Ken Steiglitz: When Caruso’s Voice Became Immortal

We’re excited to introduce a new series from Ken Steiglitz, computer science professor at Princeton University and author of The Discrete Charm of the Machine, out now. 

The first record to sell a million copies was Enrico Caruso’s 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba.” There was nothing digital, or even electrical about it; it was a strictly mechanical affair. In those days musicians would huddle around a horn which collected their sound waves, and that energy was coupled mechanically to a diaphragm and then to a needle that traced the waveforms on a wax or metal-foil cylinder or disc. For many years even the playback was completely mechanical, with a spring-wound motor and a reverse acoustical system that sent the waveform from what was often a 78 rpm shellac disc to a needle, diaphragm, and horn. Caruso almost single-handedly started a cultural revolution as the first recording star and became a household name—and millionaire (in 1904 dollars)—in the process. All without the benefit of electricity, and certainly purely analog from start to finish. Digital sound recording for the masses was 80 years in the future.

Enrico Caruso drew this self portrait on April 11, 1902 to commemorate his first recordings for RCA Victor. The process was completely analog and mechanical. As you can see, Caruso sang into a horn; there were no microphones. [Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons]

The 1904 Caruso recording I mentioned is perhaps the most famous single side ever made and is readily available online. It was a sensation and music lovers who could afford it were happy to invest in the 78 rpm (or simply “78”) disc, not to mention the elaborate contraption that played it. In the early twentieth century a 78 cost about a dollar or so, but 1904 dollars were worth about 30 of today’s dollars, a steep price for 2 minutes and 28 seconds of sound full of hisses, pops, and crackles, and practically no bass or treble. In fact the disc surface noise in the versions you’re likely to hear today has been cleaned up and the sound quality greatly improved—by digital processing of course. But being able to hear Caruso in your living room was the sensation of the new century.The poor sound quality of early recordings was not the worst of it. That could be fixed, and eventually it was. The long-playing stereo record (now usually called just “vinyl”) made the 1960s and 70s the golden age of high fidelity, and the audiophile was born. I especially remember, for example, the remarkable sound of the Mercury Living Presence and Deutsche Grammophon labels. The market for high-quality home equipment boomed, and it was easy to spend thousands of dollars on the latest high-tech gear. But all was not well. The pressure of the stylus, usually diamond, on the vinyl disc wore both. There is about a half mile of groove on an LP record, and the stylus that tracks it has a very sharp, very hard tip; records wear out. Not as quickly as the shellac discs of the 20s and 30s, but they wear out.

The noise problem for analog recordings is exacerbated when many tracks are combined, a standard practice in studio work in the recording industry. Sound in analog form is just inherently fragile; its quality deteriorates every time it is copied or played back on a turntable or past a tape head.

Everything changed in 1982 with the introduction of the compact disc (CD), which was digital. Each CD holds about 400 million samples of a 74-minute stereo sound waveform, each sample represented by a 2-byte number (a byte is 8 bits). In this world those 800 million bytes, or 6.4 billion bits (zeros or ones) can be stored and copied forever, absolutely perfectly. Those 6.4 billion bits are quite safe for as long as our civilization endures.

There are 19th century tenors whose voices we will never hear. But Caruso, Corelli, Domingo, Pavarotti… their digital voices are truly immortal.

SteiglitzKen Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include The Discrete Charm of the MachineCombinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”

J. C. Sharman on Empires of the Weak

SharmanWhat accounts for the rise of the state, the creation of the first global system, and the dominance of the West? The conventional answer asserts that superior technology, tactics, and institutions forged by Darwinian military competition gave Europeans a decisive advantage in war over other civilizations from 1500 onward. In contrast, Empires of the Weak argues that Europeans actually had no general military superiority in the early modern era. J. C. Sharman shows instead that European expansion from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries is better explained by deference to strong Asian and African polities, disease in the Americas, and maritime supremacy earned by default because local land-oriented polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. Bringing a revisionist perspective to the idea that Europe ruled the world due to military dominance, this book demonstrates that the rise of the West was an exception in the prevailing world order.

Scholars have long argued that the dominance of the West can be attributed to superior technology, tactics, and institutions. Your book takes an opposing view. Can you describe it?

The standard view is to see Western expansion as synonymous with Western dominance, but my book separates the two. For around three centuries, Western expansion was more often the result of deference and subordination to non-Western rulers. Africans and Asians tolerated a weak European presence because Europeans were generally fixated on the control of the seas, which more powerful but terrestrially-oriented non-Western rulers generally didn’t care about. Even in the Americas, European victories were much more partial and incomplete than often portrayed, and were generally the result of disease and demography rather than superior technology, tactics and institutions.

What accounts for the narrative that the West came to power through general superiority?

The conventional ‘military revolution’ thesis argues that Western expansion reflected superior technology and institutions, basically guns and states. Supposedly, these advantages were first developed in the fiercely competitive environment of European warfare, and then applied to conquer the rest of the world. I argue this thesis is wrong, for several reasons, but particularly because of a reading of history which starts at ‘the end’ of the story, i.e. Western superiority, and then views the historical record from this supposed end-point. So European victories get a lot of coverage, because Europeans won in the end, whereas the Ottoman, Mughal and successive Chinese empires, which were much more powerful than their European counterparts for most of their existence, can be written off, because these empires lost in the end. But of course everyone loses in the end. The Europeans lost their empires, and someday the United States will lose too. Interestingly, even post-colonial scholars and those most critical of European imperialism tend to play into the narrative of powerful Westerners dominating everyone else. 

If the dominance of the West is an aberration to the prevailing global international system, what does a typical system look like?

Very roughly we can say that we’ve had some sort of global international system for five centuries. In most of Africa and Asia, Europeans weren’t really dominant until the nineteenth century (and this didn’t last long). In the three hundred years before, the typical arrangement was for Westerners to interact with Asian and African polities on a basis of inferiority. But because culture, ideas, and legitimacy are so important for shaping the international system, it’s hard to say what a typical form is.

For example, in the late nineteenth century the consensus was that any great power worthy of the name had to have an empire, and so we had an international system of empires, even though most empires lost money and didn’t confer security benefits. Then in a huge change that social scientists spend far too little time thinking about, empires went out of fashion. Now we have an international system of formally equal states, even though most states are pretty hopeless at performing the functions that are meant to justify their existence.

What led you to write this book?

The first reason was historical: that there was this hugely important undiscovered early modern international system out there, or at least a neglected and misunderstood international system, waiting to be explored. To me what makes international politics in the period 1500-1800 so exciting is that it upends our presumptions of superior, more powerful Westerners dominating everybody else. Sometimes this happened, but for two to three centuries Westerners were more likely to be dominated by non-Westerners, including in Europe.

