Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

Scheidel, Lo, and Tirole longlisted for FT & McKinsey Business Books of the Year

Scheidel Great Leveler jacketThe longlist for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Books of the Year Award was announced on August 14th, and we’re thrilled that once again the list of finalists includes several Princeton University Press books:

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Economics for the Common Good by French winner of the Nobel prize in economics, Jean Tirole, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo, a new, evolutionary explanation of markets and investor behavior.

Economics for the Common Good by Jean TiroleThe shortlist for this highly distinguished prize will be announced on September 19th. The winner of the Business Book of the Year Award will be awarded £30,000, and £10,000 will be awarded to each of the remaining shortlisted books.

Take a look at all the finalists for this honor during the past decade here.

LoA heartfelt congratulations to our authors.





Joel Brockner: Can Job Autonomy Be a Double-Edged Sword?

This post was originally published on the Psychology Today blog.

“You can arrive to work whenever convenient.”

“Work from home whenever you wish.”

“You can play music at work at any time.”

These are examples of actual workplace policies from prominent companies such as Aetna, American Express, Dell, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Zappos. They have joined the ranks of many organizations in giving employees greater job autonomy, that is, more freedom to decide when, where, and how to do their work. And why not? Research by organizational psychologists such as Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham and by social psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, has shown that job autonomy can have many positive effects. The accumulated evidence is that employees who experience more autonomy are more motivated, creative, and satisfied with their jobs.

Against this backdrop of the generally favorable effects of job autonomy, recent research has shown that it also may have a dark side: unethical behavior. Jackson Lu, Yoav Vardi, Ely Weitz and I discovered such results in a series of field and laboratory studies soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In field studies conducted in Israel, employees from a wide range of industries rated how much autonomy they had and how often they engaged in unethical behavior, such as misrepresenting their work hours or wasting work time on private phone calls. Those who had greater autonomy said that they engaged in more unethical behavior on the job. In laboratory experiments conducted in the United States we found that it may not even be necessary for people to have actual autonomy for them to behave unethically; merely priming them with the idea of autonomy may do the trick. In these studies participants were randomly assigned to conditions differing in how much the concept of autonomy was called to mind. This was done with a widely used sentence-unscrambling task in which people had to rearrange multiple series of words into grammatically correct sentences. For example, those in the high-autonomy condition were given words such as, “have many as you as days wish you vacation may” which could be rearranged to form the sentence, “You may have as many vacation days as you wish.” In contrast, those in the low-autonomy condition were given words such as, “office in work you must the,” which could be rearranged to, “You must work in the office.” After completing the sentence-unscrambling exercise participants did another task in which they were told that the amount of money they earned depended on how well they performed. The activity was structured in a way that enabled us to tell whether participants lied about their performance. Those who were previously primed to experience greater autonomy in the sentence-unscrambling task lied more. Job autonomy gives employees a sense of freedom which usually has positive effects on their productivity and morale but also can lead them to feel that they can do whatever they want, including not adhering to rules of morality.

All behavior is a function of what people want to do (motivation) and what they are capable of doing (ability). Consider the unethical behavior elicited by high levels of autonomy. Having high autonomy may not have made people want to behave unethically. However, it may have enabled the unethical behavior by making it possible for people to engage in it. Indeed, the distinction between people wanting to behave unethically versus having the capability of doing so may help answer two important questions:

(1) What might mitigate the tendency for job autonomy to elicit unethical behavior?

(2) If job autonomy can lead to unethical behavior should companies re-evaluate whether to give job autonomy to its employees? That is, can job autonomy be introduced in a way that maximizes its positive consequences (e.g., greater creativity) without introducing the negative effect of unethical behavior?

With respect to the first question, my hunch is that people who have job autonomy and therefore are able to behave unethically will not do so if they do not want to behave unethically. For example, people who are high on the dimension of moral identity, for whom behaving morally is central to how they define themselves would be less likely to behave unethically even when a high degree of job autonomy enabled or made it possible for them to do so.

With respect to the second question, I am not recommending that companies abandon their efforts to provide employees with job autonomy. Our research suggests, rather, that the consequences of giving employees autonomy may not be summarily favorable. Taking a more balanced view of how employees respond to job autonomy may shed light on how organizations can maximize the positive effects of job autonomy while minimizing the negative consequence of unethical behavior.

Whereas people generally value having autonomy, some people want it more than others. People who want autonomy a lot may be less likely to behave unethically when they experience autonomy. For one thing, they may be concerned that the autonomy they covet may be taken away if they were to take advantage of it by behaving unethically. This reasoning led us to do another study to evaluate when the potential downside of felt autonomy can be minimized while its positive effects can be maintained. Once again, we primed people to experience varying degrees of job autonomy with the word-unscrambling exercise. Half of them then went on to do the task which measured their tendency to lie about their performance, whereas the other half completed an entirely different task, one measuring their creativity. Once again, those who worked on the task in which they could lie about their performance did so more when they were primed to experience greater autonomy. And, as has been found in previous research those who did the creativity task performed better at it when they were primed to experience greater autonomy.

