Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: The Humanomics of Tax Reform

CentsThe Trump administration is now placing tax reform near the top of its legislative agenda. Perhaps they will garner the votes for tax reduction, but reform? Good luck.

It has been three decades since there has been meaningful tax reform in this country. In 1986, tax shelters were eliminated, the number of tax brackets went from 15 to 4, including a reduction of the highest marginal tax rate from 50% to 38.5% and the standard deduction was increased, simplifying tax preparation and resulting in zero tax liability for millions of low-income families. At the same time, a large-scale expansion of the alternative minimum tax affected substantial numbers of the more affluent.

President Reagan insisted that the overall effect be neutral with regard to tax revenues. That demand made it possible to set aside the issue of whether government should be larger or smaller and instead focus on inefficiencies or inequities in how taxes were assessed. Two powerful Democrats, Dick Gephardt in the House and Bill Bradley in the Senate, were co-sponsors.

Economists might evaluate the merits of this monumental piece of legislation in terms of the incentives and disincentives it created, its ultimate impact on labor force participation, capital investment and the like, but there is another metric to be evaluated – was it perceived to be fair? Accounts from that day imply that it was.

The notion of fairness is not generally in the wheelhouse of economics. But the humanities have much to say on that matter.

To begin with, literature teaches that fairness is one of those concepts that seem simple so long as one does not transcend one’s own habitual way of looking at things. As soon as one learns to see issues from other points of view, different conceptions of fairness become visible and simple questions become more complex. Great novels work by immersing the reader in one character’s perspective after another, so we learn to experience how different people – people as reasonable and decent as we ourselves are – might honestly come to see questions of fairness differently.

So, the first thing that literature would suggest is that, apart from the specific provisions of the 1986 tax reform, the fact that it was genuinely bipartisan was part of what made it fair. Bipartisanship meant the reform was not one side forcing its will on the other. Had the same reform been passed by one party, it would not have seemed so fair. Part of fairness is the perception of fairness, which suggests that the process, not just the result, was fair.

Fairness, of course, also pertains to the content of the reforms. What are the obligations of the rich to support needy families? Are there responsibilities of the poor to participate however they can in providing for their own transformation?

In Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, two main characters, Levin and Stiva, go hunting with the young fop, Vasenka, and as they encounter hard-working peasants, they start discussing the justice of economic inequality. Only foolish Vasenka can discuss the question disinterestedly, because it is, believe it or not, entirely new to him: “`Yes, why is it we spend our time riding, drinking, shooting doing nothing, while they are forever at work?’ said Vasenka, obviously for the first time in his life reflecting on the question, and consequently considering it with perfect sincerity.” Can it really be that an educated person has reached adulthood with this question never having occurred to him at all?

And yet, isn’t that the position economists find themselves in when they ignore fairness? When they treat tax reform, or any other issue, entirely in economic terms? Levin recognizes that there is something unfair about his wealth, but also recognizes that there is no obvious solution: it would do the peasants no good if he were to just give away his property. Should he make things more equal by making everyone worse off? On the contrary, his ability to make farmland more productive benefits the peasants, too. So, what, he asks, should be done?

Levin also knows that inequality is not only economic. If one experiences oneself as a lesser person because of social status, as many of the peasants do, that is itself a form of inequality entirely apart from wealth. In our society, we refer to participants in government as “taxpayers.” Does that then mean that to exempt large numbers of people from any taxation entirely demeans them – not least of all, in their own eyes?  There may be no effective economic difference between a very small tax and none at all, but it may make a tremendous psychological difference. Isn’t the failure to take the psychological effect of tax rates seriously as disturbingly innocent as Vasenka’s question about inequality?

Combining a humanistic and an economic approach might not give us specific answers, but it does make questions of fairness, including symbolic effects, part of the question. And in a democracy, where popular acceptance of the rules as legitimate is crucial, that would be a step forward.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040 and the authors of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius: The Little Book of Black Holes

Black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago, have long intrigued scientists and the public with their bizarre and fantastical properties. Although Einstein understood that black holes were mathematical solutions to his equations, he never accepted their physical reality—a viewpoint many shared. This all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a deeper conceptual understanding of black holes developed just as new observations revealed the existence of quasars and X-ray binary star systems, whose mysterious properties could be explained by the presence of black holes. Black holes have since been the subject of intense research—and the physics governing how they behave and affect their surroundings is stranger and more mind-bending than any fiction. The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius takes readers deep into the mysterious heart of the subject, offering rare clarity of insight into the physics that makes black holes simple yet destructive manifestations of geometric destiny. Read on to learn a bit more about black holes and what inspired the authors to write this book.

Your book tells the story of black holes from a physics perspective. What are black holes, really? What’s inside?

Black holes are regions of spacetime from which nothing can escape, not even light. In our book, we try to live up to our title by getting quickly to the heart of the subject, explaining in non-technical terms what black holes are and how we use Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand them. What’s inside black holes is a great mystery. Taken at face value, general relativity says spacetime inside a black hole collapses in on itself, so violently that singularities form. We need something more than Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand what these singularities mean. Hawking showed that quantum effects cause black holes to radiate very faintly. That radiation is linked with quantum fluctuations inside the black hole. But it’s a matter of ongoing debate whether these fluctuations are a key to resolving the puzzle of the singularity, or whether some more drastic theory is needed.

