Mark Zuckerberg chooses “Portfolios of the Poor” for A Year of Books

Collins jacketMark Zuckerberg is spending a year reading books and is inviting others to join him. The latest pick for A Year of Books, just announced, is Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. Over 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa participated in this unprecedented study of the financial practices of the world’s poor. In selecting a story of life very bottom of the global economic order, Zuckerberg seems to suggest the particular importance of empathy for entrepreneurs and those in leadership positions.

“It’s mind-blowing that almost half the world — almost 3 billion people — live on $2.50 a day or less. More than one billion people live on $1 a day or less. This book explains how these families invest their money to best support themselves. I hope reading this provides some insight into ways we can all work to support them better as well,” he wrote on his personal Facebook page.

So far there have been 17 books chosen, and this is the third Princeton University Press title to make the list. Rational Ritual by Michael Chwe, and The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun were chosen earlier this year.

Congratulations to the authors!

You can find more information on the website for Portfolios of the Poor here. A sample chapter is available here.

Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

Martin Sandbu talks euro scapegoating and his new book “Europe’s Orphan” with the Financial Times

Has the euro  been wrongfully scapegoated for the eurozone’s economic crisis? In his new book, Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt, leading economist Martin Sandbu says that it has, arguing that the problems lie not with the euro itself, but with decisions made by policymakers. Sandbu was recently interviewed by Martin Wolf, Financial Times chief economics commentator. You can watch the video here:

Introducing the new video trailer for PHISHING FOR PHOOLS by Robert Shiller & George Akerlof

Phishing for Phools jacketDo you have a weakness? Of course you do. Which means, according to Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, you have probably been “phished” for a “phool.”

We tend to think of phishing as the invisible malevolence that led our grandparents to wire money to Nigeria, or inspired us to click on a Valentine’s day link that promised, “someone loves you,” and then promptly crashed our hard drive. But more generally understood, “phishing” is inseparable from the market economy of everyday life. As long as there is profit to be made, psychological weaknesses will be exploited. For example, overly optimistic information results in false conclusions and untenable purchases in houses and cars. Health clubs offer overpriced contracts to well-intentioned, but not terribly athletic athletes. Credit cards feed dramatic levels of debt. And phishing occurs in financial markets as well: Think of the legacy of mischief at work in the financial crises from accounting fraud through junk bonds and the marketing of derivatives.

Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that the invisible hand of free markets provides us with material well-being. In Phishing for Phools, Akerlof and Shiller challenge this insight, arguing that markets are far from being essentially benign and don’t always create the greater good. In fact, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps.

We are thrilled to introduce this new video trailer in which Robert Shiller talks about his new book with George Akerlof, Phishing for Phools:

 

Washington Post highlights historic clash between Einstein and Bergson on the nature of time

2015_Einstein_bannerWith the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity coming up in November, Einstein is popping up everywhere. Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a terrific feature on Einstein books, including three of our own: Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn’s The Road to Relativity, Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and Jimena Canales’s The Physicist and the Philosopher.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Einstein’s public life revolves around an encounter he had with Henri Bergson, the renowned philosopher, on April 6, 1922, in Paris. It was on this day that Einstein and Bergson publicly debated the nature of time, touching off a clash of worldviews between science and the humanities that persists today. The philosopher Bergson argued that time was not merely mechanical, and should be seen in terms of lived experience; Einstein dismissed Bergson’s psychological notions as irreconcilable with the realities of physics. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate between two famous thinkers created intellectual rifts and revolutionized an entire generation’s understanding of time.

Nancy Szokan’s piece in Washington Post recounts the dramatic collision:

In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Canales recounts how Bergson challenged Einstein’s theories, arguing that time is not a fourth dimension definable by scientists but a ‘vital impulse,’ the source of creativity. It was an incendiary topic at the time, and it shaped a split between science and humanities that persisted for decades—though Einstein was generally seen as the winner and Bergson is all but forgotten.

Bergson and Einstein, toward the end of their lives, each reflected on his rival’s legacy and dedication to the pursuit of truth: Bergson during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Einstein in the wake of the first hydrogen bomb. Referencing Einstein’s quest for scientific truth, Hanoch Gutfreund recently had an article in the Huffington Post on how Einstein helped shape the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (home of the Albert Einstein Archives online):

On the occasion of the opening of the university, Albert Einstein published a manifesto “The Mission of our University”, which generated interest and excitement in the entire Jewish and academic worlds.

It states: “The opening of our Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, at Jerusalem, is an event which should not only fill us with just pride, but should also inspire us to serious reflection. … A University is a place where the universality of human spirit manifests itself. Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.”

Read the rest here.

November’s big anniversary serves as a reminder of the enduring commitment to scientific investigation that continues at The Hebrew University and centers of learning all over the world today.

Read sample chapters of The Physicist and the Philosopher here, The Road to Relativity here, and Relativity here.