Regardless of whether they did the task that measured unethical behavior or creativity, participants also indicated how much they generally valued having autonomy. Among those who generally valued having autonomy to a greater extent, (1) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and behaving unethically diminished, whereas (2) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and creativity was maintained. In other words, as long as people valued having autonomy, the experience of autonomy had the positive effect of enhancing creativity without introducing the dangerous side effect of unethical behavior. So, when organizations introduce job autonomy policies like those mentioned at the outset, they may gain greater overall benefits when they ensure that their employees value having autonomy. This may be achieved by selecting employees who value having autonomy as well as by creating a corporate culture which emphasizes the importance of it. More generally, a key practical takeaway from our studies is that when unethical behavior is enabled, whether through job autonomy or other factors, it needs to be counterbalanced by conditions that make employees not want to go there.

BrocknerJoel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

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

Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

The Financial Diaries

FinancialThe Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider details the results of a groundbreaking study they conducted of 235 low- and middle-income families over the course of one year. What they found is that the conventional life-cycle method of approaching finances, wherein a family saves steadily to prepare for eventual retirement, is unrealistic for many. This book combines hard facts with the personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet, even in a time when America is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. You’ll meet a street vendor, a tax preparer, and many more as Schneider and Morduch challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save. Read on to learn more about the everyday challenges of a casino dealer from central Mississippi.


Janice Evans has worked at the Pearl River Resort— a family-friendly destination on the Choctaw reservation in central Mississippi with water slides, a spa, two golf courses, a steakhouse, and a casino—for close to twenty years, since she was in her mid-thirties. She works the night shift, starting at 8am and finishing up at 4am. As a single, African American mother with a high school degree, she makes $8.35 per hour, but in a good week she can double that in tips. Customers can put chips in her “toke box,” and at the end of each shift they are collected and counted; the equivalent amount in dollars is then added to Janice’s next paycheck. She does well during the summer months, but fall is much slower. Her income also rises and falls based on where the local college football team is playing that year—when they play near Pearl River people often come to the casino after a game, and when they don’t the casino does not get that business. Over the course of the year Janice makes just over $26,000, or an average of about $2,200 a month. However, due to the fluctuating income from tips, her actual take home pay each month can vary from around $1,800 to approximately $2,400. That represents a 30% deviation between paychecks. Just before the study began, Janice’s son Marcus was laid off from his maintenance job when his employer lost a contract; as a result, he and his three-year-old daughter moved in with Janice. Since he no longer had an income, he qualified for food stamps, an average of $125/month, but this income was unsteady as well: at one point the local social services agency mistook Janice’s income for Marcus’s and canceled his food stamps. It took two months to get them back. And while he also qualified for unemployment benefits, several months passed before the first check arrived. Altogether, the benefits boosted the household’s net income to $33,000, but with the increased funds came increased inconsistency. Whereas before Janice’s income swung 30%, it now swung 70% from high to low months. Given the nature of Janice’s work in a seasonal, low-skill, tipped job and the unreliability of Marcus’s benefits, you might assume that her family’s income would be among the most erratic of the 235 households studied in the U.S. Financial Diaries. In fact, it’s not—the degree of inconsistency in Janice’s household was on par with most families that the authors got to know throughout the course of their study. Morduch and Schneider’s study of families who struggle with income volatility revealed new insights into how Americans make money, borrow, spend, and save.


To learn more, pick up a copy of The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider.

Carol Graham on the optimism gap between rich and poor

GrahamThe Declaration of Independence states that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among these is the pursuit of happiness. But is happiness available equally to everyone in America today? How about elsewhere in the world? In Happiness for All, Carol Graham draws on cutting-edge research linking income inequality with well-being to show how the widening prosperity gap has led to rising inequality in people’s beliefs, hopes, and aspirations. Recently, she took the time to answer some questions about her new book.

Why did you decide to write a book on unhappiness in the U.S.?

CG: This was a first for me, as I have spent much of my career exploring and writing about the causes and potential solutions to poverty and inequality challenges in developing countries. I took a modest change in direction about a decade ago and began to explore the determinants of happiness in countries and cultures around the world. This turn was driven by my findings of deep frustration among upwardly mobile low-income respondents in emerging market economies. What was most notable was the remarkably consistent patterns in the correlates of happiness across countries of all levels of development. I then found that happier people tended to have happier and more productive lives, and wrote one of the early papers on what happiness ’causes.’ Those findings have since been confirmed by several subsequent studies. Meanwhile, despite (or because of?) my grounding in development economics and origins in Peru, I have been increasingly concerned by the very large gaps between the incomes, opportunities, and lives of the rich and poor in the U.S. – a country with a reputation as the land of opportunity. As such, I decided to explore if and how those gaps were mirrored by differences in well-being and ill-being across the same groups in this book.