How sure are we that black holes exist?

A lot more certain than we were a few years ago. In September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, each one about thirty times the mass of the sun. Everything about that detection fit our expectations based on Einstein’s theories, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there really are black holes out there. In fact, before the LIGO detection we were already pretty sure that black holes exist. Matter swirling around gigantic black holes at the core of distant galaxies form the brightest objects in the Universe. They’re called quasars, and the only reason they’re dim in our sight is that they’re so far away, literally across the Universe. Similar effects around smaller black holes generate X-rays that we can detect relatively nearby, mere thousands of light years away from us. And we have good evidence that there is a large black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Can you talk a bit about the formation of black holes?

Black holes with mass comparable to the sun can form when big stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves. Ordinarily, gravity is the weakest force, but when too much matter comes together, no force conceivable can hold it up against the pull of gravity. In a sense, even spacetime collapses when a black hole forms, and the result is a black hole geometry: an endless inward cascade of nothing into nothing. All the pyrotechnics that we see in distant quasars and some nearby X-ray sources comes from matter rubbing against itself as it follows this inward cascade.

How have black holes become so interesting to non-specialists? How have they been glorified in popular culture?

There’s so much poetry in black hole physics. Black hole horizons are where time stands still—literally! Black holes are the darkest things that exist in Nature, formed from the ultimate ashes of used-up stars. But they create brilliant light in the process of devouring yet more matter. The LIGO detection was based on a black hole collision that shook the Universe, with a peak power greater than all stars combined; yet we wouldn’t even have noticed it here on earth without the most exquisitely sensitive detector of spacetime distortions ever built. Strangest of all, when stripped of surrounding matter, black holes are nothing but empty space. Their emptiness is actually what makes them easy to understand mathematically. Only deep inside the horizon does the emptiness end in a terrible, singular core (we think). Horrendous as this sounds, black holes could also be doorways into wormholes connecting distant parts of the Universe. But before packing our bags for a trip from Deep Space Nine to the Gamma Quadrant, we’ve got to read the fine print: as far as we know, it’s impossible to make a traversable wormhole.

What inspired you to write this book? Was there a point in life where your interest in this topic was piqued?

We both feel extremely fortunate to have had great mentors, including Igor Klebanov, Curt Callan, Werner Israel, Matthew Choptuik, and Kip Thorne who gave us a lot of insight into black holes and general relativity. And we owe a big shout-out to our editor, Ingrid Gnerlich, who suggested that we write this book.

GubserSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String Theory. Frans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton.

Kip Thorne & Roger Blandford on Modern Classical Physics

PhysicsThis first-year, graduate-level text and reference book covers the fundamental concepts and twenty-first-century applications of six major areas of classical physics that every masters- or PhD-level physicist should be exposed to, but often isn’t: statistical physics, optics (waves of all sorts), elastodynamics, fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and special and general relativity and cosmology. Growing out of a full-year course that the eminent researchers Kip S. Thorne, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Roger D. Blandford taught at Caltech for almost three decades, this book is designed to broaden the training of physicists. Its six main topical sections are also designed so they can be used in separate courses, and the book provides an invaluable reference for researchers.

This book emerged from a course you both began teaching nearly 4 decades ago. What drove you to create the course, and ultimately to write this book?

KST: We were unhappy with the narrowness of physics graduate education in the United States. We believed that every masters-level or PhD physicist should be familiar with the basic concepts of all the major branches of classical physics and should have some experience applying them to real world phenomena. But there was no obvious route to achieve this, so we created our course.

RDB: Of course we had much encouragement from colleagues who helped us teach it and students who gave us invaluable feedback on the content.

The title indicates that the book is a “modern” approach to classical physics (which emphasizes physical phenomena at macroscopic scales). What specifically is “modern” in your book’s approach to this subject?

KST: Classical-physics ideas and tools are used extensively today in research areas as diverse as astrophysics, high-precision experimental physics, optical physics, biophysics, controlled fusion, aerodynamics, computer simulations, etc. Our book draws applications from all these modern topics and many more. Also, these modern applications have led to powerful new viewpoints on the fundamental concepts of classical physics, viewpoints that we elucidate—for example, quantum mechanical viewpoints and language for purely classical mode-mode coupling in nonlinear optics and in nonlinear plasma physics.

Why do you feel that it is so important for readers to become more familiar with classical physics, beyond what they may have been introduced to already?

KST: In their undergraduate and graduate level education, most physicists have been exposed to classical mechanics, electromagnetic theory, elementary thermodynamics, and little classical physics beyond this. But in their subsequent careers, most physicists discover that they need an understanding of other areas of classical physics (and this book is a vehicle for that).

In many cases they may not even be aware of their need. They encounter problems in their research or in R&D where powerful solutions could be imported from other areas of classical physics, if only they were aware of those other areas. An example from my career: in the 1970s, when trying to understand recoil of a binary star as it emits gravitational waves, I, like many relativity physicists before me, got terribly confused. Then my graduate student, Bill Burke—who was more broadly educated than I—said “we can resolve the confusion by adopting techniques that are used to analyze boundary layers in fluid flows around bodies with complicated shapes.” Those techniques (matched asymptotic expansions), indeed, did the job, and through Bill, they were imported from fluid mechanics into relativity.

