Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

***

This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

In 480 BCE, the citizens of Athens were in more trouble than it is possible for our modern minds to fathom. Xerxes, the seemingly omnipotent son of Darius the Great, had some unfinished business left to him by his father. A decade earlier, at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BCE, the miraculous had happened: the underrated Athenian army had seen off Darius and his mighty Persian horde, saving the threatened city-state from certain destruction. Now Xerxes had invaded Greece again, to finish the work his father had started, and he’d assembled a vast army that the Greek historian Herodotus (typically exaggerating) put at 5 million, but – though modern scholars disagree on precise numbers – was likely to have been a still-overwhelming force of 360,000, on top of a gigantic armada of 750 ships. Confronted with an insurmountable foe and almost certain destruction, the hard-pressed Athenian leadership requested the services of the world’s first political risk consultant.

Already, by 480 BCE, the Pythia of Delphi was an ancient institution. Now commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi – when, in ancient Greek, the oracles were the pronouncements that the Pythia dispensed – the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy. For more than 1,100 years (until 390 CE, when radical Christians chased the last Pythia out of Parnassus), they were viewed as the most authoritative soothsayers in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. From the small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state – the likely result of imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Pythia would be sitting in a perforated cauldron astride a tripod. Pilgrims reported (and Plutarch, who for a time served as high priest at Delphi, assisting the Pythia in her mission, confirmed) that as she inhaled the strange vapours her hair would stand on end, her complexion altered, and she would often begin panting, her voice assuming an otherworldly tone. In classical days it was said that the Pythia spoke in rhyme, in pentameter or hexameter. To put it in modern terms, the Pythia was clearly as high as a kite. But let’s look at the Pythia afresh, for I would argue that the Temple at Delphi was effectively the world’s first political risk-consulting firm.

Since the height of the Persian Wars, political and business leaders have looked to outsiders blessed with seemingly magical knowledge to divine both the present and the future. While the tools of divination have obviously changed, the pressing need for establishing the rules of the road for managing risk in geopolitics have not. The question for political risk analysis remains the same as it was during the heyday of the Pythia: with superior knowledge (spiritual or intellectual), can we reliably do this?

The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages, not least her outsider status, curiously track the qualities that political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. In their isolation at Mount Parnassus, the Pythia were not in danger of elite capture, and the curse of analytical groupthink that so often follows, in terms of what they predicated. This is the curse that doomed so many modern-day analysts to be so very wrong about the Brexit vote because they didn’t bother to look outside the hermetically sealed elite shell of London; or the startling advent of Donald Trump (they never left the East Coast corridor). Physical, intellectual and emotional distance have great analytical value.

Yet despite being isolated, the Pythia had limited but regular contact with the elites of the day who made the arduous trek to visit them. Over time, the priestesses at the Temple of Apollo came to understand what it was their clients wished to know, and how to provide exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice. It should be noted that the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, well-acquainted with the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from (and yet connection to) the centres of corruption and power, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today.

The Pythia offered practical counsel that could shape future actions, just as political risk analysts do today – though we’d use modern jargon and call it ‘policy’ in the public sphere, and ‘corporate strategy’ in the business world. It is amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, and well over half of these are said to be historically correct. (I can name a goodly number of modern firms that would kill for that record.)

There has always been a market to answer basic political risk questions: can the Persians be stopped, and if so how? Will the UK vote for Brexit? Will Trump become president? Then as now, those with a reputation for getting basic political risk questions right were venerated, just as those who failed were over time discredited. Crucially, on the biggest political risk question Delphi was ever presented with – Xerxes’ invasion – the Pythia came through with flying colours. In her peculiar poetic and riddling fashion she suggested a ploy to get the Athenians off the hook. She recounted that when Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and the patron of her namesake city, implored her father Zeus to save Athens, he told her that he would grant them ‘a wall of wood that alone should be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children’.

Naturally, the Pythia’s mysterious oracular pronouncements required interpretation by the city leaders of Athens. One of them, Themistocles, argued that a wall of wood specifically referred to the Athenian navy, and persuaded the city’s leaders to adopt a maritime-first strategy against the Persians. This policy – concocted by the Pythia – led directly to the decisive naval Battle of Salamis, the turning point that brought to an end the Persian risk to Athens’s very survival. To put it mildly, the Pythia had proven to be well worth her political-risk fee – both the direct monetary payment customarily made to her by pilgrims, and the larger donations to the gods, which secured petitioners an advanced place in the line.

To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk by John C Hulsman is out now via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Sebastian Edwards on American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

EdwardsThe American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the U.S. dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history. At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.