You can find information on the Digital Einstein Papers, an open access site for The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, comprising more than 30,000 unique documents here.

PHISHING FOR PHOOLS and CLIMATE SHOCK included in the long list for FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award

Climate ShockPhishing for Phools jacketThe long list for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award has been published, and we’re thrilled to see that two Princeton University Press titles have been included. Nobel Prize winners George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s new book on on economic trickery, Phishing for Phools, and Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman’s examination of the global crisis of climate change, Climate Shock have both been listed in the top 15. Other titles appearing include Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, Martin Ford’s study of jobs and automation, The Rise of the Robots, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s take on how to narrow the gender gap, Unfinished Business.

Read more about this year’s long listed titles and the other books recognized during the award’s 11-year history here.

The shortlist of up to six finalists will be published on September 22nd.  The £30,000 prize will be awarded on November 17th in New York.

Find sample chapters of Climate Shock and Phishing for Phools here and here respectively.

 

 

On moral philosophy and moral comedy – Harry Frankfurt on The Daily Show

As Jon Stewart wraps up his 16 year stint on The Daily Show this week, I can’t help recalling fondly the time I escorted one of his unlikelier guests—the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt—to an appearance. It was 2005, and Harry, an emeritus professor at Princeton, and I, a brand new publicist, had been caught off guard by early interest in his philosophical treatise, On Bullshit. The book, apparently unencumbered by its unprintable title, would go on to become an international phenomenon, spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it would peak at number one. The Daily Show was one of the first major venues to take interest in the book, which started its meteoric rise as a quirky, unassuming title from our mid-list. We’d expected it might raise a few academic eyebrows, but were unprepared for the journalistic outpourings from all corners. “This book will change your life”, wrote Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, seeming to mean it. Bullshit’s time had come.

On BSComedy Central’s invitation was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was one thing to watch, baffled, as the book reviews piled up, quite another to send Harry into the glare of the mainstream media. Jon was, after all, formidable in his way, and Harry, for all his facility with the ironic and profound, was not particularly well-versed in comedic pop culture. His inquiry was as serious as it was sincere, and he was reluctant to “bullshit” about the topic he had so carefully treated. Our visit to The Daily Show marked my first time in a green room of any sort, and I spent most of it holding my breath. Harry was wonderfully refreshing to work with—thoughtful, modest, and genuinely surprised, at 76, that his work had generated interest outside of philosophy journals. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting him into.

If we were at all intimidated about the encounter to come, we needn’t have been. Jon paid us a backstage visit before the show, and conducted a class act interview that was charming, incisive, and thoughtful. Above all, I remember that Jon was respectful, parsing, between laughs, the distinguishing characteristics of bullshit, and the way it corrodes the truth. Harry was graceful and wry, the book became an overnight sensation, and the rest is history.

Harry, now the author of the new book On Inequality, has in the years since his own interview, commented on Stewart’s remarkable effectiveness and impact on people, including his famously successful on-air critique of Crossfire:

Stewart and Frankfurt parted ways as two very different figures nonetheless dedicated to raising the level of discourse: Frankfurt the renowned scholar who dared to qualify bullshit, and Stewart the journalist who made it his life’s mission to illuminate, lampoon it, and ultimately demand more of its propagators. I count myself fortunate to have crossed paths with them both.

–Debra Liese

Five Days in August — remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.

Five Days in AugustMost Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s  Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.

An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from Nature.com:

On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.

The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.

Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught  in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.

“Carlos Chávez and His World” at the Bard Music Festival starting August 7th

Saavedra jacketCarlos Chávez (1899–1978), subject of this year’s Bard Music Festival, is the central figure in Mexican music of the twentieth century and among the most eminent of all Latin American modernist composers. The seventh child of a Creole family, his highly individual style—diatonic, dissonant, contrapuntal—addressed both modernity and Mexico’s indigenous past. Chávez was also an educator, journalist, music theorist, and conductor and founder of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. He became an integral part of the emerging music scene in the United States in the 1920s.

From Carlos Chávez, Mexican Modernist in the New York Times article by William Robin:

This summer represents the Bard Music Festival’s first examination of a Latin American composer, focusing on one who, though little known today, may have shaped American music more than any other. Along with building an impressive oeuvre couched in an acerbic modernist idiom, Mr. Chávez almost single-handedly remolded Mexican culture through his official roles in national arts institutions after the Mexican Revolution.

Today, Princeton University Press is proud to release Carlos Chávez and His World, the volume to accompany the Bard Music Festival’s concerts and panels over the course of the next two weekends. Robin writes in The New York Times:

“The idea that he was a quintessential ‘Mexican composer’ and that in his case it was not a picturesque, postcard folklore, but some sort of really internal, almost racial essence, marked him forever,” the musicologist Leonora Saavedra said recently. An associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, Ms. Saavedra serves as the Bard festival’s scholar in residence and has edited an insightful volume of accompanying essays published by Princeton University Press.