RDB: Yes. To give a second example, when I was thinking about ways to accelerate cosmic rays, I recalled graduate lectures on stellar dynamics and found just the tools I needed.

You also mention in the book that geometry is a deep theme and important connector of ideas. Could you explain your perspective, and how geometry is used thematically throughout the book?

KST: The essential point is that, although coordinates are a powerful, and sometimes essential, tool in many calculations, the fundamental laws of physics can be expressed without the aid of coordinates; and, indeed, their coordinate-free expressions are generally elegant and exceedingly powerful. By learning to think about the laws in coordinate-free (geometric) language, a physicist acquires great power. For example, when one searches for new physical laws, requiring that they be geometric (coordinate-free) constrains enormously the forms that they may take. And in many practical computations (for example, of the relativistic Doppler shift), a geometric route to the solution can be faster and much more insightful than one that uses coordinates. Our book is infused with this.

RDB: We are especially keen on presenting these fundamental laws in a manner which makes explicit the geometrically formulated conservation laws for mass, momentum, energy, etc. It turns out that this is often a good starting point when one wants to solve these equations numerically. But ultimately, a coordinate system must be introduced to execute the calculations and interpret the output.

One of the areas of application that you cover in the book is cosmology, an area of research that has undergone a revolution over the past few decades. What are some of the most transformative discoveries in the field’s recent history? How does classical physics serve to underpin our modern understanding of how the universe formed and is evolving? What are some of the mysteries that continue to challenge scientists in the field of cosmology?   

RDB: There have indeed been great strides in understanding the large scale structure and evolution of the universe, and there is good observational support for a comparatively simple description. Cosmologists have found that 26 percent of the energy density in the contemporary, smoothed-out universe is in the form of “dark matter,” which only seems to interact through its gravity. Meanwhile, 69 percent is associated with a “cosmological constant,” as first introduced by Einstein and which causes the universe to accelerate. The remaining five percent is the normal baryonic matter which we once thought accounted for essentially all of the universe. The actual structure that we observe appears to be derived from almost scale-free statistically simple, random fluctuations just as expected from an early time known as inflation. Fleshing out the details of this description is almost entirely an exercise in classical physics. Even if this description is validated by future observations, much remains to be understood, including the nature of dark matter and the cosmological constant, what fixes the normal matter density, and the great metaphysical question of what lies beyond the spacetime neighborhood that we can observe directly.

KST: Remarkably, in fleshing out the details in the last chapter of our book, we utilize classical-physics concepts and results from every one of the other chapters. ALL of classical physics feeds into cosmology!

The revolution in cosmology that you describe depends upon many very detailed observations using telescopes operating throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum and beyond. How do you deal with this in the book?

RDB: We make no attempt to describe the rich observational and experimental evidence, referring the reader to many excellent texts on cosmology that describe these in detail. However, we do describe some of the principles that underlie the design and operation of the radio and optical telescopes that bring us cosmological data.

There is has also been a lot of excitement regarding the recent observation by LIGO of gravitational waves caused by merging black holes. How is this subject covered in the book, and how, briefly, are some of the concepts of classical physics elucidated in your description of this cutting-edge research area?   

KST: LIGO’s gravitational wave detectors rely on an amazingly wide range of classical physics concepts and tools, so time and again we draw on LIGO for illustrations. The theory of random processes, spectral densities, the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, the Fokker-Planck equation; shot noise, thermal noise, thermoelastic noise, optimal filters for extracting weak signals from noise; paraxial optics, Gaussian beams, the theory of coherence, squeezed light, interferometry, laser physics; the interaction of gravitational waves with light and with matter; the subtle issue of the conservation or non conservation of energy in general relativity—all these and more are illustrated by LIGO in our book.

What are some of the classical physics phenomena in every day life that you are surprised more people do not fully understand—whether they are lay people, students, or scientists?

KST: Does water going down a drain really have a strong preference for clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the south? How strong? What happens as you cross the equator? How are ocean waves produced? Why do stars twinkle in the night sky, and why doesn’t Jupiter twinkle? How does a hologram work? How much can solid objects be stretched before they break, and why are there such huge differences from one type of solid (for example thin wire) to another (a rubber band)?

RDB: I agree and have to add that I am regularly humbled by some every day phenomenon that I cannot explain or for which I have carried around for years a fallacious explanation. There is, rightly, a lot of focus right now on climate change, energy, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. We hear about them every day. We physicists need to shore up our understanding and do a better job of communicating this.

Do you believe that some of your intended readers might be surprised to discover the deep relevance of classical physics to certain subject areas?

KST: In subjects that physicists think of as purely quantum, classical ideas and classical computational techniques can often be powerful. Condensed matter physics is an excellent example—and accordingly, our book includes a huge number of condensed-matter topics. Examples are Bose-Einstein condensates, the van der Waals gas, and the Ising model for ferromagnetism.

RDB: Conversely, quantum mechanical techniques are often used to simplify purely classical problems, for example in optics.

Writing a book is always an intellectual journey. In the preparation of this tremendously wide-ranging book, what were some of the most interesting things you learned along the way?