The second reason was a basic rejection of the standard functionalist presumption that on average organizations work well, i.e. efficiently and effectively, because of learning and competition. On the contrary, I think getting the job done efficiently has very little to do with how organizations are structured and how they work.

For example, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that most meetings in universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies are a waste of time (and hence money). But people can simultaneously know this, while continuing to go to and schedule endless meetings, without any plans to change this situation. Organizations, including militaries and states, do not learn to become more efficient, and are not penalized for their inefficiency. In environments of overwhelming complexity, they mainly stick to ritualized ways of doing things, like going to meetings.

What does the book have to say about international politics today and in the future?

Historians have done an excellent job of showing how the way we think about the past affects our views of the present and the future, and this point certainly applies to international politics. All sorts of things we currently tend to take for granted about international politics are in fact strange, while some important things we tend to think of as strange, and perhaps worrying, are actually the historical norm. The fact that all the world’s polities are today organized as one homogenous type of unit, the sovereign state, is very unusual by historical standards. Looking to the future, if China or other non-Western states were to become the most powerful in the twenty-first century (and social scientists are lousy at predictions so I have no idea if this will happen), rather than being unprecedented, this would in fact be a return to the historical norm in international politics.

J. C. Sharman is the Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. His books include The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management and International Order in Diversity. He lives in London.

On Influence: Robert Hayden in Dakar

After having a conversation about a novel I’ve since forgotten, my undergraduate literature professor at the University of Michigan gave me a paperback copy of Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems.  Perhaps this gesture was to end our conversation as he had a flight to catch or, more effectively, optimistically, this was to preface another: one that would extend more than an hour in an office?  I hadn’t heard of Hayden or his poetry, so I was curious, especially since my professor gave me the book and said, “read” before leading me outside the office, locking the door and exiting the building.

There I was in front of the building, in front of the heavy oak and glass doors waving to a swiftly- moving-wrinkled trench coat and holding that gray book thinking it matched the sky’s grayness, the pavement’s grayness, the grayness of my sweater, the grayness I felt.  My professor didn’t even say, I think you’ll like it.  Or this is a necessary poet, or by reading these poems your poetry may deepen.  I was uncertain he knew I actually wrote, attempted to write, hoped to write.

I went to the café on State Street, ordered a green tea and began reading that book.  There was a progression, a movement in those poems, in myself as I read.  Those stark-glimmering short lines, the longer lines that seemed to float from the page, absorb into the air like sandalwood or the oily spray of clementine peels.  His poems speak to beauty, tragedy, Americanness, African-Americanness, myths both African and Western, the natural world, the personal, urbanity and rurality.  All of these strands stitched into poems where the stitching is invisible, where I surrendered to that language and craft.  I had found a poet to follow, to aspire association.  I had found an imagination to step within, believe, one that would magnify my own. 

I didn’t read the whole book in that café but did in my dorm room that evening.  For a couple of days around campus and to my classes, I wore a silk bowtie in his honor— it ended up not being my style or rather, due to peer pressure, I stopped.  However, I kept the loosened tie on top of my dresser just to remember, to ponder Hayden.

In the following two weeks, I thanked my professor for the book.  He nodded and from there we talked about the poems, specifically their breadth and keen structures.  We talked about Hayden’s beautiful imagination despite his devastating childhood.  He wrote a poem in the voice of an extraterrestrial giving an eyewitness report of America.  What? I said.  My professor responded, “I see you.”  There was silence, a good silence.  He knew I needed those poems.  He knew I needed that book.  He knew I needed to know Hayden. 

He broke the silence to say Hayden had taught at the University for several years, before my time, our time.  But what mattered was he’d been there, and his presence, his energy remained.   

Hayden heightened my sense of possibility as a poet.  That wide imagination could live in the poems I would write.

Years later, I read of Hayden garnering the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.  A year later, he attended the ceremony in New York City to receive the award from Senegal’s first president Leopold Senghor.  Langston Hughes was at that ceremony and there asked Hayden to autograph his Selected Poems

I don’t believe Hayden was in Dakar when his award was announced in 1966.  When I traveled to Dakar in 2014, I thought of Hayden.  I wondered how he would have absorbed that city.  How he would have walked in the sun with all of that pink sand on the ground, the light dusting of it on roofs and windshields of parked cars.  I wondered what poems he would have made if he’d see the hustle of that city, the beauty of it and its people, its pace.  I wondered what meal he and Senghor would have had together.  And if, after the tea was poured, they’d read each other’s new poems pulled, simultaneously, from the hidden pockets of their linen blazers. 

But this is just me wondering, imagining.  These poems may be the ones I will, at some point write with my eyes closed to the sun. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Ken Steiglitz on The Discrete Charm of the Machine

SteiglitzA few short decades ago, we were informed by the smooth signals of analog television and radio; we communicated using our analog telephones; and we even computed with analog computers. Today our world is digital, built with zeros and ones. Why did this revolution occur? The Discrete Charm of the Machine explains, in an engaging and accessible manner, the varied physical and logical reasons behind this radical transformation. Ken Steiglitz examines why our information technology, the lifeblood of our civilization, became digital, and challenges us to think about where its future trajectory may lead.

What is the aim of the book?

The subtitle: To explain why the world became digital. Barely two generations ago our information machines—radio, TV, computers, telephones, phonographs, cameras—were analog. Information was represented by smoothly varying waves. Today all these devices are digital. Information is represented by bits, zeros and ones. We trace the reasons for this radical change, some based on fundamental physical principles, others on ideas from communication theory and computer science. At the end we arrive at the present age of the internet, dominated by digital communication, and finally greet the arrival of androids—the logical end of our current pursuit of artificial intelligence. 

What role did war play in this transformation?

Sadly, World War II was a major impetus to many of the developments leading to the digital world, mainly because of the need for better methods for decrypting intercepted secret messages and more powerful computation for building the atomic bomb. The following Cold War just increased the pressure. Business applications of computers and then, of course, the personal computer opened the floodgates for the machines that are today never far from our fingertips.

How did you come to study this subject?

I lived it. As an electrical engineering undergraduate I used both analog and digital computers. My first summer job was programming one of the few digital computers in Manhattan at the time, the IBM 704. In graduate school I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between analog and digital signal processing and my research for the next twenty years or so concentrated on digital signal processing: using computers to process sound and images in digital form.

What physical theory played—and continues to play—a key role in the revolution?

Quantum mechanics, without a doubt. The theory explains the essential nature of noise, which is the natural enemy of analog information; it makes possible the shrinkage and speedup of our electronics (Moore’s law); and it introduces the possibility of an entirely new kind of computer, the quantum computer, which can transcend the power of today’s conventional machines. Quantum mechanics shows that many aspects of the world are essentially discrete in nature, and the change from the classical physics of the nineteenth century to the quantum mechanics of the twentieth is mirrored in the development of our digital information machines.