Americans believe that the Federal government has never defaulted on its debt. Yet in your book, you tell the story of a massive debt restructuring that happened only eight decades ago, in 1933. A debt restructuring that changed contracts unilaterally and retroactively, and imposed losses of 61% on investors. Why do you think that this episode is so little known?

This is a case of “collective amnesia.” Americans think of themselves as law-abiding citizens. We think of the United States as a country where institutions work and where contracts are sacred; a country where the rule of law prevails at all times. Reneging on contracts is not something this nation does. And, certainly, we don’t change contracts retroactively. It is something that “banana republics” do. And when they do it, we scold them and denounce them. We also demand compensation for damages.

When the Supreme Court heard the gold clause cases in 1935, most analysts thought that these were among the most important cases ever considered by the Court. Today, however, they are not even taught in most law schools. We have forgotten the episode because it is convenient, because it helps us maintain the view we have about our nation: a nation that always pays its debts. But, as I show in this book, this is not the case.

Your book is about the annulment of the gold clauses in 1933, and the Supreme Court decisions that ruled that it was legal to change debt contracts retroactively. What were the gold clauses, exactly? And what was their role?

Historically, most long-term debt contracts in the United States were written in terms of gold. That is, the borrower committed himself to paying back an amount of gold (or gold equivalent) equal to the amount borrowed, plus interest. This practice started during the Civil War to protect lenders from possible inflation.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard, all public debt included the gold clause. In addition, most railway and public utility bonds had gold clauses, as did most mortgages. Overall, debt equivalent to approximately 120% of GDP was subject to these escalation riders. That is a huge number. To put things in perspective, it is about twice as large as the debt that Argentina restructured unilaterally in 2002.

You write that the abrogation of the gold clauses was closely related to the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933.

In 1933, President Roosevelt thought that the U.S. could benefit from devaluing the dollar with respect to gold. This had been done by the United Kingdom in September 1931, and it appeared to be helping the UK get out of the depression. However, FDR was told by his advisers that the gold clauses stood in the way of a devaluation. With the gold clauses in place, a devaluation of the USD would immediately trigger an increase in debts by the same amount as the devaluation. This would bankrupt almost every railway company, and many other businesses. It would also be extremely costly for the government. It was at this point that FDR decided to abrogate the gold clauses. The actual annulment took place on June 5, 1933.

When emerging countries, such as Argentina, devalue their currency and restructure their debts, we often brand them as “populists.” Was there a populist element in FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard and abrogate the gold clauses?

One of the main issues in 1933 was how to raise agricultural prices, which had declined by almost 70% since 1919. After the 1932 election there was a large bloc of populists, pro-agrarian members in Congress. The better known one was Senator Huey Long, but there were others. Two very influential ones were Senator Elmer Thomas from Oklahoma, and Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana. They were “inflationists,” and believed that getting off gold would help increase commodity prices. To a large extent the devaluation of the dollar—from $20.67 to $35 per ounce of gold—was to placate this group of “populist” lawmakers. Wheeler was also an isolationist. In Philip Roth novel The Plot against America, Wheeler is a fictional vice president, and aviator Charles Lindbergh is the president.

There are still some people who believe that getting off gold was a mistake. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should the U.S. go back to gold?

Most economic historians—including Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke—agree that one of the main consequences of devaluing the dollar in 1934 was that the country received a huge inflow of gold. This additional gold was monetized by the Federal Reserve. As a consequence, there was a large increase in credit. This triggered a recovery, and helped reduce unemployment. A key question, which I address in the book, is whether it was possible, at the time, to put in place an expansionary monetary policy and still maintain some form of a gold-based standard. This is a controversial issue; British economist John Maynard Keynes believed that it was possible; many modern economists believe that it was not.

You argue in the book that at the time most economists were perplexed and didn’t know how to face the Great Depression. Apparently they didn’t understand the effects of fluctuating exchange rates.

In the 1930s the economic analysis of currency values and currency adjustments was in its infancy. Some well-known economists, such as Yale’s Irving Fisher, were very critical of the gold standard, and suggested pegging the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities. Other, including Princeton’s Edwin Kemmerer and Chicago’s Jacob Viner, were convinced that, in spite of some shortcomings, the gold standard was the best available monetary system. In the book I tell the story of how these two groups for FDR’s ear. I discuss who said what and how the President reacted to their advice.

You write that in 1933 George F. Warren was the most influential economist in the world. However, today almost no one knows his name. Who was he, and why was he so important?

