Frederick Cooper on Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference

CooperCitizenship, Inequality, and Difference offers a concise and sweeping overview of citizenship’s complex evolution, from ancient Rome to the present. Political leaders and thinkers still debate, as they did in Republican Rome, whether the presumed equivalence of citizens is compatible with cultural diversity and economic inequality. Frederick Cooper presents citizenship as “claim-making”—the assertion of rights in a political entity. What those rights should be and to whom they should apply have long been subjects for discussion and political mobilization, while the kind of political entity in which claims and counterclaims have been made has varied over time and space. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is a historically based reflection on some of the most fundamental issues facing human societies in the past and present.

What are the biggest differences between how citizenship is understood today versus how it was understood in ancient Rome?

Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is both an historical panorama and an essay about politics today. As a twentieth-century specialist, I found that beginning with the Roman Empire was quite a challenge. Fortunately, citizenship is as essential a question for historians of Rome as it is for scholars of present-day politics. In both instances, citizenship was less a precisely defined juridical notion than a framework for political action, for claim-making. For the Roman elite, citizenship was an incorporative notion, a means of giving people, including those conquered by military means, a stake in an expanding imperial system. Citizenship under the Roman Republic entailed a voice in political assemblies as well as the right to serve in a Roman legion and to have legal cases tried in a Roman court. The egalitarian dimension of citizenship was in tension with the accumulation of power and wealth by an elite, and such tensions have their echoes into the twenty-first century. When Rome became a monarchy, citizens’ political voice was attenuated—although not entirely eliminated—but citizenship still provided juridical protection. In AD 212 citizenship was extended to all male, non-slave inhabitants of the entire empire. When we talk about the word and the concept of citizenship today as having roots in classical times, we are thus talking about “imperial citizenship,” a concept centered on a diverse polity rather than a homogeneous national society.

Readers might be surprised that imperial citizenship was a focus of debate in the mid-twentieth century. The French government (and less directly the British one) tried to give empire a renewed  legitimacy after World War II by extending citizenship rights to the inhabitants of colonies. French African activists seized on citizenship to claim social, economic, and political equality. Their claims included the right to settle in the metropole, and here we find the roots of the multicultural societies now found in France and Britain, with all their possibilities and problems.

The long-time perspective thus puts into question the idea that citizenship is essentially a national concept. People have claimed rights—and have tried to expand those rights—in a variety of political contexts, bigger than territorially bounded states and smaller as well. Today, citizenship is often associated with a set of rights, but in countries like China, Turkey, and Egypt rights claims are met with strong resistance from rulers. Since the early twentieth-century, citizenship, particularly in Europe, entailed social rights—a right to protection from the state against the risks of old age, illness, and unemployment—but social rights are everywhere under threat. So the usefulness of going back to Rome in thinking about citizenship in today’s world is not so much to find the origins of a certain set of norms or practices as to lay out a terrain of political contestation, where the consequences of incorporation of diverse peoples into a political unit is set against assertion of cultural specificity, where egalitarian ideals conflict with concentrations of wealth and power, where the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion of different categories of people from the body politic are argued and sometimes fought over.

How have different societies reconciled inequality of power among individuals with the equality of status offered by citizenship?

Citizenship in itself doesn’t posit that citizens should be equal in all senses of the term, but because it emphasizes that people belong as a body to a political unit it does imply that there is a relationship of citizens to each other as well as citizens to a ruler or to a state. That opens the door for debates within the construct of citizenship over how much inequality among citizens is acceptable. In Republican Rome, the controversy among writers was about the dangers of oligarchy and greed. In the French Revolution, the new political language emphasizing “nation” and “popular sovereignty” quickly revealed tensions that were not resolved: between the rights of every citizen to equal participation in society and the right to property which implied differences in resources, between popular sovereignty and the exclusion of women from the vote, and between the insistence that overseas colonies were “French” but that most people living there could legitimately remain without rights. Indeed, the idea of popular sovereignty made the policing of the boundaries of citizenship a more acute issue than it had been. In newly independent countries in the Americas as well as French, British, and Spanish colonies, slavery and the status of indigenous peoples—as well as the exclusion of many people from full citizenship on grounds of origins, color, gender, culture, and religion—confronted what seemed to be the fundamental tenets of the political regime.  When territories in Africa and Asia were forcefully incorporated into empires, millions of people were forced into a situation where they were “French” or “British” but were excluded from citizenship. In Europe itself, the mobilization of workers, the development of socialist parties, and the beginnings of welfare policies provoked debates over how much inequality was acceptable among citizens and between citizens and others in the territory. When empire itself came under fire, the debate was not just about political rights, but social and economic rights. Because citizenship as a principle—not just one’s own rights—was in question, some intellectuals and activists argued that whatever rights it entailed should be universal, that the notion of “belonging” had to be pushed upward to include all of humankind as a rights-bearing community. That by the 1970s, with the end of colonial empires, almost all of the world’s population was a citizen of someplace both continued and recast long-standing debates over how much inequality was tolerable within and among sovereign states. And the more universal the concept of citizenship became, the more the situation of people who did not fit into a citizenship regime became a source of tension—people like Palestinians, Kurds, or Rohingya, as well as refugees or economic migrants. The relationship of citizenship and equality has been a part of political thought and political action for a very long time, but in shifting ways.

How did the collapse of empire affect ideas of what it means to be a citizen?

The collapse of empires in the mid-twentieth century entailed a reimagining of history based on a vision of a well-defined society moving as a unit through time.  Not only did elite intellectuals of new states in Africa and Asia carved out of colonial empires try to naturalize the nations they were forging, but elites of France, Britain, and other imperial powers tried to project backwards their national identification onto an imperial past. They not only sought to obscure the violence and exploitation that was part of empire building, but also to deny the incorporative dimension of empire, which they had recently tried to promote. They feared that ex-citizens or recent migrants from former colonies would find in the imperial past a basis for making claims.