What is different about this book from the many recent studies of rising inequality of incomes and opportunities in the U.S.?

CG: While many economists, including me, have been discussing and writing about the downsides of increasing inequality in the U.S., interest in the topic was largely confined to academic audiences until very recently. And while the debate surrounding the 2016 elections brought inequality to the public’s attention, public understanding of actual trends in inequality and their implications remains very limited, in large part because of the complexity of the metrics used to measure it, such as Gini coefficients and 90/10 ratios. In the book I try and tell the same story from the perspective of well-being metrics, in the hopes that it might be a better way to explain the implications of inequality for economists and non-economists alike. One of the little known channels that I highlight is a beliefs and behaviors channel via which high levels of inequality – and large differences between those at the top of the distribution and the rest of the population – can act as a disincentive to investments in the future. This is because ‘success,’ as defined by the lives of those at the top, seems (and often is) out of reach for those at the bottom, making them less likely to make the difficult trade-offs to forego current consumption for the ‘promise’ of future outcomes.

What are your key findings for the land of the American Dream?

CG: Most markers of well and ill-being, ranging from life satisfaction to stress, are more unequally shared across the rich and the poor in the U.S. than they are in Latin America, a region long known for high levels of inequality. The most remarkable finding is that the belief that hard work can get you ahead in the future – a classic American dream question – is the most unequally shared metric. The poor in Latin America are almost four times as likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than are the poor in the U.S. In contrast, the rich in the U.S. are more likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than the rich in Latin America. Meanwhile, stress, a marker of ill-being, is significantly higher among the poor in the U.S. than the poor in Latin America. The stress which is typically experienced by the poor is related to constant negative shocks which are beyond individuals’ control. This kind of stress makes it hard to plan ahead, much less invest in the future, and is distinct from stress that is associated with goal achievement – which is more common among those with more means and control over their lives. These findings highlight very different incentives – and capabilities – for making investments in the future across the rich and the poor in the U.S.

Were there any other surprises?

CG: The most surprising of the findings were large gaps in optimism across racial cohorts, which did not run in the expected direction. In the fall of 2015 – about the same time as the riots against police violence against blacks in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore – I found that the most optimistic group among the poor were poor blacks, followed by poor Hispanics. In contrast, poor whites showed signs of deep desperation. At roughly the same time, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a study highlighting rising U.S. mortality rates driven by preventable deaths among uneducated middle aged whites. Since then, I have matched my desperation data/lack of optimism data with the mortality rate trends – by race and place – and find that the markers correspond quite closely. The most desperate people and places are poor and vulnerable middle class whites in the rust belt, where available jobs are shrinking due to the hollowing out of manufacturing and people are extremely isolated by distance and climate. In contrast, cities, which are more racially diverse, are healthier, more hopeful, and happier. These trends help explain some of the anger and desperation that drove the 2016 election results in the U.S. and also mirror those which influenced the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and an unexpected (and economically costly) decision to leave the European Union.

What are the potential solutions?

CG: There is no magic bullet to the narrowing the gaps between the lives – and well-being – of the rich and the poor in the U.S. And while desperation among poor and downwardly mobile whites is clearly a concern, there are still momentous challenges facing poor – if more optimistic – minorities. In the book I highlight a range of policies – from better vocational training, to more widely available pre-school and quality public education, to improving our safety net so that it does not stigmatize recipients and at the same time leave the non-working poor behind. I also provide examples – from novel experimental data – of interventions which raise aspirations and hope among the poor and disadvantaged, thereby encouraging investments in the future. I conclude by highlighting the important role that well-being metrics can and should play in official statistics, by tracking the health and well-being of our society, as the U.K. is already doing. The metrics can, for example, identify pockets of desperation before mortality rates increase, and highlight community level practices which increase well-being among the vulnerable, among many other things.

GrahamCarol Graham is the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Her books include The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-BeingHappiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, and Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream.

Kenneth Rogoff: The Compactness of Big Bills

Today in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

From Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, comes a video story marvelously explaining why criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt official so love large denomination notes. Here, an apparently corrupt Nigerian official (who pleads innocence) finds $100s very convenient for stashing cash. The story comes at the top of the show.

I am grateful to Larry Kintisch of Blauvelt NY for drawing my attention to this story. Yes, there is a world of difference between a “less-cash society” as my book argues, and a cash-less society that the cash lobby likes to point to as a scare tactic for maintaining the absurd status quo.

The paperback edition of The Curse of Cash: How Large Denomination Bills Aid Tax Evasion and Crime and Constrain Monetary Policy will be coming out early this summer; now with an analysis of Indian demonetization and other issues that have arisen in the past year.

Read other posts in the series here.