What mathematical theory plays a key role in understanding the limitations of computers?

Complexity theory and the idea of an intractable problem, as developed by computer scientists. This theme is explored in Part III, first in terms of analog computers, then using Alan Turing’s abstraction of digital computation, which we now call the Turing machine. This leads to the formulation of the most important open question of computer science, does P equal NP? If P equals NP it would mean that any problem where solutions can just be checked fast can be solved fast. This seems like asking a lot and, in fact, most computer scientists believe that P does not equal NP. Problems as hard as any in NP are called NP-complete. The point is that NP-complete problems, like the famous traveling problem, seem to be intrinsically difficult, and cracking any one of them cracks them all.  Their essential difficulty manifests itself, mysteriously, in many different ways in the analog and digital worlds, suggesting, perhaps, that there is an underlying physical law at work. 

What important open question about physics (not mathematics) speaks to the relative power of digital and analog computers?

The extended Church-Turing thesis states that any reasonable computer can be simulated efficiently by a Turing machine. Informally, it means that no computer, even if analog, is more powerful (in an appropriately defined way) than the bare-boned, step-by-step, one-tape Turing machine. The question is open, but many computer scientists believe it to be true. This line of reasoning leads to an important conclusion: if the extended Church-Turing thesis is true, and if P is not equal to NP (which is widely believed), then the digital computer is all we need—Nature is not hiding any computational magic in the analog world.

What does all this have to do with artificial intelligence (AI)?

The brain uses information in both analog and digital form, and some have even suggested that it uses quantum computing. So, the argument goes, perhaps the brain has some special powers that cannot be captured by ordinary computers.

What does philosopher David Chalmers call the hard problem?

We finally reach—in the last chapter—the question of whether the androids we are building will ultimately be conscious. Chalmers calls this the hard problem, and some, including myself, think it unanswerable. An affirmative answer would have real and important consequences, despite the seemingly esoteric nature of the question. If machines can be conscious, and presumably also capable of suffering, then we have a moral responsibility to protect them, and—to put it in human terms—bring them up right. I propose that we must give the coming androids the benefit of the doubt; we owe them the same loving care that we as parents bestow on our biological offspring.

Where do we go from here?

A funny thing happens on the way from chapter 1 to 12. I begin with the modest plan of describing, in the simplest way I can, the ideas behind the analog-to-digital revolution.  We visit along the way some surprising tourist spots: the Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year old analog computer built by the ancient Greeks; Jacquard’s embroidery machine with its breakthrough stored program; Ada Lovelace’s program for Babbage’s hypothetical computer, predating Alan Turing by a century; and B. F. Skinner’s pigeons trained in the manner of AI to be living smart bombs. We arrive at a collection of deep conjectures about the way the universe works and some challenging moral questions.

Ken Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include Combinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks (Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Francesca Trivellato on The Promise and Peril of Credit

The Promise and Peril of Credit takes an incisive look at pivotal episodes in the West’s centuries-long struggle to define the place of private finance in the social and political order. It does so through the lens of a persistent legend about Jews and money that reflected the anxieties surrounding the rise of impersonal credit markets.

What are the promises and the perils of credit?

This is a book about the distant past, but to understand its import, we may think about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the foreclosure crisis, a few radical voices called for an end to capitalism. But most people, in one way or another, demanded a fairer capitalism in which Main Street gains as much as Wall Street, and in which ever more intricate financial instruments provide for all and not just for savvy and well-connected insiders. The problem is that we cannot agree on what constitutes fair capitalism. Variations of this ideological and regulatory struggle have existed in Europe since the year 1000, when the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages set in motion the first sustained period of demographic and economic expansion on the continent after the fall of the Roman empire. The more people participated in market exchanges, the more difficult it became to distinguish reliable from bad borrowers, trustworthy from shady bankers.

What is the legend that the books uncovers?

The legend tells the story of Jews fleeing the kingdom of France sometime between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries who invented marine insurance and bills of exchange in order to salvage whatever they could of their assets. The legend is false: Jews did not invent marine insurance and bills of exchange, though they were chased from France multiple times during the Middle Ages and every expulsion was accompanied by confiscation of goods. The first rendition of the legend appeared in print in 1647 in a collection of maritime laws.

What are bills of exchange?

Marine insurance at the time worked in the same way as modern insurance works, but bills of exchange are no longer in use. They were at once a credit instrument and a way of transmitting money abroad in a foreign currency. Picture MoneyGram meets a personal check. Materially, they were slips of papers even smaller than a modern check, scribbled in code (details can be gleaned on the book cover). Bills of exchange allowed merchants to transfer funds rather than risk the theft or the loss at sea of their silver coins. In the hands of the most experienced merchants, they were used to conduct complex speculative financial transactions that were entirely divorced from the purchase and sale of material goods. Bills of exchange symbolized all that was abstract, intangible, arcane, helpful but also potentially dangerous in the growing credit economy of early modern Europe. They were the derivatives of their time.

Why should we care about the legend that attributed to medieval Jews the invention of bills of exchange?

Because it was a preferred way in which until a hundred years ago writers discussed a question that is central to the history of the West: how can we expand the number and range of people who enter the marketplace but control their good behavior? The impersonality of the market is both appealing and threatening. Before and after Adam Smith, the invisible hand was only one of the idealized solutions to the problem of oligopolies. Many writers resorted to Jewish usury as a metaphor to denounce the asymmetries of powers that plagued the market. In this they were assisted by stockpiles of anti-Jewish prejudice images. In its original formulation the legend I discuss adapts this arsenal of anti-Jewish sentiments to denounce the dark forces that could led good Christian borrowers to loose small and large fortunes. Jews were a universal symbol of financial malpractice, to attribute the invention of Europe’s key credit instruments to Jews did not mean that Christians could not put those instruments to good use, but it meant that marine insurance and bills of exchange were tainted by usury as their original sin.

If the legend is as important as you claim, why does no one knows about it?

There are several reasons the legend is forgotten. Bills of exchange have fallen out of use and we have ceased to wonder where they came from. Moreover, economic historians now tend to search for the origins of those financial institutions that have survived into the present, notably the stock market, which developed in 1600 but affected many fewer people than the hundred thousands who handled marine insurance and bills of exchange. There is also a tendency to assume that Jews, both real and imaginary, mattered to European economic thought only in the Middle Ages, before the emergence of a secular “science of commerce” emerged. This is simply not true. Religious language continued to inform most economic writing in the early modern period. To accuse a Christian merchant of being “Jewish” was a way of equating their behavior to that of Jews, who supposedly wished to rob Christians of their wealth.

How did Jews react to the circulation of this legend?