What changed when citizenship began to be thought of as a birthright for the inhabitants of a given nation rather than an exclusive status conferred upon individuals who meet a certain set of criteria?

Some scholars have pointed out the limits of “birthright citizenship”—that the luck of being born in a particular place shapes, more than anything an individual can control, a person’s fate. But remedies to birthright citizenship might be even worse than the disease—insisting that people merit their citizenship, making people’s rights subject to invidious distinction-making, to exclusionary notions of who really belongs where. In actual practice, legal regimes have tried various mixtures of jus soli—citizenship based on place of birth—and jus sanguinis—citizenship based on descent from a recognized citizen. The first can be arbitrary, the second exclusionary. We don’t want to lose the sense of common belonging and collective well-being that we share with our fellow citizens. Nor should we lose awareness of the fact that our collectivity was built out of the mixing of people of different origins, that we live among people some of whom resemble us and some of whom do not, and that our well-being depends on interaction with people across as well as within political boundaries. Since neither a rigid politics of national identity nor an amorphous notion of globality corresponds to the reality of today’s world, we need to think in nuanced ways about problems of immigration and integration in our own countries and about the conditions in which people in other parts of the world live.

How did you approach writing this book?

In much of my career, I have liked to change focal lengths: to do archivally-based research on a well-bounded topic and to write about general issues of history and theory in the social sciences. My Princeton book Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 falls into the first category, and the present book, along with Empires in World History:  Power and the Politics of Difference, co-authored with Jane Burbank, falls into the second. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference began as a series of lectures, and in turning them into a book I tried to retain the sense of an extended reflection on an issue that is as much a concern of today’s politics as it is a subject of historical interest. Writing in such different genres helps to avoid the pitfalls of either. Immersion in the particulars of historical situations helps focus not only on the limited knowledge on which generalizations are based, but also on the uncertainties and contingencies with which people lived. The temptation is usually to start an historical story at its end point, to see how we got where we are, to write off paths not taken and dead ends.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of historical research enables us to reconstruct the hopes, despairs, possibilities, and constraints, in which history was made. At the same time, immersion in the particular can mask the large spatial and temporal scale at which important actors operate.  Moving back and forth between archival research and theoretical reflections, between small and large scales of time and space, while following connections with their extensions and their limits and looking at continuities and evolutionary changes as well as moments of radical transformation seems to me a way to explore the possibilities and limitations of history writing.

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this book?

Citizenship is both a powerful and fragile notion. Thinking about citizenship historically confronts us with the salience of the choices that we face today, as in the past. We have seen that from the early Roman Empire onward the commonality of citizens coexisted with social hierarchy and political oligarchy. They coexisted uneasily, for citizenship provided a framework for contestation, for some to push for greater equality and for others to use their resources to maintain and enhance their privileges. Citizenship has been an incorporative and an exclusionary notion. Today, we are confronting a world economy that offers a high degree of mobility to commodities and capital, and that fact provides a rationale—if not a reason—for the governments of the most privileged countries in Europe to erode the hard-won social benefits that citizenship has provided. Meanwhile, the closures of national citizenship tempt many people to scapegoat immigrants rather than confront the basic structures of inequality. In other parts of the world, we find citizens vigorously asserting their political rights against would-be dictators, and we see governments willing to kill or drive into exile millions of their citizens in order to preserve their power. Whether in today’s world citizens in different circumstances will be able to make good their claims by defending themselves within a strictly national framework is far from evident. An historical perspective on citizenship reminds us that we need to work with different kinds of political relationships at the same time, to define communities that live together and help each other without walling ourselves off from others. In the future as in the past we need to make our way in a world that is economically and social unequal, politically fragmented, culturally differentiated, and highly connected.

Frederick Cooper is professor of history at New York University. His many books include Empires in World History and Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.


What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

Insect of the Week: How to Make Your Yard More Firefly-Friendly

silent sparksYour neighborhood might have hundreds of fireflies, or maybe you have just a few. Perhaps you have none at all. No matter which, here are some simple things that will help make any yard more attractive to local fireflies.

Create an inviting habitat:
Fireflies need moisture during all of their life stages (that is, eggs, larvae, pupae and the adult).

  • Let the grass grow longer in parts of your lawn to help the soil hold more moisture.
  • Juvenile fireflies spend up to two years living underground, where they feed on earthworms and snails. If you leave some leaf litter and woody debris in the corners of your yard, this will help larval fireflies—and their prey—to thrive.
  • Female fireflies lay their eggs in moist, mossy places, so preserve any wetlands, streams, or ponds in your neighborhood.

Bring back the night:
Fireflies court using bioluminenscent flashes, so artificial lights that are too bright can interfere with their ability to find mates.

  • When installing or re-thinking your outdoor lighting, use only what you need to get the job done.
  • Use shielded lighting fixtures recommended by the International Dark-Sky Association; these direct light downward, where it’s most useful. Use bulbs as low-wattage as possible to provide just the light you need for safety and security.
  • Try turning off your outdoorlights, or put them on timers, particularly during firefly season.

Reduce pesticide use:
Because juveniles fireflies spend months living underground, they will come into contact with any insecticides spread on lawns and gardens. Broad-spectrum insecticides like malathion and diazinon will kill whatever insects they contact, including fireflies.

  • Consider using organic or least-toxic practices and products on your lawn and garden. Avoid broad-spectrum insecticides – use horticultural oils or insecticidal bacteria like Bt designed to target specific pests.
  • Apply pesticides to treat specific pest problems, never routinely.
  • Don’t use Weed & Feed or similar products that contain 2,4-D, which has been shown to be toxic to earthworms and beetles like ladybugs.

As I describe in Silent Sparks, our scientific understanding of firefly biology and habitat requirements has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Such knowledge now provides a powerful tool for protecting fireflies. And of course, we can all work to preserve and restore the wild places where fireflies thrive – their fields and forests, their mangoves and meadows. We all dream about the kind of world we want our children to inherit. Let’s make certain the magical sparkle of fireflies will continue to be part of their world.