KST: How very rich and fascinating is the world of classical physics—far more so than we thought in 1980 when we embarked on this venture. And then there are the new inventions, discoveries, and phenomena that did not exist in 1980 but were so important or mind-boggling that we could not resist including them in our book. For example, optical-frequency combs and the phase-locked lasers that underlie them, Bose-Einstein condensates, the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11/01, the discovery of gravitational waves and the techniques that made it possible, laser fusion, and our view of the universe at large.

Kip S. Thorne is the Feynman Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. His books include Gravitation and Black Holes and Time Warps. Roger D. Blandford is the Luke Blossom Professor of Physics and the founding director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. Both are members of the National Academy of Sciences.


Global Math Week: The Universal Language

by Oscar Fernandez

FernandezFill in the blank: Some people speak English, some speak French, and some speak ____. I doubt you said “math.” Yet, as I will argue, the thought should have crossed your mind. And moreover, the fact that mathematics being a language likely never has, speaks volumes about how we think of math, and why we should start thinking of it—and teaching it—as a language.

To make my point, consider the following fundamental characteristics shared by most languages:

  •  A set of words or symbols (the language’s vocabulary)
  •  A set of rules for how to use these words or symbols (the language’s rules of grammar)
  •  A set of rules for combining these words or symbols to make statements (the language’s syntax)

Now think back to the math classes you have taken. I bet you will soon remember each of these characteristics present throughout your courses. (For instance, when you learned that 𝑎2 means 𝑎 × 𝑎, you were learning how to combine some of the symbols used in mathematics to make a statement—that the square of a number is the number multiplied by itself.) Indeed, viewed this way, every mathematics lesson can be thought of as a language lesson: new vocabulary, rules of grammar, or syntax is introduced; everyone then practices the new content; and the cycle repeats. By extension, every mathematics course can be thought of as a language course.

Now that I have you thinking of mathematics as a language, let me point out the many benefits of this new viewpoint. For one, this viewpoint helps dispel many myths about the subject. For instance, travel to any country and you will find a diverse set of people speaking that country’s language. Some are smarter than others; some are men and some women; perhaps some are Latino and some Asian. Group them as you wish, they will all share the capacity to speak the same language. The same is true of mathematics. It is not a subject accessible only to people of certain intelligence, sex, or races; we all have the capacity to speak mathematics. And once we start thinking of the subject as a language, we will recognize that learning mathematics is like learning any other language: all you need are good teachers, and lots of practice. And while mastering a language is often the endpoint of the learning process, mastering the language that is mathematics will yield much larger dividends, including the ability to express yourself precisely, and the capacity to understand the Universe. As Alfred Adler put it: “

Mathematics is pure language – the language of science. It is unique among languages in its ability to provide precise expression for every thought or concept that can be formulated in its terms.” Galileo—widely regarded the father of modern science—once wrote that Nature is a great book “written in the language of mathematics” (The Assayer, 1623). Centuries later, Einstein, after having discovered the equation for gravity using mathematics, echoed Galileo’s sentiment, writing: “pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas” (Obituary for Emmy Noether, 1935). Most of us today wouldn’t use words like “language” and “poetry” to describe mathematics. Yet, as I will argue, we should. And moreover, we should start thinking of—and teaching—math as a language.

Oscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the author of The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love. He also writes about mathematics for the Huffington Post and on his website,

Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.


setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.

Global Math Week: Counting on Math

by Tim Chartier

The Global Math Project has a goal of sharing the joys of mathematics to 1 million students around the world from October 10th through the 17th. As we watch the ever-increasing number of lives that will share in math’s wonders, let’s talk about counting, which is fundamental to reaching this goal.

Let’s count. Suppose we have five objects, like the plus signs below. We easily enough count five of them.




You could put them in a hat and mix them up.








If you take them out, they might be jumbled but you’d still have five.











Easy enough! Jumbling can induce subtle complexities, even to something as basic as counting.

Counting to 14 isn’t much more complicated than counting to five. Be careful as it depends what you are counting and how you jumble things! Verify there are 14 of Empire State Buildings in the picture below.








If you cut out the image along the straight black lines, you will have three pieces to a puzzle. If you interchange the left and right pieces on the top row, then you get the configuration below. How many buildings do you count now? Look at the puzzle carefully and see if you can determine how your count changed.








Can you spot any changes in the buildings in the first versus the second pictures? How we pick up an additional image is more easily seen if we reorder the buildings. So, let’s take the 14 buildings and reorder them as seen below.








Swapping the pieces on the top row of the original puzzle has the same effect as shifting the top piece in the picture above. Such a shift creates the picture below. Notice how we pick up that additional building. Further, each image loses 1/14th of its total height.








Let’s look at the original puzzle before and after the swap.














This type of puzzle is called a Dissection Puzzle. Our eyes can play tricks on us. We know 14 doesn’t equal 15 so something else must be happening when a puzzle indicates that 14 = 15. Mathematics allows us to push through assumptions that can lead to illogical conclusions. Math can also take something that seems quite magical and turn it into something very logical — even something as fundamental as counting to 14.