Andrew Lo on Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought

Half of all Americans have money in the stock market, yet economists can’t agree on whether investors and markets are rational and efficient, as modern financial theory assumes, or irrational and inefficient, as behavioral economists believe. In this groundbreaking book, Andrew Lo cuts through this debate with a new framework, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, in which rationality and irrationality coexist. Adaptive Markets shows that the theory of market efficiency isn’t wrong but merely incomplete. Lo’s new paradigm explains how financial evolution shapes behavior and markets at the speed of thought. An ambitious new answer to fundamental questions in economics, Adaptive Markets is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how markets really work. We asked him to explain the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, the strengths and limitations on the current theories, and how this new thinking can be practically applied.

What led you to write this book?

AL: Ever since I was a graduate student in economics, I’ve been struggling with the uncomfortable observation that economic theory doesn’t seem to work in practice. As elegant as this theory is, there are so many examples where the data just don’t support the theory that, after a while, I started wondering just how useful our theories were. For example, stock market prices don’t follow random walks, market prices don’t always seem rational, and people often make poor decisions, especially when it comes to financial matters. But it takes a theory to beat a theory. Rather than just criticizing existing theories, I decided to develop an alternative—this book describes the personal journey I took to arrive at that alternative, which I call the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

What’s the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis is my solution to the longstanding debate in financial economics between two competing camps. One camp consists of the disciples of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, who believe that investors are rational decision makers and market prices fully reflect all available information. The opposing camp consists of the psychologists and behavioral economists who believe that investors are irrational and market prices are driven by “animal spirits.” It turns out that both camps have correctly captured certain aspects of human behavior, but neither camp offers a complete picture of how investors and markets behave. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis fills this gap.


AL: By drawing on recent research in psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and artificial intelligence, I show that human behavior is the result of several different components of the brain, some of which produce rational behavior while others produce more instinctive emotional behavior. These components often work together, but occasionally they compete with each other. And for obvious evolutionary reasons, rationality can be trumped by emotion and instinct when we’re confronted with extreme circumstances like physical threats—we “freak out.” The problem is that these hardwired responses to physical threats are also triggered by financial threats, and freaking out is generally not the best way to deal with such threats. Therefore, investors and markets have a split personality: sometimes they’re quite rational but every so often, they freak out.

Are you suggesting that the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which dominates financial thinking today, is wrong?

AL: No! On the contrary, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is one of the most useful, powerful, and beautiful pieces of economic reasoning that economists have ever proposed. Generations of investors and portfolio managers have been saved from bad investment decisions because of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which says that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis is not wrong; it’s merely incomplete. Its focus is the behavior of investors and markets in normal business environments, where the “wisdom of crowds” rules the day. What’s missing is the “madness of mobs,” when investors are reacting emotionally and instinctively in response to extreme business environments—good or bad—leading either to irrational exuberance or panic selling. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis provides a more complete framework in which both types of behaviors are possible. The combination of these behaviors yields a much richer set of implications for price dynamics, investment strategies, risk management, and financial regulation.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

AL: My intention was to write this book for the general reader, but only time will tell whether or not I’ve succeeded. In fact, I’m hoping that there’s something for everyone in this book. For example, readers wondering whether or not it’s possible to beat the stock market using mathematical models will want to read Chapter 2, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” For readers already convinced that it’s possible and want to understand the neuroscientific basis of irrational behavior, they’ll want to read Chapter 3, “If You’re So Rich, Why Aren’t You Smart?” No book on finance would be complete without a discussion of how the recent financial crisis could have happened to us—a country with one of the most sophisticated financial systems in the world—and that’s Chapter 9, “Fear, Greed, and Financial Crisis.” And for readers interested in getting a glimpse of the future of the financial industry and the amazing things that can be accomplished with finance if used properly, there’s Chapter 12, “To Boldly Go Where No Financier Has Gone Before.” Although the book is based on my academic research, I’ve worked hard to translate “academic-speak” into plain English, using simple analogies and real-life examples to make the research come alive. In fact, there’s not a single equation or mathematical formula in the book, which is no easy feat for someone from MIT!

In Adaptive Markets you take an interdisciplinary view of financial markets, bringing in cognitive neuroscience, biology, computer science, and engineering. How did you come to bring all of these seemingly disparate fields together and why is that important?

AL: Although I do enjoy learning new things and have broad-ranging interests, when I started my academic career as a financial economist, I had no interest or intention in doing “interdisciplinary” research. I was perfectly happy spending my days and nights working on traditional neoclassical financial economics—portfolio theory, derivatives pricing models, asset pricing models, financial econometrics, and so on. But the more I tried to fit financial theories to data, the more frustrated I became that these theories performed so poorly. So I started trying to understand why the theories broke down and how they could be fixed. I began by studying behavioral economics and finance, which led me to psychology, which then to the cognitive neurosciences, and so on. I was dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—from one field of study to the next in my quest to understand why financial markets don’t work the way we think (and want them to). This process ultimately led me to the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, which is a very satisfying (for me, at least) integration of various disciplines that have something to say about human behavior. I’m especially pleased by the fact that Adaptive Markets reconciles the two competing schools of thought in financial economics, both of which are compelling in their own right even though they’re incomplete.