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 



Eric Posner & Glen Weyl on Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society

Radical MarketsMany blame today’s economic inequality, stagnation, and political instability on the free market. The solution is to rein in the market, right? Radical Markets turns this thinking—and pretty much all conventional thinking about markets, both for and against—on its head. The book reveals bold new ways to organize markets for the good of everyone. It shows how the emancipatory force of genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation. Only by radically expanding the scope of markets can we reduce inequality, restore robust economic growth, and resolve political conflicts. But to do that, we must replace our most sacred institutions with truly free and open competition—Radical Markets shows how. Read on for an interview between the two authors. 

Eric: I’ve never thought of myself as a radical, yet our book is called Radical Markets. Is this a marketing gimmick or are the ideas really radical?

Glen: Our proposals seem pretty radical to me. In our scheme, private property turns into a kind of an auction, so there would be a price on most property all the time and the benefits would flow equally to all citizens, eliminating most inequality of wealth.  The conventional system of democracy—one-person-one-vote and judicial protection of most minority rights—would turn into a market-based system of trading voice credits and using them to buy votes. The current immigration bureaucracy would be radically decentralized, as ordinary people would take over sponsorship of migrant workers. There are certainly ideas more radical than these, but not many that you hear discussed seriously by our academic colleagues.

Eric: Yet, unlike true radicals, we urge a go-slow approach. Test things out, we say. Things could go wrong, we warn. And then we claim to be in favor of markets. That doesn’t sound like Saint-Simon or Marx. Sure, enough our book is #1 on Amazon in the category of libertarianism, though neither of us think of ourselves as libertarians.

Glen: True revolutions occur in slow motion; they begin with ideas. Democracy is a revolutionary idea in a world of kingdoms; it did not happen overnight. Unions began as working men’s associations and only gradually gained power and state sanction. Even Saint-Simon inspired small-scale utopian communities. Revolutions that move rapidly to take over a whole society, like the French or Russian, usually quickly determine they didn’t have their plans fleshed out and end in chaos or greater tyranny than the system they replaced. We have radical, even revolutionary, aims, but we want the changes we propose to stick and that will only happen if they are fully developed, their weaknesses exposed by experimentation.

Eric. I’m still not sure. I like the title because I’m a sucker for word play. The root of the word radical is, well, root. Being radical means getting to the root of things. I think we do that. A radical in math is the root of a number, and several of the ideas in the book have their origin in quadratic equations. And then there is the idea of radical as left-wing. Here, I’m not so sure. In fact, one of our goals is to appeal to people with different political views.

Glen: Well, radical doesn’t necessarily mean left wing, though I guess it depends how you define it.  In fact, The Economist defines its ideology as the “radical center.” To me, that sense of radical is more about favoring fundamental changes to the social order rather than, say, putting the government in charge of everything or redistributing wealth. In that sense, I think we are very much radicals

Eric: We even appeal to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. What could be less radical than that?

Glen: Adam Smith has an unfair reputation as a “conservative” these days only because his ideas were so successful. He put the finishing touches, intellectually at least, on the unthinking feudalism of the day. In fact, Smith helped found the first major political movement to identify itself as “Radical,” the Philosophical Radicals who are our inspiration. Not surprisingly, ideas that were radical in the eighteenth century can be reactionary in the twentieth, when Friedman wrote. But we give Friedman credit for seeing that central planning and a certain kind of bureaucratic mindset leads to a dead end.

Eric: And for market thinking: Friedman was right to emphasize the value of competition and exchange—essential features of market system—but, like many economists, took our system of property rights and politics for granted, as if thinking on these topics had stopped centuries ago. One way you can tell that you are being radical in an intellectual sense—the sense I care about—is that you find yourself being criticized by people with different political views. If you’re radical enough, people will get angry. We’ve already seen a bit of this. Immigrant advocates and alt-right types don’t agree on much, but they seem to be scandalized by our foreign worker proposal. I’ll be curious to see how people react to our other proposals.

Eric A. Posner is the Kirkland and Ellis Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His many books include Climate Change Justice. He lives in Chicago. E. Glen Weyl is principal researcher at Microsoft and visiting senior research scholar in economics and law at Yale University. He lives in Boston.

Matthias Doepke & Fabrizio Zilibotti: The economics of motherhood

EconomicsIn times of heightened economic anxiety, for many American families the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend will provide a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life. At least for this one day, love and the close bond between mothers and their children take center stage, and worries about money, careers, and other economic concerns are put on hold. Indeed, one reason that there is a special celebration for mothers is precisely that motherhood lacks the formal recognition that the market economy bestows on other activities: mothers do not draw official salaries, acquire fancy job titles, or advance within a corporate hierarchy. Instead, motherhood is an unpaid “labor of love,” and hence a phenomenon where the laws of economics seemingly do not apply.

Yet on closer inspection, even motherhood does have an undeniable economic dimension. To start, there is the economic impact of the celebration of Mother’s Day itself. Florists, greeting card companies, and restaurants serving brunch will do brisk business, and many consider the holiday at risk of becoming overly commercialized.

But the economic roots of motherhood go much deeper than that. Economic forces helped shape the role of motherhood in society, and are in large part responsible for two major transformations in how Western society conceives of the meaning and importance of motherhood.

The first of these transformations started with the Industrial Revolution, and continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mothers always had a special role in nurturing children, particularly so for the infants who needed to be breastfed. However, in earlier times the separation between the roles of mothers and fathers was less sharp than later on. Work and home life played out in the same place, say, the family’s farm or artisanal workshop, and children grew up in close proximity to both parents and other family members. Children also started to work from a young age, so that especially boys soon spent more time with their fathers than their mothers.