I wish I knew what Jews told each other about a story that some of them surely heard in one version or another. Some Jewish writers did engage with the legend in writing, especially in the nineteenth century. To my knowledge, the first to do so was the father of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had his children baptized, making his son’s political career possible. In some quarters, the legend was a source of Jewish pride and fed the genre known as Jewish-contributions-to-civilization by touting Jewish financial prowess. Other Jewish authors firmly rejected a legend that they saw as mobilizing insidious stereotypes.

Why don’t you ever mention Shylock in a book about Jews and credit?

Some historians have tried to pin down the sources of Shakespeare’s imagination by establishing whether one Jewish merchant or another living in the Venice ghetto in the 1590s may have served as a model for the great English writer. I regard such efforts as futile: literary imagination is not more or less compelling because it is based on identifiable facts. But if we want to judge one of the masterpieces of Renaissance theater by its empirical validity, then The Merchant of Venice would fail the test. The pound of flesh is only one of the dubious references in the play. Shylock would have lent money to Antonio by means of a bill of exchange. Only poor Christians had to deposit a pledge to borrow a small sum in the ghetto. A patrician like Antonio could borrow by using his reputation as collateral. After 1589, when international Jewish merchants hailing from Iberia found a safe haven in Venice, Antonio would have found Jewish merchants able and willing to issue him a bill of exchange. The figure of Shylock really tells us that the Jewish usurer, one of the most long-lasting figments of the Western imagination, was a protean symbol that encompassed stereotypes of both the parasitic Jewish poor and the rapacious Jewish capitalist.

Francesca Trivellato is professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period.

Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi on Austerity

AusterityFiscal austerity is hugely controversial. Opponents argue that it can trigger downward growth spirals and become self-defeating. Supporters argue that budget deficits have to be tackled aggressively at all times and at all costs. In this masterful book, three of today’s leading policy experts cut through the political noise to demonstrate that there is not one type of austerity but many. Bringing needed clarity to one of today’s most challenging subjects, Austerity charts a sensible approach based on data analysis rather than ideology.

What is controversial about fiscal austerity?

The term austerity indicates a policy geared toward the sizeable reduction of government deficits and stabilization of government debt achieved by means of spending cuts or tax increases. Discussions about the relative benefits and costs of austerity policies have been toxic, often taking a very ideological, harsh tone. The anti-austerity front argues that austerity is counterproductive: it results in increases—rather than reductions—in the debt-over-GDP ratio since it generates reductions in the denominator of this ratio which more than offset the gains in the numerator. The pro-austerity front emphasizes the impact of expectations and confidence on government debt. Imagine a situation in which an economy is on an unsustainable path with an exploding public debt. Sooner or later a fiscal stabilization has to occur. The longer this is postponed, the higher the taxes that will need to be raised or the spending to be cut in the future. When the stabilization occurs it removes the uncertainty about further delays which would increase the costs of stabilization.

Why did you write this book?

The contentious discussion on the effects of austerity has distracted commentators and policymakers from meaningful discussion on the enormous difference, on average, between expenditure-based and tax-based austerity plans. This book discusses the theory and the evidence needed to better assess the consequences of the different types of austerity. 

What are the differences in the impact of tax-based measures versus expenditure-based measures?

Spending-based austerity plans are remarkably less costly than tax-based plans. Spending-based plans have, on average, a close to zero effect on output and lead to a reduction of the debt over GDP ratio. Tax-based plans have the opposite effect: they cause large and long lasting recessions and do not lead to the stabilization of the debt to GDP ratio. Two recent examples are the consolidations carried out by Ireland and Spain in response to the Eurozone crisis. The Spanish correction, which featured a larger share of tax hikes, markedly slowed the real GDP growth and did not result in a decline in the debt ratio. Contrast that with Ireland, where the spending-based correction had little output costs and led to a sharp decline in debt.

How should we change our thinking about austerity in order to assess its effectiveness properly?

The empirical analysis of the macroeconomic effect of different types of austerity is crucial. To this end one should start from the data. The book documents in detail close to 200 austerity plans carried out in 16 OECD economies from the late 1970s to 2014. To reconstruct these plans we have consulted original documents (some produced by national authorities, and some produced by organizations such as the OECD, the IMF or the European Commission) concerning about 3,500 individual fiscal measures. The second step is the proper modelling of fiscal actions. When legislatures decide to launch a fiscal consolidation program, this rarely consists of isolated shifts in this or that tax, or in this or that spending item; instead, what is adopted is typically a multi-year plan with the objective of reducing the budget deficit by a certain amount every year. To the extent that expectations matter for the planning of consumers and investors, the multi-year nature of a fiscal adjustment, and the announcements that come with it, impact their economic effects. Third, the effect of different plans on the economy should be assessed. We document a sharp difference between adjustment plans based mostly on tax increases and plans based mostly on expenditure reductions. This finding suggests that there is no “austerity” as such: the effects of austerity policies are sharply different depending on the way they are implemented.

In assessing the empirical evidence we needed to overcome three major obstacles.

The first is the so-called “endogeneity” problem, or the interaction between fiscal policy and output growth. Suppose you observe a reduction in the government deficit and an economic boom. It would be highly questionable to conclude that policies that reduced deficits have generated growth, as it could easily be the other way around. We address the endogeneity problem by considering only policy changes not motivated by the state of the business cycle but rather by a desire to reduce deficits.  

Second, once exogenous fiscal adjustments episodes have been identified, then the calculation of their impact on the economy requires the specification of an empirical model. An important tradeoff emerges here: the simpler the model the easier to calculate the multipliers, but the more likely that important relations among variables are missed. We adopt several models in this book to assess the robustness of our empirical results. 

Third, major episodes of austerity often are accompanied by changes in other policies: monetary policy; exchange rate movements; labor market reforms; regulation or deregulation of various product markets; tax reforms; and so on. In addition, austerity is sometimes adopted at times of crisis due to runaway debts, not in periods of business as usual. We assess explicitly the role of accompanying policies in the determination of the impact of austerity to conclude that the heterogenous effects of tax-based and expenditure-based plans does not depend on different accompanying policies.

In cases where austerity has “gone wrong,” what accounted for that? What should have been done differently?

During 2010-11 the collapse of confidence in sovereign European debt and the explosion of interest rates on government bonds in some countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal) led to a situation that was close to a debt-induced financial crisis. Could the governments of these countries have waited, postponing austerity to when the recession was over? Hard to say. We do not know what would have happened without austerity. What we can say, however, is that even in these cases, namely when austerity policies are implemented during a recession, the differences between the two types of austerity is very relevant: tax-based austerity plans have been much more costly than spending-based plans.

Can you give an example of a government that had the right idea about austerity?