Read the rest here.

Bard Music Festival 2015:
Carlos Chávez and His World
Bard College
August 7-9 and August 14-16, 2015

If you’d like to see a schedule of Bard Music Festival events, here’s where you can find one.

Leonora Saavedra, author of Carlos Chávez and His World, is associate professor of music at the University of California, Riverside.

William Helmreich is back on the streets of NYC with The New Yorker

Bill Helmreich walks every street in New York City

Bill Helmreich walks every street in New York City

How well do many seasoned New Yorkers really know New York City? Chances are, few can claim the knowledge of all 6,000 miles quite like Professor of Sociology William Helmreich can. Inspired by childhood explorations with his father, Helmreich walked every block of New York City’s five boroughs, a mission that resulted in The New York Nobody Knows. This week, The New Yorker ran a fun video featuring Bill Helmreich and his walks. His unconventional portrait of New York City is due out in paperback this Fall.

From Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker piece accompanying the video:

Many New Yorkers daydream about exploring the areas of the city they don’t know. But actually doing it is incredibly difficult. Ten years ago, Ben McGrath wrote a Talk of the Town story about a man who walked all of Manhattan; that’s an impressive achievement, but even the dreariest Manhattan blocks are more interesting than the service road alongside the B.Q.E. Moreover, to walk all of New York within a reasonable time frame, you have to do it all year round; most likely, as Helmreich did, you’d also have to walk after dark. Helmreich wasn’t just game, in other words. He was dedicated. He allowed neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night to stop him from his appointed rounds.

Read the rest here, and the earlier New Yorker feature where Joshua Rothman walked the Bronx with Helmreich.

You can sample chapter one of The New York Nobody Knows here.

William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York.

Ellen McLarney talks about SOFT FORCE on ISLAMiCommentary

In the years preceding Arab Spring, when Mubarak’s authoritarian regime fell from power, Muslim women took a leading role in developing an Islamist presence in Egypt’s public sphere. Their success in opposing secular dictatorship hinged on their use of something called “soft force”, a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest.

ISLAMiCommentary, a web forum for public scholarship based at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, recently interviewed Princeton University Press author Ellen McLarney about her new book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening.

From the book’s introduction:

Soft Force jacketOne of the most visible public faces of the 2011 revolution in Egypt was Asmaʾ Mahfouz, a young woman who posted a video blog on Facebook calling for the January 25 protest in Tahrir Square “so that maybe we the country can become free, can become a country with justice, a country with dignity, a country in which a human can be truly human, not living like an animal.” She describes a stark imbalance of power: a lone girl standing against the security apparatus of the state. When she initially went out to demonstrate, only three other people came to join her. They were met with vans full of security forces, “tens of thugs” (balṭagiyyīn) that menaced the small band of protesters. Talking about her fear (ruʿb), she epitomizes the voice of righteous indignation against the Goliath of an abusive military regime. “I am a girl,” she says, “and I went down.” The skinny, small, pale girl bundled up in her winter scarf and sweater speaks clearly and forcefully, despite a slight speech impediment, rallying a political community to action against tyrannical rule. Mahfouz’s vlog is not necessarily famous for actually sparking the revolution, as some have claimed in the revolution’s aftermath. Rather, she visually embodies and vocally advocates what the Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat calls “softforce,”al-­quwwa­al-n­āʿima.

You can watch the interview here:

Read the full article here.

Ellen McLarney is assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University.

Ai Weiwei free to travel overseas

Today The Guardian reported that Ai Weiwei is free to travel overseas once again. One of China’s most prolific artists and controversial figures, his art and social media use has championed free speech and human rights, even as he was banned from leaving China. Weiwei has ties to Princeton, where his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is currently on display at the University’s Scudder Plaza through December 4, 2016. His book, Ai Weiwei-isms, a collection of quotes reflecting his thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics, and life, was published with Princeton University Press in 2012.

From The Guardian:

More than four years after he was banned from leaving his native China, artist Ai Weiwei is free to travel again after Beijing authorities returned his passport.

“When I got it back I felt my heart was at peace,” the artist told the Guardian on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after police handed him back the travel document and informed him he was free to go overseas.

“I feel pleased. This was something that needed to be done,” added Ai, who has long been a vocal critic of China’s leaders. “I was quite frustrated when my right to travel was taken away but now I feel much more positive about my condition.

“I think they should have given it back some time ago – and maybe after so many years they understand me better.”

The artist posted a celebratory Instagram message alongside a photograph of himself posing with the document. “Today I got my passport,” it read.

Ai said his first trip would be to Germany, where his six-year-old son has been living since last year.

Read the rest here.

Weiwei wrote in Ai Weiwei-isms, “Once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country.”

Wishing him well in his travels.