The Industrial Revolution sharpened the division between mothers’ and fathers’ roles in the family. The introduction of factories and the rise of commuting that followed the spread of railways and streetcars separated the work and home spheres. While men were pushed into the role of exclusive economic provider, women were expected to focus on the home. In addition, as the industrial economy created demand for workers who could read and write, providing children with a proper education became an important aim for most families, and the responsibility for this fell squarely on the mothers. The result was what historians term the “Cult of Domesticity,” a new value system that emphasized the role of women as mothers and educators and discouraged working outside the home.

While motherhood was idolized, mothers were also pushed out of the labor force. In addition to the new cultural norms against working mothers, outright discrimination such as the “marriage bars” that excluded married women from many professions also contributed to defining women more exclusively through their role as mothers. By the early twentieth century, it had become rare for married women with children to be working. It was in this era of idealized motherhood but also strictly separated roles for women and men that the current incarnation of the Mother’s Day holiday in the United States was created.

The second economic transformation of motherhood started with World War II and is still ongoing today. During the war, millions of mothers joined the labor force to support the war effort while the men were fighting overseas. The women of this “Rosie the Riveter” generation demonstrated that women’s contributions do not have to be limited to the home, and many of them found enjoyment and fulfillment in being in the labor force and gaining more independence.

After the war, the traditional division of labor was reestablished to some extent. But over time, more and more women decided to continue working even after marrying and having children, and by today most women, and most mothers, are in the labor force.

In large part, this transformation in the labor market was driven by technological change. Over time, the economy shifted from agriculture and manufacturing to services, eroding men’s traditional advantage in work that rewarded physical strength. Technological change also transformed the household: modern household appliances and market alternatives to home-produced goods such as day care centers and restaurants have reduced the time required to run the household and freed up time for work.

Today, motherhood is no longer defined exclusively through caring for children, but much more so through the “having it all” challenge of combining careers and family life. Nevertheless, the impact of the older role models and cultural norms can still be felt. Notably, time use data show that women continue to bear a disproportionate share of child care work and household chores.

Hence, despite the transformed meaning of motherhood in society, there are still good reasons for a special celebration of mothers. In addition to buying flowers and chocolates, men could do even better by expressing their gratitude through putting in equal time in child care and household chores, and not just on holidays.

By familiarizing themselves with the dishwasher, diapers, and their children’s clothing needs, men could prove to be truly ahead of their time. Economic trends will continue to shape the meaning of motherhood, and fatherhood, for the next generation. Women now graduate in much larger numbers from college than men do, and in today’s knowledge economy that gives them an advantage. Women will soon be the main earners in a large fraction of families. Over time, cultural norms will adjust to this change. The current model of mothers doing most of the household work in exchange for a once-a-year celebration will gradually fade into memory, which is something to look forward to this Mother’s Day.

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Their new book, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in February 2019. 

W. Kip Viscusi on Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society

ViscusiLike it or not, sometimes we need to put a monetary value on people’s lives. In the past, government agencies used the financial “cost of death” to monetize the mortality risks of regulatory policies, but this method vastly undervalued life. Pricing Lives tells the story of how the government came to adopt an altogether different approach—the value of a statistical life, or VSL—and persuasively shows how its more widespread use could create a safer and more equitable society for everyone. In this book, Kip Viscusi provides a comprehensive look at all aspects of economic and policy efforts to price lives. Pricing Lives proposes sensible economic guideposts to foster more protective policies and greater levels of safety in the United States and throughout the world.

What do you mean by “pricing lives,” and where does this occur?

What we mean by pricing lives depends on the context. For the government’s risk and environmental regulation policies, the challenge is to determine how much we are willing to spend to prevent each expected fatality. The principal measure used to set this price is known as the value of a statistical life (VSL), or the amount society is willing to pay to prevent the risk of each statistical death. Companies also set an implicit price on life every time they make products that are not risk-free. Sometimes companies have assigned numerical amounts to the value of the fatalities that are prevented, though how they have done so is seriously flawed and has greatly undervalued life. There is also a role for pricing lives after fatalities have occurred. Regulatory agencies set the penalties that firms must pay for regulatory violations that led to the fatalities. The courts also set a price on lives in wrongful death cases in terms of the amount of compensation that must be paid to the decedent’s family after the death.

Why should there be any limit at all on what the government spends to save lives?

So long as resources are limited, we cannot make an unbounded commitment to a risk-free society. The practical issue is where to set these limits. In the 1980s, I was asked to settle a dispute between OMB and OSHA over the proposed hazard communication regulation. OMB had rejected the proposal, concluding that the costs exceeded the benefits. In my analysis of this debate, I introduced the VSL concept to government agencies. Doing so made the calculation of the benefits of risk regulations ten times more valuable than they were under the previous cost of death approach. It also led to the issuance of a regulation that previously had been rejected because it was viewed as being too costly. Although some government agencies were slow to adopt the higher VSL numbers, this approach is now the norm in government agencies. The VSL is the most important single number used in the evaluation of government regulatory policies.

Where can we get these values of a statistical life numbers?

The most reliable evidence is based on U.S. labor studies of the extra pay workers get for extra risk.  Suppose, for example, that a worker was paid $900 extra per year to face a risk of 1/10,000. Then, for a group of 10,000 workers, they would be paid $9 million (10,000 × $900) for the one expected death to their group. My current estimates of the VSL in the U.S. place this value at $10 million. Once people understand that the VSL greatly exceeds people’s earnings, the criticism that the approach is immoral generally diminishes. Instead, people wonder how people can value their lives by more than what they make. The reason for this surprisingly large value is that they are not buying out of the prospect of certain death. Instead, the VSL only pertains to very small risks of death that are much less costly to prevent.

What do other countries do? Does this U.S. labor market evidence have any pertinence to them?

Many other countries have also adopted the VSL approach, usually based on studies in which people are asked in interviews how much they are willing to pay for safety. Unfortunately, the VSL estimates that are used outside of the U.S. are very low—far lower than is warranted based on the income levels relative to the U.S. Even countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia greatly undervalue lives, with far greater disparities observed for many low-income countries. In this book, I present an approach for transferring the U.S. estimates to other countries, along with appropriate adjustments for income level differences. The estimates I provide for a wide range of countries will greatly increase the value placed on safety throughout the world.