In the 1990s Canada implemented a successful package of large government cuts which, coupled with accommodating monetary policy and structural reforms, was expansionary. In the book we document how since the 1993 elections almost all the contending parties accepted the need for such a reduction in government debt and deficit. In 2010, the Coalition government led by David Cameron in the UK responded to unsustainable and growing deficits with a program of large budget cuts. After this correction, the UK economy grew at respectable rates compared to the other major economies and proved the IMF predictions of a major recession wrong. Finally, and maybe most interestingly, the Irish government in its December 2009 Stability Programme Update was clear in acknowledging the unsuccessful effects of tax-based austerity. This in turn justified the adoption of a package of significant expenditure cuts.

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

Talking about “austerity” without defining how austerity is implemented does not make any sense. The composition of austerity plans is crucial to understanding their effects on growth and fiscal sustainability. The data on 16 OECD countries over the period 1978-2014 show that a spending reduction plan and tax-based plans of the same dimension have different effects on growth. Tax-based plans lead to deep and prolonged recessions, lasting several years. Expenditure-based plans on average exhaust their very mild recessionary effect within two years after a plan is introduced. The component of aggregate demand which mostly drives the heterogeneity between tax-based and expenditure-based austerity is private investment. The effects of fiscal plans on the debt to GDP ratio depend on the initial level of the debt. In the high-debt high-cost of debt scenario, an expenditure-based plan has a stabilizing effect on the debt dynamics while a tax-based plan has a destabilizing effect; in a low-debt low-cost scenario the expenditure-based adjustment remains stabilizing, while the effect of a tax-based plan becomes neutral. The main goal of our work is to explain the evidence and the theory which underlies these results. To this end we discuss the theory; we construct a new data set; we propose to analyze fiscal plans to take the empirical modelling of fiscal policy closer to the real-life process of its implementation; and we consider case-studies and econometric evidence. We also study the role of accompanying policies: devaluations, monetary policy and structural reforms in the goods and labor markets. We devote special attention to the recent round of austerity plans implemented after the financial and Eurozone crises. Finally, we ask the political economy question of whether austerity is the kiss of death for the governments that implement it, concluding that the answer is much less obvious than the popular debate would seem to suggest.

Alberto Alesina is the Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. He is the author, with Francesco Giavazzi, of The Future of Europe: Reform or DeclineCarlo Favero is the Deutsche Bank Chair in Quantitative Finance and Asset Pricing at Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Applied MacroeconometricsFrancesco Giavazzi is professor of economics at Bocconi University.

Cass Sunstein on On Freedom

SunsteinIn this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go—whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships. Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed—and shows what it would take to make freedom real.

How did you come to write this book?

The origin of the book might be foreign travel! When you don’t know how to get from one place to another, you feel lost, and in a way, in a kind of prison. It’s terrible. I realized recently that the problem is very general – a kind of metaphor. When people can’t navigate life, they are not free. All over the world, people can’t navigate life.

Can you give a summary of the main argument?

In short: we don’t focus nearly enough on how hard it is for people to get where they want to go. Freedom of choice is very important, but what if you don’t know how to find a doctor, a job, or job training? You might want to quit smoking or alcohol or opioids – but how? If there isn’t a good answer to that question, people are less free (and they might end up dead). Self-control problems are one of my central concerns. Take the case of an opioid addict. He wants to be free (a good word) of his addiction, but he needs some help in getting there. Or take people living under conditions of poverty. They might be free of mandates and bans. But how can they get what they need?

Can you provide a specific example of an individual having their freedom of choice hindered?

Suppose that your child is sick, and you are told that health care is available. Where do you go? What do you do? Or suppose that you have a serious legal problem. Maybe an employer has discriminated against you. You have freedom of choice. But how do you navigate the system? Or suppose that you suffer from depression or acute anxiety. What’s the solution? In particular: there is a lot of “sludge” out there – obstacles to navigability. Employers, governments, hospitals, schools, and more need to cut the sludge. It reduces freedom.

What are some practical solutions to the current limits on freedom of choice?

Give people a GPS device, or the equivalent, in many spheres of life. If, for example, people want to stop drinking, help them find a way out. Freedom-respecting nudges often make it a lot easier to navigate life, whether the goal is to be safe on the highways, to avoid unhealthy food, or to escape discrimination.

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

A main goal is to get people to focus on the problem of navigability. It’s not a lovely word, but life is a lot lovelier when it is navigable. I hope also to spur some thinking about freedom and well-being – about what really matters in life. The tale of Adam and Eve makes several appearances, and its competing messages about the human condition – and what it means to fall – tell us a lot about what is to be human (There is also a fair bit about romance).

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. From 2009 to 2012, he led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. The 2018 recipient of Norway’s Holberg Prize, he lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Twitter @CassSunstein

William L. Silber on The Story of Silver

SilberThis is the story of silver’s transformation from soft money during the nineteenth century to hard asset today, and how manipulations of the white metal by American president Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s and by the richest man in the world, Texas oil baron Nelson Bunker Hunt, during the 1970s altered the course of American and world history. The Story of Silver explains how powerful figures, up to and including Warren Buffett, have come under silver’s thrall, and how its history guides economic and political decisions in the twenty-first century.

Why did you write this book?

In 2014 Bunker Hunt died and when I told my children – who had worked in finance all their lives—they thought Bunker was one of the guys who kept hitting the ball into the sand in my Sunday golf group. Right then I knew that I had to write this book to at least tell the story of the greatest commodities market manipulation of the 20th century – one that was perpetrated by the larger than life Nelson Bunker Hunt – the richest man in the world who ultimately went bankrupt trying to corner the silver market with his brothers, Herbert and Lamar, in the 1970s. The Hunts drove the price of silver to a record $50 an ounce in January 1980 and nearly brought down the financial markets in the process. But the Hunt brothers were not the first nor the last to be seduced by the white metal. In 1997 Warren Buffett, perhaps the most successful investor of the past fifty years, bought more than 100 million ounces, almost as much as the Hunts, and pushed the price of silver to a ten-year peak. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt raised the price for silver at the U.S. Treasury to mollify senators from western mining states while ignoring the help it gave Japan in subjugating China. Was FDR’s price manipulation in the 1930s less criminal than Nelson Bunker Hunt’s in the 1970s? Reading this book will let you make an informed judgment and it will also show that the white metal has been part of the country’s political system since the founding of the Republic. Perhaps the most famous speech in American electoral politics, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” sermon at the 1896 Democratic convention, was all about silver. Bryan’s cause, the resurrection of silver as a monetary metal, aimed to rectify the injustice perpetrated by Congress in the Crime of 1873, which discontinued the coinage of silver dollars that Alexander Hamilton had recommended in 1791. Thus, the Story of Silver spans two centuries and is woven into the fabric of history like the stars and stripes.   

Why did Bunker Hunt become obsessed with silver in the 1970s?    