Why do we need to understand the evolution of finance?

AL: Many authors and academics will use evolution as a metaphor when referring to the impact of change. In Adaptive Markets, I use evolution quite literally because financial markets and institutions are nothing short of evolutionary adaptations that Homo sapiens has developed to improve our chances of survival. Therefore, if we really want to understand how the financial system works, how it changes over time and circumstances, and what we can do to improve it, we need to understand the evolution of finance. And unlike animal species, which evolve from one generation to the next, the financial system evolves at the speed of thought.

You argue that economics wishes it were more like the hard science of physics where 99% of all observable phenomena can be explained with three laws. Will we ever have a complete understanding of how financial markets function?

AL: It’s true that most economists—myself included—suffer from a psychological disorder called “physics envy.” We wish we could explain 99% of economic behavior with three laws like the physicists but this is a pipe dream. The great physicist Richard Feynman put it best when he said, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!” I tell all my students at the start of the semester that all economic theories are approximations to a much more complex reality, so the key question for investors and portfolio managers is not “is the theory correct?” but rather, “how good is the approximation?” The answer to this question lies largely in the environment, which plays a huge role in evolutionary theories. Whether we’ll ever be able to develop a truly complete theory of human behavior—and, therefore, how financial markets function—is hard to say. But I do believe that we can get much closer to that complete theory through the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

How can investors and portfolio managers incorporate the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis into their investment philosophies?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a relatively straightforward but sweeping implication for all investment philosophies, and that has to do with change. During normal business environments, the principles of Efficient Markets are an excellent approximation to reality. For example, from the 1930s to the early 2000s, a period where the U.S. stock market had relatively consistent average returns and volatility, a long-only passive investment strategy of 60% stocks and 40% bonds produced pretty decent returns, particularly for those who were investing over a 10- or 20-year horizon. The problem is that this approach doesn’t always work. When market conditions change and we experience large macro shocks like the financial crisis of 2008, then simple heuristics like 60/40 no longer work as well because financial markets have changed in their dynamics. Today’s markets are now much more responsive to intervention by governments and their central banks and punctuated by the irregular cycle of fear and greed. So since 2007 and 2008, we’ve seen a very different market dynamic than over the previous six decades. The point of Adaptive Markets is not simply to be wedded to any static theory, but rather to understand how the nature of markets can change. And once it does change, we need to change with it. John Maynard Keynes put it best when, in responding to criticism that he flip-flopped on the gold standard, he said, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Can you give an example of how change might impact today’s investors?

AL: One important implication of Adaptive Markets for investors and portfolio managers is that passive investing is changing and we have to adapt. John Bogle—the founder of the Vanguard Group and the father of passive investing and index funds—had an incredibly important insight in the 1970s which he calls the “Cost Matters Hypothesis:” reducing trading costs can have a huge impact on wealth accumulation. Bogle has done more for the individual investor than anyone else I can think of; he democratized the investment process. Thanks to technological innovations like automated trading, electronic market-making, and big data analytics, we’re ready to take the next evolutionary step that builds on Bogle’s legacy. For example, like the trend in healthcare towards personalized medicine, we can now create personalized indexes that are passive portfolios designed to achieve specific goals for a given individual. You might be more risk tolerant than your neighbor so your portfolio will have more equities, but because you work in the financial industry and she works in big pharma, your personalized portfolio will have fewer financial stocks and hers will have fewer biopharma stocks. Also, personalized indexes can manage the risk more actively to suit an individual’s threshold of “pain.” Current financial wisdom criticizes investors who don’t invest for the long run, and I’ve always thought such criticism to be terribly unfair. After all, how easy is it for someone to stick with an investment that’s lost 50% of its value over just a few months? Well, that’s exactly what happened between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. Traditional investment advice is a bit like trying to prevent teenage pregnancies by asking teenagers to abstain—it’s not bad advice, but it’s unrealistic. Why not manage the risk of an individual’s portfolio more actively so as to reduce the chances of freaking out?

Finance has developed a bad reputation in the popular press, particularly in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. Does the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis have anything to say about this and how things can be improved?

AL: Absolutely. At the heart of all bad behavior, regardless of the industry or context, is human nature. Humans are the Curious George of the animal kingdom, but there’s no “man in the yellow hat” to bail us out when we get into trouble. Homo sapiens has evolved in some remarkable ways and we’re capable of extraordinary things, both good and bad. The same social and cultural forces that give rise to wonderful organizations like the Peace Corps, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders can sometimes lead to much darker and destructive organizations. The only way for us to deal more effectively with the negative aspects of society is to acknowledge this dual nature of human behavior. Chapter 11 of Adaptive Markets, titled “Fixing Finance,” is devoted entirely to this objective. We have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—the financial system definitely can be improved, but we shouldn’t vilify this critically important industry because of a few bad actors.