Want to look at counting through another mathematical lens? A main topic of the Global Math Project will be exploding dots. Use a search engine to find videos of James Tanton introducing exploding dots. James is a main force behind the Global Math Project and quite simply oozes joy of mathematics. You’ll also find resources at the Global Math Project web page. Take the time to look through the Global Math Project resources and watch James explain exploding dots, as the topic can be suitable from elementary to high school levels. You’ll enjoy your time with James. You can count on it!

ChartierTim Chartier is associate professor of mathematics at Davidson College. He is the coauthor of Numerical Methods and the author of Math Bytes: Google Bombs, Chocolate-Covered Pi, and Other Cool Bits in Computing.

Global Math Week: Around the World from Unsolved to Solved

by Craig Bauer

BauerWhat hope do we have of solving ciphers that go back decades, centuries, or even all the way back to the ancient world? Well, we have a lot more hope than we did in the days before the Internet. Today’s mathematicians form a global community that poses a much greater threat to unsolved problems, of every imaginable sort, than they have every faced before.

In my Princeton University Press book, Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies, I collected scores of the most intriguing unsolved ciphers. It’s a big book, in proper proportion to its title, and I believe many of the ciphers in it will fall to the onslaught the book welcomes from the world’s codebreakers, both professionals and amateurs. Why am I making this prediction with such confidence? Well, I gave a few lectures based on material from the book, while I was still writing it, and the results bode well for the ciphers falling.

Here’s what happened.

Early in the writing process, I was invited to give a lecture on unsolved ciphers at the United States Naval Academy. I was surprised, when I got there, by the presence of a video camera. I was asked if I was okay with the lecture being filmed and placed on YouTube. I said yes, but inside I was cursing myself for not having gotten a much needed haircut before the talk. Oh well. Despite my rough appearance, the lecture went well.[1] I surveyed some of the unsolved ciphers that I was aware of at the time, including one that had been put forth by a German colleague and friend of mine, Klaus Schmeh. It was a double transposition cipher that he had created himself to show how difficult it is to solve such ciphers. He had placed it in a book he had written on unsolved ciphers, a book which is unfortunately only available in German.[2] But to make the cipher as accessible as possible, he assured everyone that that particular bit of writing was in English.
















Figure 1. Klaus Schmeh’s double transposition cipher challenge.

When the YouTube video went online, it was seen by an Israeli computer scientist, George Lasry, who became obsessed with it. He was not employed at the time, so he was able to devote a massive amount of time to seeking the solution to this cipher. As is natural for George, he attacked it with computer programs of his own design. He eventually found himself doing almost nothing other than working on the cipher. His persistence paid off and he found himself reading the solution.

I ended up being among the very first to see George’s solution, not because I’m the one who introduced him to the challenge via the YouTube video, but because I’m the editor-in-chief of the international journal (it’s owned by the British company Taylor and Francis) Cryptologia. This journal covers everything having to do with codes and ciphers, from cutting edge cryptosystems and attacks on them, to history, pedagogy, and more. Most of the papers that appear in it are written by men and women who live somewhere other than America and it was to this journal that George submitted a paper describing how he obtained his solution to Klaus’s challenge.

George’s solution looked great to me, but I sent it to Klaus to review, just to be sure. As expected, he was impressed by the paper and I queued it up to see print. The solution generated some media attention for George, which led to him being noticed by people at Google (an American company, of course). They approached him and, after he cleared the interviewing hurdles, offered him a position, which he accepted. I was very happy that George found the solution, but of course that left me with one less unsolved cipher to write about in my forthcoming book. Not a problem. As it turns out there are far more intriguing unsolved ciphers than can be fit in a single volume. One less won’t make any difference.

Later on, but still before the book saw print, I delivered a similar lecture at the Charlotte International Cryptologic Symposium held in Charlotte, North Carolina. This time, unlike at the Naval Academy, Klaus Schmeh was in the audience.

One of the ciphers that I shared was fairly new to me. I had not spoken about it publicly prior to this event. It appeared on a tombstone in Ohio and seemed to be a Masonic cipher. It didn’t look to be sophisticated, but it was very short and shorter ciphers are harder to break. Brent Morris, a 33rd degree Mason with whom I had discussed it, thought that it might be a listing of initials of offices, such as PM, PHP, PIM (Past Master, Past High Priest, Past Illustrious Master), that the deceased had held. This cipher was new to Klaus and he made note of it and later blogged about it. Some of his followers collaborated in an attempt to solve it and succeeded. Because I hadn’t even devoted a full page to this cipher in my book, I left it in as a challenge for readers, but also added a link to the solution for those who want to see the solution right away.


Figure 2. A once mysterious tombstone just south of Metamora, Ohio.

So, what was my role in all of this? Getting the ball rolling, that’s all. The work was done by Germans and an Israeli, but America and England benefited as well, as Google gained yet another highly intelligent and creative employee and a British owned journal received another great paper.

I look forward to hearing from other people from around the globe, as they dive into the challenges I’ve brought forth. The puzzles of the past don’t stand a chance against the globally networked geniuses of today!

Craig P. Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.


[1] It was split into two parts for the YouTube channel. You can see them at (Part 1) and (Part 2). A few years later, I got cleaned up and delivered an updated version of the talk at the International Spy Museum. That talk, aimed at a wider audience, may be seen at

[2] Schmeh, Klaus, Nicht zu Knacken, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2012.