A member of the right-wing John Birch Society, Bunker became the richest man in the world at age forty in 1966 when oil was discovered in Libya where he owned the drilling rights. His ultraconservative politics made him distrust government and its paper currency and favor real investments, such as oil, land, and racehorses. The Arab oil embargo in 1973 provoked an outburst of inflation and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi nationalized Bunker’s oil fields, forcing the Texan into precious metals to protect against the declining value of the dollar. He bought silver, rather than gold, because he thought the yellow metal was “too political” and “too easily manipulated” by outside forces. Bunker worried that central bankers could sell their massive gold reserves and depress its price. Silver, on the other hand, benefited from favorable fundamentals: the demand for the white metal by industry, for use in electronics, photography, and medicine, exceeded mine production by nearly 200 million ounces a year (Warren Buffett invested in silver in 1997 for the same reason). Moreover, in 1973 the price of silver was cheap relative to gold. The price ratio of gold to silver had been about 16 to 1 for a century before the Crime of 1873, meaning that it took 16 ounces of silver to buy an ounce of gold. In 1973, before Bunker began his accumulation, the price ratio was almost 40 to 1. Bunker thought silver’s industrial uses should have boosted its price to where only 5 ounces of silver were needed to get an ounce of gold. Bunker picked 5 to 1 because it was lower than 16 to 1 but he could have gone further. In ancient Egypt silver’s scarcity and medicinal uses had made it more valuable than gold.   

Did the Hunt Brothers really manipulate the price of silver?

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) argued that during the second half of 1979, the Hunt brothers and their Arab collaborators coordinated a scheme to drive up silver prices in the futures markets by purchasing over 200 million ounces of the white metal, more than the combined annual output of Canada, Mexico, Peru, and the United States, the four largest noncommunist producing countries. They pressured the market by controlling more than 40% of silver in exchange warehouses and by taking delivery of almost 50 million ounces of bullion. But the alleged manipulation was not the classic corner of futures markets, where the longs prevented the shorts from delivering. As silver prices accelerated in December 1979, for example, even the CFTC said that the shorts “anticipated no difficulties in making delivery on their positions.” Moreover, the Hunts denied manipulative intent, dismissed any coordination, even among themselves, and justified their demand for silver as a hard asset to protect against global risks in the second half of 1979, when inflation reached double digit levels, Iranian terrorists invaded the United States embassy in Teheran and seized American hostages, and when the Russians invaded Afghanistan.  Disentangling the impact of the alleged manipulators from legitimate speculation took extensive litigation in this case. In a civil trial in 1988 a jury easily concluded that the Hunts conspired with others to manipulate but disagreed about the impact on prices. The jury had to distinguish between the defendants’ accumulation and the unsettling news of 1979. The CFTC argued that gold prices reflect political and economic turmoil and silver increased twice as much during 1979, providing a benchmark for damage calculation for the jury. But that ignores the historical evidence that the white metal is normally twice as volatile as the yellow. For example, during the European debt crisis following Lehman’s bankruptcy in 2008, silver rose 400% and gold increased by 250% and none of that disparity came from manipulation. That evidence came too late to exonerate the Hunts.  

How did FDR’s silver subsidy help Japan subjugate China in the 1930s?

During the Great Depression, after the price of silver hit a record low of 24¢ an ounce, Democratic Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged President Roosevelt to reverse the Crime of 1873 and restore the white metal’s full monetary status. In exchange, Pittman promised the support of fourteen senators from western mining states for Roosevelt’s controversial New Deal legislation. FDR agreed and responded with a series of purchase programs for silver by the U.S. Treasury that ultimately doubled the price of the white metal. The higher price attracted silver from the rest of the world, especially from China, whose currency was backed by the precious metal, and ultimately forced China to abandon the silver standard when that country was most vulnerable. It was 1935 and China, led by American ally Chiang Kai-shek, faced an internal threat from Mao Tse-tung’s communist insurgents and an external threat from Imperial Japan. Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, worried that China’s insecure government, weak economy, and susceptibility to Japanese aggression made her especially vulnerable to the dislocations arising from American silver policy. Morgenthau was right to worry. Roosevelt’s pro-silver program to please western senators helped the Japanese military subjugate a weakened China and boosted Japan’s march towards World War II, demonstrating the danger of formulating domestic policy without considering international consequences.  It is a cautionary lesson for putting America First today, especially since the fallout from such narrow-minded policymaking may not materialize until it is too late, just like in the 1930s.

Was the Crime of 1873 really a crime?

The Crime of 1873 refers to legislation passed by Congress on February 12, 1873, negating Alexander Hamilton’s favorite law, that both gold and silver be monetary standards in the United States, and establishing gold as sole legal tender for all obligations. The new law omitted the free and unlimited coinage of silver dollars at the mint, an option since 1792, and restricted the legal tender status of subsidiary silver coins, such as dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, to five dollars or less. The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to “coin money” and “regulate the value thereof,” so no legislator voting for the act technically committed a crime. The allegations of impropriety arose because few people realized the full consequences of the shift to gold when the law was passed. Moreover, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Sherman, who introduced the legislation, not only failed to sound the warning bell but also soft-pedaled the bill despite knowing its importance. Sherman’s removal of the silver dollar from the Coinage Act of 1873 eroded the value of the white metal, cutting its price in half by the mid-1890s, and altering the course of American history. Twenty-five years of price deflation during the last quarter of the 19th century increased the burden of debts like mortgages which remained fixed in dollar terms even though home prices declined. The drop in wages and agricultural prices launched a generation of social combat, pitting “silverites” against “goldbugs,” debtors versus creditors, and midwestern farmers against East Coast bankers, all combining to darken the political landscape like a dust storm. Many consider L. Frank Baum’s children’s story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has entertained millions since it was published in 1900, an allegory of the contemporary class warfare. William Jennings Bryan capitalized on the social upheaval, captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency in the 1896 election with his Cross of Gold speech promoting the monetary status of silver and easier credit. Bryan lost to William McKinley, leaving silver a second class monetary metal until Key Pittman and Franklin Roosevelt joined forces to rescue the white metal in the 1930s.  

Should investors own silver today?

The worldwide experiment in fiat currency, pure paper money, that began on August 15, 1971, when President Nixon suspended the right of foreign central banks to convert dollars into gold, almost failed at the start. The newly designed freedom from precious metals allowed America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve System, to deliver easy credit in response to political pressure, spawning the Great Inflation of the 1970s and nearly destroying the U.S. dollar. But the chaos unleashed popular support for making price stability the primary objective of an independent central bank. Since then, central bank independence throughout the world has replaced gold and silver as guardian of the currency. And if central bankers do their job that arrangement will continue, but public support can evaporate, undermining banker resolve. The U.S. Congress, for example, can abolish the Federal Reserve with a simple majority vote, suggesting that America’s central bank might run a printing press when rising interest rates bring an avalanche of protest to Capitol Hill. The Federal Reserve has survived the fifty-year trial of fiat currency, but that period is less than a heartbeat in world history. The Soviet Union’s experiment with communism challenged America for world domination for the better part of the twentieth century before expiring like the worthless paper currency of Germany’s Weimer Republic. Central bankers remain on trial, and the uncertain verdict sustains the ancient role of gold and silver as storehouses of value in the new millennium.