Are there other factors, like age, that can affect the VSL?

What matters is people’s own willingness to pay to reduce risk. Unlike purported economic measures, such as the cost of death approach, people can still have a high VSL even if they are retired. As it turns out, the VSL rises over people’s lifetime, and then does decline somewhat, but it does not plummet with age. The VSL for those age 65 and over is very similar to that of people in their early 20s. There was a public outcry against the Environmental Protection Agency when it attempted an age adjustment that put “seniors on sale, 37% off.” Unfortunately, this age adjustment was not based on any U.S. labor market evidence but on a more speculative interview study from the United Kingdom. Typically, government policies have impacts across the entire population so that in most instances, relying on an average VSL is all that is needed. 

This whole idea of pricing lives sounds similar what businesses do when they decide how much to spend on product safety improvements. Do they get it right?

Unfortunately, companies historically have underpriced lives as well, as they have focused on how much they have to pay in court after a fatality rather than on how much it is worth to consumers to reduce the risk of death. Companies fell prey to the same cost of death approach that government agencies used to use. Jurors have expressed alarm after reviewing these corporate practices, sometimes levying punitive damages of $100 million or more against companies that have valued lives in this way. The result has been that most companies have abandoned such risk analyses altogether and now keep such deliberations secret, for fear of liability. In my book, I propose that companies adopt the VSL in their product safety decisions and that they be given legal protections to encourage responsible corporate risk analyses.

How is it that setting a finite price on life can provide “guideposts for a safer society?”

A properly set VSL raises rather than reduces the amounts that government agencies throughout the world assign to the prevention of fatality risks. Adoption of this approach for corporate risk decisions likewise would lead to safer products. In this book, I also advocate that the VSL be used to set penalties for regulatory violations leading to fatalities. Doing so would lead to an enormous increase in penalties by, for example, boosting penalties for job safety violations by a factor of 1,000. The courts similarly can use the VSL in both assessing product safety and setting damages in situations where deterring risky behavior is the concern. My proposed expansion of the application of the VSL will provide greater incentives for safety in all these contexts. What is particularly striking is that the single VSL number can serve multiple purposes and set the price on life in so many different situations.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.

David Vogel on California Greenin’

VogelOver the course of its 150-year history, California has successfully protected its scenic wilderness areas, restricted coastal oil drilling, regulated automobile emissions, preserved coastal access, improved energy efficiency, and, most recently, addressed global climate change. How has this state, more than any other, enacted so many innovative and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time? The first comprehensive look at California’s history of environmental leadership, California Greenin’ shows why the Golden State has been at the forefront in setting new environmental standards, often leading the rest of the nation. As environmental policy debates continue to grow more heated, California Greenin’ demonstrates that the Golden State’s impressive record of environmental accomplishments holds lessons not just for the country but for the world.

Why did you decide to focus your book on California?

Much has been written on every aspect of California’s environmental history. Books have been written on the state’s forests and wilderness areas, cars and air pollution in Los Angeles, oil drilling in southern California, the protection of the coast and the San Francisco Bay Area and, most recently, the state’s regulations to improve energy efficiency and stem the risks of global climate change. But no one had ever sought to answer what struck me as a central question, namely why has California long been the nation’s “greenest” state? I wrote this book to answer that question.

What are some important examples of California’s environmental leadership?

California enacted the world’s first emissions controls on automobiles and established the nation’s first coastal protection authority. Yosemite was the first protected wilderness in the United States and by 1890 three of nation’s four national parks were located in the state. California issued the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. Its greenhouse gas reduction targets are the most ambitious in the United States. Half of the nation’s rooftop solar installations are in California.

How do you account for the state’s long record of environmental innovation?

It traces back to California’s geography. The “Golden State” has an unusually beautiful natural environment. Its coastal area encompasses the best weather in the United States. It has a long and scenic coastline, miles of sand beaches, and inland there are the granite formations, rivers, lakes and valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The state’s forests contain the spectacular redwoods and sequoias, the largest and oldest living species on the planet. But every aspect of this attractive environment has been continually threatened by rapid economic development and population growth. It is in response to these threats that Californians have mobilized to protect the environmental amenities that they valued.

What is the “California effect?”

The “California effect” refers to the impact California has had in strengthening environmental protection outside its borders. The most important example is automotive emissions standards These were first introduced in California and then subsequently adopted by the federal government. Virtually all of the important innovations in emissions controls, such unleaded gasoline and the two-way catalytic convertor, originated in California and were then nationally mandated. California’s innovative greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles were subsequently adopted by the Obama Administration. Significantly, California is the only state permitted by the federal government to issue its own automotive regulations. Other states then have the option of adapting California’s more stringent standards and several states have chosen to do so.

What most surprised you in writing this book?

I was most struck by the role business has played in supporting environmental protection. Business has been traditionally viewed as the main opponent of stronger environmental standards. But in the case of California influential business interests have often actively backed stronger regulations  For example, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied to protect the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada mountains, while during the mid 20th century, the Los Angeles real estate community led the political struggle to reduce air pollution. Southern California’s shoreline property developers were the main opponents of coastal oil drilling. California’s renewable energy industry and clean tech investors have benefited from and been strong supporters of the state’s climate change initiatives. In sum, many business interests have recognized the economic benefits of placing the state on a greener growth trajectory.   

What practical lessons can other states learn from California?

The United States is a federal system in which states can play important policy roles. They have enormous potential to improve environmental quality. What other states can also learn from California is that regulations are more likely to be supported if they directly improve the quality of life of local communities, provide economic as well as environmental benefits, receive some business 6backing, and are administrated by competent public authorities. California’s example of regulatory leadership can and hopefully should be followed by other states.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

That protecting the environment and growing economically can go hand in hand. Since the 1860s California has consistently enacted the nation’s most stringent, comprehensive and innovative environmental standards and its economy is now the sixth largest in the worlds. Had it not made such vigorous efforts to protect its fragile natural environment, California would now be a much less desirable place to visit, to live to work, and to invest. California’s economy has benefited substantially from its environmental regulations. This can be true for all states as well.