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

Scott E. Page on The Diversity Bonus

What if workforce diversity is more than simply the right thing to do in order to make society more integrated and just? What if diversity can also improve the bottom line of businesses and other organizations facing complex challenges in the knowledge economy? It can. And The Diversity Bonus shows how and why. Scott Page, a leading thinker, writer, and speaker whose ideas and advice are sought after by corporations, nonprofits, universities, and governments around the world, makes a clear and compellingly pragmatic case for diversity and inclusion. He presents overwhelming evidence that teams that include different kinds of thinkers outperform homogenous groups on complex tasks, producing what he calls “diversity bonuses.” These bonuses include improved problem solving, increased innovation, and more accurate predictions—all of which lead to better performance and results. Drawing on research in economics, psychology, computer science, and many other fields, The Diversity Bonus also tells the stories of people and organizations that have tapped the power of diversity to solve complex problems. The result changes the way we think about diversity in the workplace—and far beyond it. Read on to learn more about the Diversity Bonus.

What is the Diversity Bonus?
The diversity bonus refers to the increase in performance that results from cognitive diversity.

When team members think differently, when they bring different representations, categories, heuristics, models, and frameworks, their collective performance includes a diversity bonus, an extra amount. That bonus is a quantifiable, measurable value add.

Can you give examples of diversity bonuses?
I’ll give three. When multiple people make predictions, their collective error (the error of their average guess) depends in equal amounts on their average error and on the diversity of their predictions.  If each person made the same prediction, the crowd would be as accurate as the average person. If they make different predictions, the crowd is more accurate than the average person. In one study involving thousands of predictions by professional economists, the crowd was better than the average economist by 21%. That 21% is the diversity bonus.

Creative tasks produce similar bonuses. Psychologists measure the creativity of a person by the number of ideas she can generate. They measure the creativity of a team similarly. A creative team therefore requires creative people. It also requires diversity. If the creative people all have the same ideas, then the whole only equals the parts. If they differ in their ideas, they produce a diversity bonus.

Finally, when solving problems, diverse representations create what Stuart Kauffman called different adjacent possiblesA smart person can be stuck on a problem and another person might present a new adjacent possibility and get that person unstuck. New adjacent possibles create diversity bonus.

Where do you see evidence of biggest diversity bonuses?
The evidence from the academy is overwhelming. It used to be that most papers were written by one or two people. Now teams predominate, as noted in a major report by the National Research Council. Multiple studies based on about 20 million academic papers written by, among others, Brian Uzzi, Ben Jones, Richard Freemen, and Wei Huang, find that working with people from other schools or from different ethnic groups results in substantial diversity bonuses. Lada Adamic and coauthers find similar effects for patents. The deeper dives on both papers and patents shows a correlation between the number of ideas, and combinations of novel ideas. In brief, the evidence from almost every academic paper ever published and every patent ever issued by the United States strongly aligns with diversity bonuses.

I should add that in creative domains, diversity bonuses could be even larger. Just as the academy has now turned to teams, so has Hollywood and the music industry. Not that many people are aware that the modal billboard hit now has multiple songwriters. Pop music has followed the same trend as physics and computer science. The same goes for movie scripts. Most films are now written by teams.

Your core argument rests on cognitive diversity. When most people talk about diversity they mean identity diversity.   Are the two related?
Great question. Yes. The two types of diversity are interwoven. The connection merits a careful unpacking. Identity diversity refers to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical capabilities, and culture. Cognitive diversity refers to differences in information, knowledge bases, representations, categories, heuristics, causal models, and frameworks. In thinking about how identity diversity correlates with and influences cognitive diversity, we must guard against simple one to one causal claims such as their being something called a “woman’s perspective.” Better to recognize that our identities consist of multiple dimensions that collectively influence what we know, how we see, and how we think.  Our whole selves contribute to our cognitive repertoires. We cannot pull out one component of identities and map it to one component of our cognitive repertoires.

While identity matters, it is also not the only contributor to cognitive diversity. Our experiences, formal training, work activities, social networks, and preferences all contribute to how we think. Identity interacts with each of these and how much it contributes in any one instance will vary. I would guess that identity matters more in discussions of health care than in a statistical analysis of the evidence for the Higgs’ Boson.

The contribution in any one context will be up for empirical studies to reveal. That said, I’m a theorist and I would warn against placing too much weight on empirical studies until we better learn how to work in diverse teams. As we learn how to achieve diversity bonuses, we will increase the likelihood and magnitude of those bonuses.

Do diversity bonuses exist for all problems?
No! Diversity bonuses will only exist on complex, high dimensional tasks. On routine tasks like processing claims forms, packing boxes, or chopping down trees, no bonus will exist. The performance of the team equals the sum of the performances of the individuals. Economists call such tasks separable.

Diversity bonuses arise in complex, high dimensional contexts. As work becomes more cognitive—most high value workers solve problems, design, predict, and create—diversity bonuses become more and more important.

How do diversity bonuses challenge current thinking?
Diversity bonuses challenge narrow “meritocratic” thinking. Diversity bonuses mean that the best team will not, as a rule, consist of the best performing individuals. The best team will include diverse thinkers. Hiring, college admissions, and promotion decisions tend to make direct comparisons among individuals rather than think about what a person brings to teams.