William L. Silber is the Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His many books include When Washington Shut Down Wall Street (Princeton) and Volcker (Bloomsbury). He lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti on Love, Money, and Parenting

Doepke & ZilibottiParents everywhere want their children to be happy and do well. Yet how parents seek to achieve this ambition varies enormously. For instance, American and Chinese parents are increasingly authoritative and authoritarian, whereas Scandinavian parents tend to be more permissive. Why? Love, Money, and Parenting investigates how economic forces and growing inequality shape how parents raise their children. From medieval times to the present, and from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden to China and Japan, Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti look at how economic incentives and constraints—such as money, knowledge, and time—influence parenting practices and what is considered good parenting in different countries. Love, Money, and Parenting presents an engrossing look at the economics of the family in the modern world.

What led you to write this book?

Everything started when we realized that two of our experiences had crossed paths: as researchers and as parents. As economists we have always been interested in inequality and human capital formation. Our work studies how the economy influences the transmission of values, preferences, and skills within families. The way in which parents interact with their children is a focal point of our recent research.

We have dealt with the same issues in our own families. We grew up in Italy and Germany, but our academic careers have brought us to live in several other countries. Fabrizio’s daughter was born in Stockholm, and has lived in Sweden, the UK, Italy, and Switzerland. Her parents are now in the US and she often visits Spain (her mother is Spanish). Matthias had his three sons in the US, but his family spends a lot of time in Germany and currently lives in Spain. We both have also frequent contacts with East Asian cultures, especially China and Japan.

We have been struck by the differences in parenting practices across countries and over time, such as the contrast between the liberal parenting that we experienced as children in Europe compared to the high-pressure parenting culture in the US today. At some point, we realized that the differences we observed in our own lives line up well with broader patterns in the data for many countries and time periods, and that all of this variation conforms surprisingly well with the predictions of our own economic theories. So, we decided to focus on parenting through the double lens of parents and social scientists. Having published most of our earlier work in academic journals that only few experts read, we felt the urge to communicate our findings and ideas to a larger public. We believe we have something novel to tell to parents and general readers.

How do you account for the difference in parenting between European, American and Chinese parents as exemplified in books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?

We love Amy Chua’s book. It is fun to read, well-written, full of self-irony—we recommend it. But our book takes a different tack. We do not believe that the main explanation for differences in parenting styles is limited to cultural factors. For instance, we do not think that Chinese parents are different just because they are Chinese or because of the Confucian heritage. Rather, we think that parents in different parts of the world behave differently because they respond to different economic incentives.

In today’s China, children grow up under enormous pressure to achieve at the highest level in academics. Grades determine which university they can attend, and Chinese universities vary widely in quality of education. Making it into Peking University or Tsinghua or Fudan is a ticket to a brilliant future. For those who fail, life can instead be tough. The US is less extreme, but also has large quality differences across schools and high income inequality. In both countries, parents emphasize the importance of children working hard and becoming achievers; even more so in China than in the US, because getting good grades and doing well in exams is even more important in China.

European countries (especially Scandinavian countries) are in comparison much less unequal. There, parents can afford to be more relaxed and let their children discover the world at their own speed and according to their own inclination. Excelling at school is less important; there are many second opportunities to do well in life, and safety nets are more robust. It is interesting to observe that parents in Japan (a country that has closer historical and cultural ties with China than with Western Europe) report some parenting values that are similar to those of parents in the Netherlands. What do the Dutch and the Japanese have in common? Culturally, very little, but they both have low income inequality. Amy Chua also emphasizes that the experience of being an immigrant has an impact on parenting. In our view, there are good economic reasons for that. Immigrants typically lack strong local connections that can help with getting ahead. So, school achievement is the best strategy for success.

Does your research lead you to draw value judgments on certain kinds of parenting over others? Or is it more the case that the type of parenting that is directly related to economic conditions is best suited to those very conditions?

We stay away from value judgments. Our book does not tell parents that a particular parenting style is better than another. This sets our book apart from many existing parenting guides, where experts try to teach “good parenting.” Experts often disagree, and so the market offers titles for any taste; there are books praising achievement-oriented (authoritative, as we call it) parenting, and other books that make the case for “free-range” (permissive) parenting. In contrast, we take the view that parents, by and large, know what they are doing. And so we don’t come out of the ivory tower to teach a more enlightened way to be a parent.

Our goal is to explain how parents respond to the environment in which they and their children live. Going back to China, the Chinese parenting style is an adaptation to the incentives of that society. Parents push their children hard, because this is what it takes to do well in China. Switching to free-range parenting might be a bad idea for them. Conversely, helicopter parenting would not work well in Scandinavia. That society rewards independence and teamwork; rampant individualism is not viewed as an asset and is not even especially appreciated by employers.

To be clear, we are not saying that parents around the world sit down and consider the different options and tradeoffs with scientific precision. They just try to do what feels right to them, but exactly what this means inevitably depends on the economic environment. Many of these mechanisms are subconscious and become part of what we informally call the local culture or parenting norms. These norms change over time and adapt to evolving economic conditions, something we document in detail in the book. When we were children in the 1970s, inequality was far lower, and our parents were much more relaxed about our upbringing. With our own children, we have adopted a more intensive, achievement-oriented parenting style, and certainly not because we are better parents. Rather, because the economic conditions have changed.

How do money, knowledge, and time come together to influence parenting?

The first word in the title of the book is ‘love,’ because we believe love to be the main motive of parenting. First and foremost, parents want their children to be happy in life. This premise is important to understand our book, especially because people often perceive economists as being fixated on a restricted set of financial objectives. Having said that, we do believe that money matters for a happy life. This is not our bias: dozens of empirical studies on subjective well-being point at a strong correlation between economic success and self-reported happiness.  Our argument is that when inequality is low, economic success is less salient in parenting, because stakes are lower. In contrast, in more unequal societies, parents become more concerned with how their children do economically. Being a mediocre artist may be sad on its own, but it is much worse in a society without safety nets where professional failure can lead to poverty and social exclusion. At the same time, if nobody tries, no talented artist will ever emerge.

Knowledge (or education) matters too, for two reasons. First, it is a vehicle to economic and social success—so parents typically push their children to do well in school. Second, education is an asset for parents; it sharpens their tools to influence and motivate their children. This might explain why we observe that less educated parents are more often authoritarian and prone to punish their children rather than to motivate them. Time is a crucial ingredient because much of parenting is about interacting directly with the child. But time and money are not independent; for example, richer parents often pay other people for doing basic housework tasks (such as cleaning) to make room for “quality time” with their children. Others do not have the same luxury.