David Vogel is professor emeritus in the Haas School of Business and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include The Politics of Precaution and The Market for Virtue.

Insect of the Week: Five Myths About Fireflies

silent sparksMyth #1. Fireflies are flies, and lightningbugs are bugs

Truth: They have two different nicknames, but both refer to the same group of insects. Throughout much of the southern United States they’re called lightning bugs, while in the north and east they’re more often known as fireflies. Yet these insects are neither flies nor bugs – they’re actually beetles! What makes them beetles? Their hard wing covers that fold down to protect the delicate flight wings when the insect is resting.

Myth #2. If you’ve seen one firefly, you’ve seen them all

Truth: The firefly family, known as Lampyridae, includes more than 2000 described species worldwide. Here in North America, we have more than 200 different firefly species. These include the lightningbug fireflies, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. These are mainly found east of the Mississippi River. But more common in the western U.S. are the glow-worm fireflies, which have glowing, wingless females, as well as dark fireflies, whose adults don’t light up at all.

Myth #3. Fireflies only light up for sex

Truth: In every species within the firefly family, the larval stage is capable of producing light. Because larvae are too young to reproduce, their bioluminescence appears to serve as an anti-predator warning. Fireflies contain chemicals that are toxic to many vertebrate predators. For these nocturnal larvae, bioluminescence is similar to the bright coloration used by monarch butterflies: it shouts out “I’m toxic – stay away!”

 Myth #4. Fireflies mean summertime

Truth: The spectacular summer lightshows produced by adult lightningbugs are just the tip of the firefly life cycle. Adult fireflies fly for merely a few weeks, but can spend nearly two years living underground during their larval stage. Juvenile fireflies spend months feasting on earthworms, snails, and other soft-bodied creatures. Ferocious carnivores, firefly larvae inject victims with paralyzing neurotoxins, then secrete digestive enzymes to liquify and ingest their prey.

Myth #5. There are so many fireflies, they don’t need protection

Truth: Certain firefly species, like the Big Dipper firefly Photinus pyralis, are abundant and occur in many habitats across a wide geographic range. But others are restricted to small, isolated populations or are habitat specialists, and these are in greater need of protection. Worldwide, many firefly populations are under threat from habitat loss, light pollution, and altered rainfall patterns due to climate disruption. In addition, firefly ecotourism is gaining popularity, and increasing numbers of visitors can impact both adult and larval habitats. Within the past century, fireflies in the U.S., Japan, and China have also been commercially harvested from wild populations.


Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.


Heather Widdows on Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal

WiddowsThe demand to be beautiful is increasingly important in today’s visual and virtual culture. Rightly or wrongly, being perfect has become an ethical ideal to live by, and according to which we judge ourselves good or bad, a success or a failure. Perfect Me explores the changing nature of the beauty ideal, showing how it is more dominant, more demanding, and more global than ever before. If you have ever felt the urge to “make the best of yourself” or worried that you were “letting yourself go,” this book explains why. Perfect Me demonstrates that we must first recognize the ethical nature of the beauty ideal if we are ever to address its harms.

How is the idea of beauty as an ethical ideal expressed in the media?

That beauty is connected to morality is ubiquitous in the media. Look at the amount of moral terminology there is in beauty talk; ‘You’re worth it!’ being a very obvious one. But it is everywhere. We are ‘good’ when we say ‘no thanks’ to cake, chocolate, cheese, or carbs; force ourselves to go out for a run; or when we routinely remove make up, body brush, and perform the tasks of everyday maintenance. We are ‘naughty,’ ‘bad,’ failing, and even ashamed if we don’t ‘make an effort’ or ‘make the most of ourselves.’ We must not ‘let ourselves go,’ and if we do then we have invited bad things to happen to us.

In some ways this is nothing new, especially for young women. and as the song says, “It’s your duty to be young and beautiful, if you want to be loved.” But, as beauty becomes an ethical ideal, the ideal changes. It is more dominant, even global, and what we all have to do to be ‘normal’ or ‘just good enough,’ is increasing. In a visual and virtual culture where we have to be ‘camera ready’ in public and private—all moments are selfie moments—the pressure to make the appearance grade grows. As the second chapter title and the advert says, “Life is one long catwalk.”

Your book talks about the changing perception of self. How is it changing?  

I argue in Perfect Me that we now locate ourselves in our bodies—something women especially have long done—but not just in our actual body (which we often regard as flawed and failing), but in our transforming bodies (which are full of potential and promise), and our imagined perfect self (the end point of the body project). We are all these selves and part of the reason we are so committed to attaining the body beautiful is that we have invested in the imagined self. In a very real sense this is our self and we imagine our perfect me as an active me, where the beautiful me will have attained all kind of goods along with an improved appearance. The imagined self is a doing self: we picture ourselves looking a certain way, in our ideal job, loved, and happy. Increasingly, how we look is a direct proxy for who and what we are. We used to think self-improvement was character work (being more honest or helpful) now we think its body work (being thinner or fitter). We can clearly see this change in New Year’s resolutions. At the turn of the 20th century a resolution might be ‘to think before speaking,’ whereas now they are standardly ‘to go to the gym and stick to my diet.’

Given how invested we are in the self as our body—actual, transforming, and imagined—traditional suggestions that we simply stop engaging and reject beauty practices and the body are outdated, naive, divide women from each other, and simply don’t work. If we want to address the harms of beauty practices—and there are some exceptional risky practices around; body image anxiety is a global epidemic—we have to understand just how much they matter to us and why. In a very real sense we are our bodies, but there is nothing ‘mere’ or trivial about being a body.