What are some specific proposals for how to fix finance?

AL: Well, before we can fix finance, we need to understand where financial crises come from, and the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a clear answer: crises are the product of human behavior coupled with free enterprise. If you can eliminate one or both of these two components, you can eliminate financial crises. Otherwise, financial crises are an avoidable fact of modern life. Human misbehavior is a force of Nature, not unlike hurricanes, flash floods, or earthquakes, and it’s not possible to legislate away these natural disasters. But this doesn’t mean we can do anything about it—we may not be able to prevent hurricanes from occurring, but we can do a great deal to prepare for them and reduce the damage they do. We can do a lot to prepare for financial crises and reduce the damage they do to those individuals and institutions least able to withstand their devastating consequences. This perspective is important because it goes against the traditional narrative that financial crises are caused by a few greedy unscrupulous financiers and once we put them in jail, we’ve taken care of the problem. The Adaptive Markets perspective suggests something different: the problem is us. Specific proposals for dealing with crises include: using new technologies in data science to measure economic activity and construct early warning indicators of impending crises; studying crises systematically like the way the National Transportation Safety Board studies airplane crashes so we know how to make the financial system safer; creating adaptive regulations that change with the environment, becoming more restrictive during booms and less restrictive during busts; and systematically measuring individual behavior and corporate culture quantitatively so we can engage in “behavioral risk management.”

Now that you’ve written this book, where do you see your research going from here?

AL: Well, this is still early days for the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis. There’s so much left to be done in exploring the implications of the theory and testing the implications empirically and experimentally whenever possible. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis took decades and hundreds of academic studies to get established, and the same will be true of this one. One of my goals in writing this book is to motivate my academic and industry colleagues to start this vetting process. In the same way that Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be tested and challenged from many different perspectives, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has to go through the gauntlet of academic scrutiny. One important implication of the Adaptive Markets perspective is that we need to change the way we collect data and test theories in financial economics. For example, traditional tests of financial theories involve collecting stock market prices and analyzing the statistical properties of their risks and returns. Contrast this approach with how an ecologist would study a newly discovered tropical island in an effort to preserve it. He would begin by first cataloguing the flora and fauna, identifying the key species, and measuring their biomasses and behaviors. Next, he would determine the food chain, environmental threats, and predator/prey relationships, and then turn to population dynamics in the context of the changing environment. Ultimately, such a process would lead to a much deeper understanding of the entire ecosystem, allowing ecologists to determine the best way to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of that island. Imagine doing the same thing with the financial industry. We would begin by cataloguing the different types of financial institutions and investors, measuring their financial biomass, and identifying key species—banks, hedge funds, pension funds, retail investors, regulators, etc.—and their behaviors. Then we would determine the various types of business relationships and interdependencies among these species, which are critical for mapping the population dynamics of this financial ecosystem. This approach seems sensible enough, but it’s not yet being done today (except by my collaborators and me!).

How do you continue to evolve your own thinking? What do you do?

AL: Someone very wise once said that the beginning of wisdom is humility, and I’m convinced that this is how we make progress as a civilization. Once we’re convinced that we have all the answers, we stop asking new questions and learning. So I’m continually looking for new ways to understand financial market behavior, and constantly humbled by how little I know compared to how much we have yet to discover. In this respect, I guess I’m an intellectual opportunist—I don’t care where an idea comes from or what academic discipline it belongs to; if it gives me new insight into an existing problem, I’ll use it and build on it. I’m currently working on several applications of the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis to investments, risk management, and financial regulation, and also hoping to test the theory in the context of individual and institutional investment decisions. The initial results are quite promising and show that financial industry participants adapt much more quickly than we thought. These results point to several important unintended consequences that have clear implications for how we should regulate the industry so as to reduce the chances of another financial crisis.

Andrew W. Lo is the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor at the MIT Sloan School of LoManagement and director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering. He is the author of Hedge Funds and Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought. He is also the founder of AlphaSimplex Group, a quantitative investment management company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Leah Boustan: What Mid-Century White Flight Reveals about the Trump Electorate

BoustanIn the months since Donald Trump’s surprise win of the U.S. presidency, two prevailing explanations for the electoral upset have emerged: either Trump voters were swayed by racism or by economic anxiety. Trump’s campaign embraced a series of racist stereotypes—Mexicans are criminals; blacks live in inner-city hellholes—but it also promised to bring back jobs to America’s declining manufacturing regions.

History suggests that the real story is probably a mix of these two explanations. Historical events that we have attributed to racism are often partially motivated by economic concerns. Looking back, we can see the reverse is also true; decisions perceived as strictly economic calculations can be tinged by racism.