George F. Warren was a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, and a friend of Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Morgenthau was a neighbor and friend of President Roosevelt, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury. In 1931, Warren published a book titled Prices, where he argued that agricultural prices were related in a one-to-one fashion to the price of gold. If the price of the metal increased through a devaluation of the USD, the price of wheat, corn, cotton, eggs and so on would increase immediately and by the same amount. Starting in July 1933, Warren became Roosevelt’s main economic adviser. In October the president put in place a “gold buying program” based on Warren’s theories. Every morning FDR would determine an arbitrary price at which the government bought small amounts of gold. The president’s expectation was that agricultural prices would follow in short order. But that didn’t happen; the program did not work as expected. John Maynard Keynes criticized it strongly, and in January 1934 the program was abandoned. In the book I discuss, in great detail, Warren’s theories and I compare them to those of other prominent economists, including Irving Fisher’s.

You devote quite some time to the cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. What can you tell us about them?

At the time, the Court was deeply divided. There was a conservative bloc led by Justice James Clark McReynolds, and a liberal bloc that included Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice, was often the swing vote. The cases were fascinating for several reasons; first, the Administration used a “necessity” argument to support the Joint Resolution that abrogated the gold clauses. This argument is very similar—in fact, almost identical—to the argument used recently by countries such as Argentina when restructured their debts unilaterally. Second, the government made very sophisticated economic arguments; in order to support them, it included a number of charts and diagrams in its briefs. Third, the rulings were very convoluted and controversial. In the case involving public debt (a Liberty Bond, to be more precise), the Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power, and that the abrogation was thus unconstitutional. However, the Court said, there were no damages involved. That is, the government had violated the Constitution, but didn’t have to compensate bond holder for losses.

In modern times, countries that default and/or restructure their debts unilaterally pay a cost. Generally speaking, they have great difficulties accessing the capital markets. However, this was not the case for the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I discuss this issue in great detail in the book. Milton Friedman argued that by expropriating property rights the abrogation had severe negative effects on the U.S. economy. It negatively affected investment. I combed the data and didn’t find significant dislocations or signs of distress in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court rulings. In the final chapters of the book I give a possible explanation for this. I point out why the U.S. case is so different from recent default episodes, including Argentina and Greece.

Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania and Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. He lives in Los Angeles.

Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.

Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

by Jerry Muller

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance. 

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximise the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation. If the rate of major crimes in a district becomes the metric according to which police officers are promoted, then some officers will respond by simply not recording crimes or downgrading them from major offences to misdemeanours. Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

When reward is tied to measured performance, metric fixation invites just this sort of gaming. But metric fixation also leads to a variety of more subtle unintended negative consequences. These include goal displacement, which comes in many varieties: when performance is judged by a few measures, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a pay rise or raising the stock price at the time that stock options are vested), people focus on satisfying those measures – often at the expense of other, more important organisational goals that are not measured. The best-known example is ‘teaching to the test’, a widespread phenomenon that has distorted primary and secondary education in the United States since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Short-termism is another negative. Measured performance encourages what the US sociologist Robert K Merton in 1936 called ‘the imperious immediacy of interests … where the actor’s paramount concern with the foreseen immediate consequences excludes consideration of further or other consequences’. In short, advancing short-term goals at the expense of long-range considerations. This problem is endemic to publicly traded corporations that sacrifice long-term research and development, and the development of their staff, to the perceived imperatives of the quarterly report.

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organisation, while sapping their enthusiasm. In an attempt to staunch the flow of faulty metrics through gaming, cheating and goal diversion, organisations often institute a cascade of rules, even as complying with them further slows down the institution’s functioning and diminishes its efficiency.

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate co-operation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.

Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.

Organisations in thrall to metrics end up motivating those members of staff with greater initiative to move out of the mainstream, where the culture of accountable performance prevails. Teachers move out of public schools to private and charter schools. Engineers move out of large corporations to boutique firms. Enterprising government employees become consultants. There is a healthy element to this, of course. But surely the large-scale organisations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate. The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.

Economists such as Dale Jorgenson of Harvard University, who specialise in measuring economic productivity, report that in recent years the only increase in total-factor productivity in the US economy has been in the information technology-producing industries. The question that ought to be asked next, then, is to what extent the culture of metrics – with its costs in employee time, morale and initiative, and its promotion of short-termism – has itself contributed to economic stagnation?Aeon counter – do not remove

Jerry Z. Muller is the author of many books, including The Tyranny of Metrics. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

 

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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. 

 

Tsai

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.