How does an organization produce diversity bonuses?
That’s a great question. It used to be that organizations had diversity policies. Now, almost all organizations speak about diversity and inclusion. That’s because diversity bonuses do not come for free. You cannot just toss diverse people in a room together and expect bonuses to fall from the sky. Bonuses happen for a reason. They have an underlying logic. The book lays out that logic to guide you to diversity bonuses. Without that logic, to paraphrase Da Vinci, you are setting sail without a rudder or compass.

The logic suggests the following: you must identify the tasks where diversity bonuses will exist, you must create space and opportunity for people to contribute, you must reduce biases in hiring and recruiting, you must adopt policies and protocols that enable diversity bonuses, and, most important, you must practice.


PageScott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies and Diversity and Complexity. He has been a featured speaker at Davos as well as at organizations such as Google, Bloomberg, BlackRock, Boeing, and NASA.

Matthew Simonton: American Oligarchy

SimontonThe 2016 election brought the burning issue of populism home to the United States. Donald Trump is, in many ways, part of a larger movement of populist politicians worldwide who have claimed to speak in the name of the “ordinary people.” (Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are other examples.) As with other populists, Trump’s presidency brings with it unsettling questions about illiberalism and ethno-nationalism. But in all the talk about “making American great again,” we are in danger of losing sight of a deeper problem, one which Trump will not change and in fact will likely exacerbate: the steady creep of oligarchy. The United States Constitution is enacted in the name of “We the People.” Abraham Lincoln famously described America’s political system in the Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet how much authority do ordinary citizens truly possess in today’s America? As the ancient Athenians would have put it, does the demos (people) in fact have kratos (power)?

Several indicators suggest that that power, if it ever was actually held by the people, is slipping away. Princeton University Press authors Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have brought before our eyes hard truths about our “unequal democracy,” the fact that, too often, “affluence” brings “influence.” Gilens and the political scientist Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in an important article from 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens … have little or no independent influence.” Readers familiar with the findings of the economist Thomas Piketty have heard that the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies are entering a new “Gilded Age” of wealth concentration. Can anything turn back inequality—what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time”—and the widening gap in political power and influence that comes with it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer to the problem of inequality, which they called demokratia. It is well known that Greek-style democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens determining policy by majority vote in open-air assemblies. Yet democracy meant more than just meetings: political offices were distributed randomly, by lottery, on the assumption that every citizen was qualified (and in fact obligated) to participate in politics. Office-holders were also remunerated by the state, to ensure that poorer citizens who had to work for a living could still share in the constitution. Princeton author Josiah Ober has examined the ideology and practice of ancient democracy in multiple publications. In his latest work—similar in its conclusions to those of the ancient historian Alain Bresson—he has argued that democracies created fair rules and equal access to opportunity that secured citizen dignity and discouraged runaway economic inequality. Thus, as much as ancient democracies fall short of our contemporary standards (and they had grave faults in the areas of slave-holding and gender relations), they might constitute a model, however imperfect, for thinking about reducing both economic and political inequality.

On the other hand, many Greek city-states had a form of constitution based on diametrically opposed premises, and which encouraged opposite tendencies. This was oligarchia, the “rule of the few.” Ancient Greek oligarchs—members of the wealthy elite—most assuredly did not believe in citizen equality. Oligarchs thought that their greater wealth, which (by their lights, anyway) afforded them greater intelligence and virtue, made them uniquely qualified to rule. The non-elite, which then as today represented the poorer majority, had to be kept out of politics. (For a recent argument in favor of such an “oligarchy of the wise,” see Princeton author Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy.)

In my book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, I chart the rise of oligarchic thinking, showing that it emerged in conscious reaction to democracy, or the “power of the people.” Faced with the challenges democracy brought to their affluence and influence, oligarchs devised a new set of political institutions, which would ensure that the people could make no inroads into oligarchic privilege. This was not simply a matter of attaching property requirements to office-holding, although oligarchs certainly considered that essential. Oligarchies also stacked the judicial system in elites’ favor; sought to control the people’s speech, movement, and association; hoarded and manipulated information crucial to the city’s well-being; feathered their own nests with economic perquisites; and on occasion even resorted to extra-legal assassination to eliminate subversives. Oligarchies were, in short, authoritarian regimes. Engaging with contemporary scholarship in political science on authoritarianism, I show that ancient Greek oligarchies confronted the same basic problems that haunt modern authoritarians, and experimented with similar institutions for preserving their rule. In ways that have not been fully apparent until now, oligarchs and demos resemble today’s dictators and democrats.

As history shows us, inequality in one area (wealth) tends to convince elites that they have unequal abilities in another (politics). Yet in situations like that of Classical Greek oligarchy, when the wealthy obtain the unaccountable political power they desire, the result is not enlightened government but increased oppression. It would do citizens of modern democracies good to bear this in mind. In the United States, many are frustrated with politics, and with democracy in particular. Liberals worry about the supposed ignorance of the electorate. Conservatives want to restrict what majorities can legislate, especially in the area of economics. And the last election saw countless voters openly embrace a vision of America as headed by a billionaire strongman. In longing for a restriction on democracy, however—even if “only” meant for those with whom we disagree—we increase the likelihood of a more general oligarchic takeover. We play into oligarchs’ hands. If the Greek example is any indication, such short-term thinking would bode ill for the freedom of all citizens—and it would only make inequality worse.