One such example is white flight from central cities. In the mid-20th century, the share of white metropolitan households living in cities fell from 64 percent to 36 percent. White flight is typically attributed to racist attitudes of white residents who worried about a black family moving next door; Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white suburbanization as a “triumph of racist social engineering.” But a closer reevaluation of this chapter in urban history reveals that white flight was motivated by both racism and economic anxiety.

In 1940, the majority of African Americans still lived in the rural South. At the time, even northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, which today have large black communities, were less than 10 percent black. Prompted in part by new factory positions opening during World War II, large waves of black migrants left the South.

Black migration definitely coincided with white relocation to the suburbs. But, many white suburban moves were unrelated to black arrivals, driven instead by rising incomes after the War, the baby boom, and new highway construction. Indeed, suburbanization was prevalent even in cities that received few black southerners, like Minneapolis-St. Paul. But there is a strong relationship between the number of black migrants to a northern city during this period and the number of whites who chose to relocate to the suburbs. For every black arrival, two whites left a typical city, a figure that puts a precise value on what contemporaries already knew: when black people move in, white people move out—à la the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun.

Still, only a portion of white flight can be traced to the classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to actually encounter black neighbors. In 1940, the average white urban household lived more than three miles away from a black enclave. Yet despite substantial distance from black neighborhoods within the city, many white families chose to relocate to the suburbs as black migrants arrived.

Why did white households flee black neighborhoods that were miles away? Changing city finances played a role. As southern black migrants settled in northern cities in large numbers, this lowered the average income of the urban population. Cities responded with a combination of higher property taxes and shifts in spending priorities. Indeed, some white households left cities to avoid this rising tax burden, an economically motivated choice for sure, but one that cannot be fully separated from race and racism.

We can learn a lot about the fiscal motivation behind white flight by focusing on the choices of white residents in neighborhoods on city-suburban borders. Peripheral urban neighborhoods shared the racial composition and housing stock of their suburban counterparts, and enjoyed the same local parks, bus lanes and shopping streets. Yet, by crossing to the suburban side of the border, families could buy into a different local electorate, one that was more racially homogenous and better-off, and thus able to afford quality public schools and lower property taxes. (As an aside, I personally lived in three of these border areas—Cambridge-Somerville, MA; Minneapolis-Edina, MN and Los Angeles-Beverly Hills, CA—and found crossing the border to be imperceptible on the ground.)

Houses on the suburban side of the border are always a little more expensive because they offer access to suburban schools and other public goods. Using data on 100 such neighborhoods, I found that this cross-border housing price gap grows by a few percentage points as black migrants flow into the city – even if new black arrivals live miles away. White households were willing to pay more for suburban houses not only to escape black neighbors but also to join a different tax base.

The debate about how Trump prevailed is currently a stalemate between those who point to real sources of economic anxiety and those who fall back on “it’s racism, stupid!” But casting blame on other racial groups during times of economic downturn is a tried-and-true political tool. Even if the major source of job loss in U.S. manufacturing has been automation, it is relatively easy to encourage voters to blame Chinese manipulation or greedy immigrants. Trying to separate racism from economic anxiety can obscure more than it reveals. History instead urges us to consider how economic concerns and racial animus intertwine.


BoustanLeah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.

PUP authors win a record number of PROSE awards

On February 2, 2017, the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers announced the 41st PROSE Awards winners in Washington, DC. We are delighted that 2017 was a record year for PUP, with 24 Awards for titles across disciplines, and we are honored to have our books recognized alongside those of our esteemed colleagues in book publishing. We warmly congratulate all of the winners.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright
Neil Levine
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Architecture & Urban Planning, Association of American Publishers

Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life
Joseph Leo Koerner
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Art History & Criticism, Association of American Publishers

The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern
Thomas J. Knock
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe
Roger Penrose
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Chemistry & Physics, Association of American Publishers

The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe
J. Richard Gott
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Cosmology & Astronomy, Association of American Publishers

The Curse of Cash
Kenneth S. Rogoff
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Economics, Association of American Publishers

“Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation
Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Education Practice, Association of American Publishers

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation
Timothy J. Jorgensen
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in History of Science, Medicine & Technology, Association of American Publishers

The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
Justin E.H. Smith
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees
Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Single Volume Reference/Science, Association of American Publishers

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War
Robert J. Gordon
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in U.S. History, Association of American Publishers

Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies: A Comprehensive Introduction
Arvind Narayanan (et al.)
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Computing & Information Sciences, Association of American Publishers

Welcome to the Universe
Neil deGrasse Tyson, J. Richard Gott, and Michael A. Strauss
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Cosmology & Astronomy, Association of American Publishers

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy
Robert H. Frank
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Economics, Association of American Publishers

Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University
James Axtell
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Education Theory, Association of American Publishers

Blue Skies over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China
Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Environmental Science, Association of American Publishers

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
Joel Mokyr
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in European & World History, Association of American Publishers

ISIS: A History
Fawaz A. Gerges
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers

Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Literature, Association of American Publishers

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting
Thomas D. Seeley
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Popular Science & Popular Mathematics, Association of American Publishers

Silent Sparks
Sara Lewis
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Popular Science & Popular Mathematics, Association of American Publishers

The Princeton History of Modern Ireland
Richard Bourke and Ian McBride, eds.
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Single Volume Reference/Humanities & Social Sciences, Association of American Publishers

Group Theory in a Nutshell for Physicists
A. Zee
Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Textbook/Best in Physical Sciences & Mathematics, Association of American Publishers



Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

ScheidelWhat really reduces economic inequality? According to Walter Scheidel, the surprising answer is something nobody would wish for: mass violence and catastrophe. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully—it consistently declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Recently, Scheidel took the time to answer some questions about his startling conclusions:

What is the great leveler?

Violence is the great leveler, expended in massive shocks that upend the established order and flatten the distribution of income and wealth. There are four major types of shocks, which I call the Four Horsemen. That’s a fitting image because they were just as terrible as the bringers of doom in the Revelation of John. The first of them is mass mobilization warfare, which reached its heyday during the two World Wars when enormous physical destruction, confiscatory taxation, aggressive government intervention in the economy, inflation, and the disruption of global flows of trade and capital wiped out elite wealth and redistributed resources on a massive scale. These struggles also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing political reform, promoting extensions of the franchise, union membership, and the welfare state. The second is transformative revolution, which was also primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, when communists expropriated, redistributed and then collectivized, in the process matching the World Wars in terms of body count and human misery. The collapse of states is the third one, not uncommon in the more distant past: everyone suffered when law and order unraveled but the rich simply had more to lose. Plague rounds off this ghastly quartet. On a number of occasions, most famously during the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, epidemics carried off so many people that labor became scare and real incomes of workers rose while the land and capital holdings of the upper class lost value.

Your book covers thousands of years. Surely things must have changed over time?

Of course they have, but less than you might think. It was the sources of inequality that experienced the biggest changes. The shift to farming and herding after the last Ice Age let our ancestors create material assets that could be passed on to future generations, allowing some families to pull away from the rest. Later, as states and empires appeared and grew in size and power, elites filled their pockets with profits from public office, corruption, coercion and plunder. While this continues to be common practice in some parts of the world, in the West gains from commerce and enterprise have gradually replaced those more archaic form of enrichment. But even as these changes unfolded over the long run of history, violent shocks remained the most potent mechanisms of leveling.

But what about the postwar decades? Didn’t the economy grow and the middle class prosper at the same time as inequality declined?

That’s true, and that’s why many people in America and Europe look back to this period as a time of great progress and welfare. Current ideas of “making America great again” owe a lot to this happy convergence of affluence and equality, and reflect the understandable desire to somehow bring it back. But we must not forget that it was the carnage and the perils of the Second World War that undergirded the entire process. After the New Deal had ushered in progressive policies, it was the war effort that gave rise to the many invasive regulations and taxes that ensured that future gains would be more equitably distributed. This benign fallout from the war faded over time until a new round of liberalization, competitive globalization and technological change allowed inequality to soar once again. Since the 1980s, the economy has continued to expand but a growing share of the pie has been captured by the much-quoted “one percent.”

That’s a sobering perspective. Aren’t there any other factors that can combat inequality and don’t involve bloodshed and misery?

Absolutely. But they often fall short one way or another. Economic crises may hurt the rich for a few years but don’t normally have serious long-term consequences. By reducing inequality and prompting progressive policies, the Great Depression in the U.S. was a bit of outlier compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, political democracy by itself does not ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth. Nor does economic growth as such. Education undeniably plays an important role by matching skills with demand for labor: most recently, it helped lower the massive disparities that have long weighed down many Latin American countries. Even so, the historical record shows that all of these factors were at their most effective in the context or aftermath of major violent shocks, such as the World Wars. Successful land reform, which is of critical importance in agrarian societies, has likewise often been the product of war and revolution or the fear of violent conflict.

This doesn’t raise much hope for the future. What are the chances that we will be able to return to a fairer distribution of income and wealth?

That’s a good question, although few people will like my answer. The traditional mechanisms of major leveling, the Four Horsemen, currently lie dormant: technological progress has made future mass warfare less likely, there are currently no revolutions on the horizon, states are much more stable than they used to be, and genetics will help us ward off novel epidemics. That’s a good thing – nobody in their right mind should yearn for death and destruction just to create greater equality. But similarly powerful peaceful means of leveling have yet to be found. And to make matters worse, a number of ongoing developments may drive up inequality even further: the aging of Western societies, immigration’s pressure on social solidarity and redistributive policies, and the prospect of ever more sophisticated automation and genetic and cybernetic enhancement of the human body. Barring major disruptions or an entirely new politics of equality, we may well be poised to enter a long period of polarization, another Gilded Age that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ScheidelWalter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.