acceptance as cash.

Aren’t most dollars held abroad anyway?

KR: Overwhelmingly, the evidence is no, at least half of all dollars are held inside the United States, still more than $8000 per four-person family.

Do other countries have the same issue with huge amounts of currency outstanding or is the dollar unique?

KR: The US is no way unique, virtually every advanced country has a massive currency supply, some even larger than the United States. And in virtually all cases, the vast bulk is in very large denomination notes. Japan, for example, has issued over 50% more cash per capita than the US, with over 90% of it in 10,000 yen notes (roughly equivalent to the US $100 bill). T

What will happen to the poor in your “less-cash” society?

KR: The poor are not the ones accounting all the 100 dollar bills, but they are the ones suffering the most from crime and who stand to benefit the most if the government were more effective at collecting tax revenues. To facilitate financial inclusion, my plan calls for providing free basic debit card accounts; several other countries have already done this.

What about privacy from the government?

The continuing circulation of small bills will ameliorate privacy concerns to some extent.  The basically philosophy of this approach is that it should remain convenient for individuals to keep modest-size transactions completely private from the government, but for large transaction, the government’s right to tax, regulate and enforce laws trumps individual privacy considerations. I am making this argument on pragmatic, not moralistic grounds.  The current system just makes it too easy to do repeated large-scale illicit trades in cash with big bills.  Even after big bills are gone, there will still be many ways for ordinary citizens to conduct one-off high-value transactions with a significant degree of privacy.  These alternatives, however, are typically inferior to cash for repeated large-scale transactions, as risk of detection rises proportionately.

What about power outages, hurricanes, etc.?

KR: Again, the continuing circulation of small bills mitigates the issue. Other payment mechanisms, including via cell phones, are rapidly becoming more important in the aftermath of storms anyway, and there are a variety of backup technologies such as checks. In a sufficient profound power outage, ATM machines and cash registers will not work either, and the government will have to airlift cash and script regardless.

How will reducing the role of cash help deal with illegal immigration?

KR: Without paper currency, it would be vastly more difficult for employers to pay workers off the books, and sub-market wages. It would be more difficult for employers to avoid making social security tax contributions and to skirt labor laws. Phasing out paper currency is a far more humane way of channeling immigration through legal channels that some of the draconian methods being proposed, such as building giant walls and barbed wire fences. Remarkably, no one in the heated political debate on immigration seems to have quite realized this. Of course, any substantial phase-out of paper currency would take place of a very long period, perhaps 10-15 years, giving a long runway for policy to help existing immigrants.

If the US gets rid of large denomination, won’t other countries just fill in the void and supply their large notes to the world underground economy?

KR: The gains from reducing domestic tax evasion and crime still should make it a big win, even though the US would forgo profits earned from supply the global underground economy, including for example, Colombian rebels, Russian oligarchs and Mexican drug lords. Europe might profit if the euro becomes more popular, but frankly Eurozone countries have much larger underground economies than the United States, and thus even more incentive to phase out paper currency. By the way, foreign notes will hardly fill the void in the United States underground economy. There are already strict reporting requirements on banks and financial firms, and there already exits limits on taking cash in and out of the country. Any alternative currency that cannot easily be spent and recycled in the legal economy will be costly to use and sell at steep discount.

Is it realistic to think cash will ever get phased out?

KR: In fact, the Scandinavian countries are already far along the path, and have successfully negotiated many of the practical concerns that have been raised, for example now to give money to indigent individuals on the street. Sweden is particularly far along. Several countries, including Canada, Sweden, the European Central Bank and Singapore have already taken action to phase out their largest denomination notes, very much in response to concerns about their role in tax evasion and crime.

Part 2 of this interview with Kenneth Rogoff will appear tomorrow.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

PUP Publicist Colleen Boyle highlights our Fall list on C-Span

Our publicist extraordinaire Colleen Boyle recently spoke to C-Span’s Book TV about some of our lead titles, including Ken Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash, Roger Penrose’s Fashion, Faith and Fantasy, and Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, all forthcoming this September.

Check out the full interview about these and other forthcoming PUP titles on C-SPAN!

Rogoff

Penrose

Welcome to the Universe

A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

Time Magazine calls Robert Gordon the new Thomas Piketty

GordonHave you discovered “the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must-read of the year”?  Writing for Time Magazine, Rana Foroohar takes to heart economist Robert Gordon’s claim that the big payoff from the digital revolution has already come and gone. Foroohar suggests that if Gordon’s New York Times bestselling book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth and other cautionary titles like Revenge of the Analog are any indication, the hubris of Silicon Valley may be far less warranted than we’ve come to believe. Foroohar writes:

Beyond a mere surge of Silicon schaedenfreude, there is a significant debate going on about the effects of technology, about whether the digital revolution has made us better off (socially) and by how much (economically). Academic Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must read of the year, is gaining traction in policy circles with a persuasive argument that the inventions that drove growth and productivity over the last 100 years or so weren’t the personal computer or the Internet, but the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing and electricity.

Gordon’s research shows that the Industrial Revolution had a much bigger effect on economic growth than the PC, the iPhone, or any other gadget. Indeed, his book points out that productivity growth actually began shrinking after the 1970s, which is when digital technology really began to take off. His conclusion: unless the techno-optimists come up with some really seismic invention quickly, our children are likely to be worse off economically.

Read the full piece in Time Magazine here.

Robert J. Gordon is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University. His books include Productivity Growth, Inflation, and Unemployment and Macroeconomics. Gordon was included in the 2013 Bloomberg list of the nation’s most influential thinkers.

 

Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.