Is viewing the beauty ideal as an ethical imperative a new phenomenon? If so, how did it get started?

In one sense conforming to a beauty ideal is nothing new. Human beings have always cared about appearance in some form or another. We have always painted and adorned ourselves, and cultures which hide and deny the body are arguably even more obsessed with it than those which flaunt it. But we have never before had a global ideal which is so dominant. Because there are fewer competitor ideals it is far harder to challenge the ideal. As a result it is normalized and naturalized, and gradually, almost stealthily, the demands rise. So too does the extent to which we invest in it and regard ourselves as failed and failing when we don’t live up to it.

In our ever more visual and virtual culture where we have to be ‘camera ready’ at all times and places, and where we believe beauty success will make us successful in other areas, the ethical nature of the ideal will only increase. Beauty and goodness have often gone together, but now they have become almost identical in our collective imagination.

What do you think of the strides that plus-sized models are making in the fashion industry and how is that related to the beauty ideal?

In the last chapter—“Beauty without the Beast”—I consider possible ways to counter the bleak future to which we are moving in which appearance matters most, extensive body modification is required, and all are anxious and failing. Celebrating diverse bodies—bodies of all shapes and sizes—is to be welcomed. However, I am not sure how much the move to embracing plus-sized models is really different or if it’s just a variant on a theme. Plus-sized models may be fatter than other models but they still conform in other ways. They have curves in the right places—not the wrong ones—and are firm, smooth and young. So while big, they are also beautiful; they are not big and hairy and have cellulite and jowls. So yes plus-sized models are a step in the right direction, but they are still—obviously—all about appearance. We need to find a way to embrace our bodies—our embodied selves—but also to recognize that what we think and do matters, as well as how we look.

In your book, you talk about the fact that as more demanding practices become the norm, more will be required of us. Have we already seen this begin to happen?

Yes we have. All kinds of beauty practices are increasingly and ‘routinely’ demanded which were not a generation ago. In the book I focus on ‘routine’ practices, particularly body hair removal, ‘de-fluffing,’ which is now regarded by very many as required to be ‘normal.’ Indeed so far has this gone that body hair, including pubic hair, if often regarded as ‘dirty,’ ‘disgusting,’ and even ‘unnatural.’ This kind of double think about what is natural is particularly revealing. Only in a dominant (and I argue globally dominant) ideal can what is in fact ‘unnatural’ be regarded as ‘natural.’ This is very different from previous beauty ideals.

The normalization of ‘routine’ beauty practices extends to many beauty practices and across cultures. Hairlessness and smoothness are global demands and met by a mixture of practices; including waxing, shaving, threading, skin-lightening, tanning, and the daily application of lotions and potions. In some areas more extreme practices are already required, for instance, Botox and lip fillers are increasingly normalized. Even the most extreme practices of cosmetic surgery are regarded as normal and required, for example, in Brazil and South Korea. I see no reason to think that this trend will not continue to spread—only limited by what women can afford—to a future where dramatic body modification is expected and aspired to.

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading your book?

I expect readers will take very many things from Perfect Me. I hope the four key claims—that beauty is functioning as an ethical ideal, that the beauty ideal is more dominant, demanding, and global, that the self is located in the actual, transforming, and imagined body and that old explanations don’t work, beauty choices are not ‘freely chosen,’ but nor are they coerced or gendered exploitation—will resonate within and beyond academia. We need to think differently about the future we want. We are embodied beings and we need to own and celebrate our bodies, but reject embracing damaging and unrealistic beauty ideals. It is not true to say ‘it’s the inside that counts’—and our daughters know this—but nor do we want to end up with only the outside counting. I hope Perfect Me shows just how serious beauty ideals and engagement are. It is defining of who and what human beings are—it is not trivial or unimportant. If we are to address the harmful trends—such as the epidemic of body anxiety—we need to recognize the moral features of the beauty ideal.

Heather Widdows is the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Global Ethics: An Introduction, The Connected Self: The Ethics and Governance of the Genetic Individual, and The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch.

Insect of the Week: the Darkest Fireflies

Bioluminescence lights up the larval stage in every member of this beetle family (Lampyridae), but adult fireflies have evolved remarkably diverse ways to find mates. Summertime icons that fill the night with their flashy courtship displays, the lightning bug fireflies might be the most spectacular. Yet many fireflies lose their bioluminescent spark once they become adults. These dark fireflies are active during the daytime, and females emit chemical signals to attract males. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the common ancestor of all fireflies also had nonluminous adults. Though they are often overlooked, today these dark fireflies can be found coast-to-coast across the United States and Canada. Two groups of dark fireflies are particularly common. Once you learn to recognize them, you will see them everywhere!

A Lucidota atra firefly. Photo credit: Molly Jacobsen

Ellychnia includes a dozen or so different species with nonluminous adults. These dark fireflies are close cousins to the Photinus lightning bugs, but they have evolved a radically different lifestyle. Sometimes called Winter Fireflies, the adults spend the winter wedged down into grooves on tree trunks. They prefer trees with deeply furrowed bark, and dozens are often seen congregating on a single tree. After hunkering down for several months, surviving snow and freezing temperatures, Ellychnia adults are among the first insects to become active in the spring. Mating takes place in late March and April, when these hardy beetles can be seen flying slowly through wooded areas. Mating pairs, attached tail-to-tail, are commonly seen on tree trunks, where they remain coupled for 12 hours or more. It has been proposed that Ellychnia, which evolved from a nocturnal, Photinus-like ancestor, shifted to become day-active to escape night-time hunters like the predatory Photuris fireflies.

Lucidota atra is another day-flying, non-luminous firefly, and these adults are simply stunning. They are also easy to identify with their jet black wing covers, brightly colored head shield and flattened, saw-toothed antennae. These dark fireflies are commonly seen in early summer as they fly slowly, just a few feet above the ground, across lawns, fields, and forests. Experiments done by Jim Lloyd in the 1970s revealed that Lucidota females release pheromones that are carried on the wind, creating an invisible plume. Males seek out females by flying slowly back and forth until they encounter a plume, then fly upwind until they reach the female. The chemical nature of the female pheromone remains unknown.


Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Paul Tucker on Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State

TuckerCentral bankers have emerged from the financial crisis as the third great pillar of unelected power alongside the judiciary and the military. They pull the regulatory and financial levers of our economic well-being, yet unlike democratically elected leaders, their power does not come directly from the people. Unelected Power lays out the principles needed to ensure that central bankers, technocrats, regulators, and other agents of the administrative state remain stewards of the common good and do not become overmighty citizens. Like it or not, unelected power has become a hallmark of modern government. This critically important book shows how to harness it to the people’s purposes.

What is the regulatory state?

It’s a term that has come to be used to describe a host of government bodies that regulate particular economic sectors or the public more generally to protect, say, investors, the environment, consumers, workers, and so on. In a rudimentary form it has existed for a long time, going back to the 19th century and beyond. Going wider, Americans sometimes refer to the administrative state, meaning the evolution of government beyond a world of legislators and courts to one in which the executive branch makes policy and is divided up into departments, agencies, bureaus, commissions, and so on.

What are Independent agencies, and why do they matter?

They are government organizations that are not under the day-to-day control of elected politicians, whether in the executive branch or the legislature. Obvious examples today are the central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, but also various regulators insulated from ongoing political control. By no means all agencies in the administrative state are independent. On both sides of the Atlantic, many are under the control of cabinet ministers or subject to annual budget approvals from the legislature, which makes them sensitive to politicians’ sentiments and whims. Independent agencies are distinctive in that politicians can control them only by amending or repealing legislation.

That sounds problematic in a democracy. Is it?

That’s the point of the book. The way I’ve just described them it could be a hell of a problem. Imagine an independent agency that had lots of powers but only the vaguest purpose and objective. Who would be able to tell whether it had succeeded in its mission if it set its own goal posts?! That’s at odds with some of our deepest values: just as “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry a couple of centuries’ ago, we might just as well demand “no regulation without representation.”

Are central banks a particular problem?

They have become the poster boys and girls of today’s unelected power. Compared with what happened after the Great Depression in the 1930s, when it was politicians who did the heavy lifting, this time it has been central banks that have led the way in reviving the economy and redesigning the financial system. They have used their balance sheets on a truly gigantic scale to influence credit conditions in lots of markets, and have been given lots of new regulatory powers. They are more powerful than ever before, ranking with the judiciary and military as a third core pillar of unelected power.

Do people object to all this?

Yes, but in rather different ways in different countries. In the US, since the New Deal there have been critics who object that regulatory agencies violate the values associated with the separation of powers or even the Constitution itself. In France, not long ago the parliament passed legislation to put more structure around such agencies. In the UK, there is episodic antagonism to government by ‘experts.’

And on central bank independence, there have been challenges in the German constitutional court and attempts to pass reforming legislation in the US Congress.

So what is the solution?

Our democracies need norms for whether and how to delegate to independent agencies that measure up to the deep political values of our democratic, liberal republics: the various values of democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism. My book proposes and defends just such a set of Principles for Delegation, as I call them. They come in two broad parts: criteria for whether to delegate, and precepts for how to delegate.

Criteria for whether to delegate: I argue that a policy function should not be delegated to a truly independent agency unless (1) society has settled preferences; (2) the objective is capable of being framed in a reasonably clear way; (3) delegation would materially mitigate a problem of credible commitment; and (4) the policymaker would not have to make big choices on society’s values or the distribution of its resources.

Precepts for how to delegate: (1) the agency’s purposes, objectives and powers should be clear and set by elected legislators; (2) its decision-making procedures should be set largely by legislators and should accord with the values of the rule of law; (3) the agency itself should publish the operating principles that will guide its exercise of discretion within the delegated domain; (4) there should be transparency sufficient to permit accountability to the legislature for the agency’s stewardship of the regime and, separately, for politicians’ framing of the regime; and (5) it should be clear what (if anything) will happen, procedurally and/or substantively, when the edges of the regime are reached but the agency could do more to avert or contain a crisis. 

Perhaps the biggest thing is that elected legislators should set a monitorable objective. Independent agencies really can improve the credibility of commitments made by government, but only if we know what we want them to do and can track whether or not they are doing it.

Would those Principles affect anything much?

Yes. Here are just three examples.

They would challenge the acceptability of judges completely having completely overhauled the principles of competition policy a few decades ago. The legislation was vague and the views of economists had moved on, so the courts had room and reason to act. But, given our democratic values, this should have been work for elected politicians.

They suggest that role of some financial-market regulators in preserving a stable financial system needs either to be better insulated from politics (such as the SEC in the US) or subject to much clearer objectives (UK).

And they would restrict the roles and activities of central banks rather more than we have seen in recent years.  

Is any of this realistic in actual democratic states?

Well, that’s the point of the book. There are no deep constitutional blockages, so it’s a question of whether we want to be governed in a way that’s consistent with our values. I’m hoping that people who see merit in my Principles for Delegation (or something like them) will cite many more examples than I can (or even know about), generating the kind of debate that is badly needed about how state power is allocated.

Anyway, surely something has to be done to bring the role of experts in government in line with our democratic commitments.

Why did you write the book?

I spent a good part of my central banking career helping to design regulatory and monetary regimes, none more important than the expansion of the Bank of England’s powers after the Great Financial Crisis. We resisted some powers, wanted others constrained, and had strong views on how the different responsibilities should be assigned to distinct committees so as to disperse power and focus incentives. I wanted to try to write down the values and considerations lying behind that. When I moved to Harvard in late-2013, I had the opportunity to do so.

Paul Tucker is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and chair of the Systemic Risk Council. For more than thirty years, he was a central banker and regulator at the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements. He lives in London.