Matthew Simonton is assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is the author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.

Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.


Jim Campbell: A new analysis in Polarized dispels election controversy

Overlooked “Unfavorability” Trends Raise Doubts that Comey Cost Clinton the Election

In her newly released What Happened and in interviews accompanying the book’s release, Hillary Clinton claims that former FBI Director James Comey’s late October re-opening of the investigation into the mishandling of national security emails was “the determining factor” in her 2016 presidential election loss. In the new afterword of the paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, I report evidence indicating that Comey’s letter did not cause Clinton’s loss.The suspected Comey-effect is tested by examining changes in Gallup’s unfavorability ratings of Clinton and Trump. The data shows that the decline in Clinton’s poll lead over Trump in the last weeks of the campaign was not the result of voters becoming more negative about Clinton (as would be the case if they were moved by the Comey letter). It was the result of voters becoming less negative about Trump (a development with no plausible link to the Comey letter). Comey didn’t drive voters away from Clinton. Rather, “Never Trump” Republicans were grudgingly becoming “Reluctant Trump” voters.

This finding is consistent with the earlier finding of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s (AAPOR) Ad Hoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling. The Committee found evidence that “Clinton’s support started to drop on October 24th or 25th,” perhaps even earlier. This was at least three or four days before Comey’s letter was released.

Read on for the relevant excerpt and details from the afterword of my forthcoming paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America:

In the closing weeks of the campaign, with what they saw as a Clinton victory looming darkly over the horizon, many disgruntled conservative hold-outs came back to the Republican column. As they rationalized or reconsidered their choice, unfavorable opinions about Trump among Republicans declined (about 7 points). Even so, about a fifth of Trump’s voters admitted that they still held an unfavorable view of him. More than a quarter of Trump’s voters said their candidate lacked the temperament to be president. For many, “Never Trump” had become “Reluctantly Trump.” They held their noses and cast their votes. Between Trump and Clinton, about 85% of conservative votes went to Trump. Along with sour views of national conditions, polarization had offset or overridden the grave reservations many conservatives had about a Trump vote.

Widespread and intense polarized views, across the public and between the parties, shaped the 2016 election. On one side of the spectrum, polarization compelled liberals to overlook Clinton’s scandals and deficiencies as a candidate as well as a sputtering economy and unstable international conditions. On the other side, dissatisfaction with national conditions and polarization compelled conservatives to vote for a candidate many thought lacked the rudimentary leadership qualities needed in a president. Non-ideological centrists again were caught in the middle–by ideology, by the candidates’ considerable shortcomings, and by generally dreary views of national conditions. Their vote split favored Clinton over Trump (52% to 40%, with 8% going to minor party candidates), close to its two-party division in 2012. The three components of the vote (polarization, the candidates, and national conditions) left voters closely enough divided to make an electoral vote majority for Trump possible.

Although the above explanation of the election is supported by the evidence and fits established theory, two other controversial explanations have gained some currency. They trace Trump’s surprising victory to Russia’s meddling in the election (by hacking Democratic emails and releasing them through Wikileaks) and FBI Director Comey’s late October letter, re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of confidential national security emails. Some, including Clinton herself, contend Wikileaks and Comey’s letter caused the collapse of Clinton’s lead over Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign.

The evidence says otherwise. Contrary to the speculation, neither Wikileaks nor Comey’s letter had anything to do with the shriveling of Clinton’s lead. If either had been responsible, they would also have caused more voters to view Clinton negatively–but opinions about her did not grow more negative. Unfavorable opinions of Clinton were remarkably steady. From August to late September, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorables in Gallup polls averaged 55%. Her unfavorables in the Gallup poll completed on the day Comey released his letter (October 28) stood at 55%. In the exit polls, after Wikileaks and after Comey’s letter, her unfavorables were unchanged at 55%. Opinions about Hillary Clinton, a figure in the political spotlight for a quarter century, had long been highly and solidly polarized. Nothing Wikileaks revealed or Comey said was going to change minds about her at that late stage of the game.

The race tightened in the last weeks of the campaign because Trump’s unfavorables declined (by about 5 points). They declined as some conservatives and moderates with qualms about Trump came to the unpleasant realization that voting for Trump was the only possible way they could help prevent Clinton’s election. Some dealt with the dissonance of voting for a candidate they disliked by rationalizing, reassessing, or otherwise softening their views of Trump, trying to convince themselves that maybe “the lesser to two evils” was not really so awful after all. In voting, as in everything else, people tend to postpone unpleasant decisions as long as they can and make them as painless to themselves as they can.

The decay of Clinton’s October poll lead was not about Russian and Wikileaks meddling in the election and not about Comey’s letter. It was about polarization, in conjunction with dissatisfaction about national conditions, belatedly overriding the serious concerns many voters had about Donald Trump as a potential president. Trump’s candidacy put polarization to the test. His election testified to how powerful polarization has become. The highly polarized views of Americans and the highly polarized positions of the parties were critical to how voters perceived and responded to the candidates’ shortcomings and the nation’s problems.

James E. Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His books include The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National VoteThe Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections, and Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.