Is it possible to track changes in permissiveness in parents over decades and see that those changes correlate with economic forces?

Let us first clarify that we use the term ‘permissive’ without any negative connotation. We do not mean ‘indulgent’ or, worse, ‘disengaged.’ We could as well label this style liberal or even free-range parenting (We borrow the term ‘permissive’ from child psychology literature). With this clarification in mind, we see that parents were much more permissive in the 1960s and 1970s than they are today. They were altogether less obsessed with supervising and guiding their children, and spent many fewer hours per week (as we see from time diaries) interacting with them. American parents half a century ago were more similar to the Swedish parents of today than to the frantic generation of American helicopter parents of the 21st century. Why? Fifty years ago inequality reached a historical trough. In a more equal society, there was less of a need to push children hard.

Another interesting observation is that the permissive mood of the 1960s came together with the rejection of the authoritarian methods that had been prevalent for centuries both at home and in school. We argue that this is due to the combination of declining inequality and increasing social mobility. Until the early 20th century, a large proportion of families lived in rural areas, and many children inherited their parents’ occupation and position in society. Most learning and education took place within the family, and the past, present, and future looked very much alike. In this society, parents perceived it as their duty to guide their children, forcing them if necessary, in their own footsteps, pretty much in the fashion as their own parents had done with them.

Since then, society has changed. Children learn most of what is useful for their future professional activity in schools, where parents cannot easily monitor their effort. Parents must then motivate their children. In addition, technological change has increased occupational mobility and caused old jobs to disappear and new jobs to take their place. Being like your father or your mother is often not an option. The old-style traditional parenting has then lost its appeal. Now, children must make independent choices and the best parents can do is shape their attitudes.

How do more financially privileged parents respond to the same economic forces differently from less privileged parents?

Both economic incentives and constraints matter. The rug rat race, namely the competition among frenetic parents in fostering their children’s success, imposes growing demands on families. Only some of them can live up to the daunting task. Driving children from music class to sports to an art exhibition requires lot of time and money. Many families cannot afford it. Take a single mother living in a disadvantaged area. She will have neither the time nor the financial resources to offer her children such luxuries. Moreover, her children will be around other children who suffer the same relative deprivation.

What’s worse, neighborhoods have become increasingly socially segregated. The result is that a large share of the population is excluded from the race. Helicopter parenting is the root of what we call a growing “parenting gap.” A gap between rich and poor families has of course always existed but it has been exacerbated by the intense overparenting of the upper middle class.

Blaming middle-class parents for overparenting is futile; they are simply responding to changing economic incentives. They try to be good parents in the competitive society in which their children live. This is why in the book we advocate policy interventions aimed at changing incentives and equalizing opportunities. We also discuss how the parenting gap can turn into a parenting trap, whereby disadvantaged families simply give up, and their children face ever-growing barriers to get out of poverty. This may be a channel behind the recent decline in social mobility in the lower echelons of society.   

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

We are often asked which parenting style is the best. On that, we are happy to share our subjective experiences and beliefs as parents, but as social scientists we cannot give any definite answer. However, when it comes to the society as a whole, we are more assertive. We think that the overparenting frenzy is taking a toll on the happiness of families. Parents and children engage in a race with the main goal of getting ahead of others, rather than just building useful skills. Moreover, this frenzy is a barrier against equal opportunities.

Rather than educating parents about the virtue of free-range parenting, which will not work if economic incentives are unchanged, we advocate policies that change economic incentives, that reduce the stakes in parenting, and that open up new opportunities for disadvantaged families. Fabrizio’s daughter grew up in a free-range Swedish daycare with a mix of children from a wide range of social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. When the family moved to London for one year, she attended a posh exclusive (and expensive) nursery school. She was a happier child in Stockholm than in London. Some wealthy parents may be skeptical that their children can be happier in a more inclusive society. We hope we can open some cracks in those views.

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.

Anurag Agruwal: Great News for Monarch Overwintering Population

The estimates of the monarch butterfly overwintering population were announced today (Wed. Jan. 30th 2019) by WWF Mexico.  The butterflies are so dense at their dozen or so mountain-top clustering sites that overwintering butterflies cannot be counted individually.  Instead, the area of forest that is densely coated with butterflies (at about 5,000 butterflies per square meter looking up into the canopy) is estimated as a measure of monarch abundance.  Butterflies arrive to Mexico around the day of dead in November and stay until March each year as part of their annual migratory cycle.  Butterflies have been declining over the past three decades, and the annual announcement is a welcome addition to our understanding of the long-term dynamics of our beloved monarch.

The annual multi-generational migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly. The southernmost red dot indicates the high elevation overwintering grounds in central Mexico where populations are censused. North pointing arrows indicate the spring and summer generations that migrate, breed, and eat milkweed. Learn more in my book Monarchs and Milkweed.

This winter season (2018-2019), there were approximately 6.05 hectares (nearly 15 acres) of forest occupied with dense monarchs in the Mexican highlands (somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 million overwintering butterflies).  The monarchs end up congregating in a tiny area, with the bulk of the butterflies concentrated among twelve mountain massifs (clusters of peaks) within three hundred square miles (eight hundred square kilometers), an area smaller than New York City. In other words, most of the monarchs from eastern North America, from Maine to Saskatchewan, and south to Texas, probably covering two million square miles, funnel down and overwinter in a location 0.015 percent the area that they occupy in the summer!  Unbelievable. This year’s estimate is well over double compared to last year, great news for monarchs!

Where does this leave us?  The good news is that this year’s population was huge in the summer months throughout the USA and Canada, and the resulting migration and overwintering population in Mexico was the highest in 12 years, higher than predicted by many.  The season started with a very early spring and a far reaching northern migration.  As I have previously argued, there is often a disconnect between summer breeding populations of monarchs and the overwintering population — that seems to not be the case this past year.

With 26 years of data, there are various ways to plot and assess the trends.  Below I have plotted four year averages for seven periods working backwards (so the first average on the left is only for 2 years).  Any way you slice it, the trend has been negative, and the population is not what it was.  Nonetheless, the extreme downward trend seems to have bumped up in the last period of four years.  Is this the new norm, a winter population hovering between two and five hectares?  How dangerously low are these numbers? And what can be done to continue to reverse the trend and buffer the population?  I have recently written more about this issue in a scientific article as a well as my book.

For now, let’s celebrate. The government is open, and thus the Fish and Wildlife Service will be deciding on the petition to list monarchs as threatened under the Endangered Species Act this summer. Looking forward to seeing butterflies and their caterpillars once Ithaca, NY thaws in spring. Thanks for reading! 

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed and lives in Ithaca, New York.