Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

John Kricher on The New Neotropical Companion (revised & expanded)

The New Neotropical Companion by John Kricher is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

What originally focused your interest in the Neotropics and why did you want to write about the region? 

JK: When I was early in my career in ecology and ornithology, way back in the 1970s, I longed to experience the tropics, to be in hot, steamy equatorial jungles, the ecosystems of the world that harbor the most species.  There was so much I wanted to see, especially bird species. It was really birds that got me there.  I wanted to see firsthand the various tropical birds, the antbirds, parrots, cotingas, trogons, toucans, etc.  To me, these were pure glamor birds, and so many of them.  Reading about them only intensified my need to go and see them firsthand.  So, I jumped on the first opportunity that came along to get myself passage into “the Torrid Zone.”

And what was that opportunity? 

JK: I met a man who was to become a long-time close friend, Fred Dodd.  Fred had just started a company called International Zoological Expeditions (IZE) and he was organizing trips to Belize for college classes.  I saw such a trip as my ideal way to get a foothold in the tropics.  And it worked!  My first tropical experience was to take a class of about 30 students from Wheaton College to Belize and Guatemala over semester break in January of 1979.  The unexpected and challenging experiences we had as we faced numerous logistical hurdles in this admittedly pioneering effort would, in themselves, make a pretty cool book.  But we did it, I loved it, and wanted more, much more.  When I meet my first Tropical Ecology students at alumnae gatherings they all want to relive memories of “the Belize trip.”  We tell the same stories over and over and never seem to tire of it.  Going to Belize, getting to the American tropics, was a watershed experience for me, transforming my career.

Why did you feel the need to write A Neotropical Companion and how did you choose that title? 

JK: It was hard to systematically organize information to present to students about the American tropics.  In the late 1970s information about the tropics was widely scattered and incomplete.  For example, there was no single book I could recommend to my students to prepare them for what would await them in the field.  At the same time, I read multiple journal articles on everything from tree diversity to army ant behavior and it was such cool stuff.  I loved telling the students my various “stories” gleaned from the ecological literature.  As I made more and more visits to Central and South American countries my own perspective was greatly enhanced so I could bring something to the table, so to speak, directly from personal experience.  My knowledge base grew in leaps and bounds and I kept expecting that any day a book would be published that would bring together what I was experiencing and enjoying.  It never was.  So, I thought I could adapt my course information into an introductory book. That was what spawned A Neotropical Companion.  The illustrations in the first edition, published in 1989, were by one of my tropical ecology students who adapted them from her field notebook kept when she took my tropical course in Belize.  As for the title, when Judith May, editor at Princeton University Press, read my manuscript she liked it and said, with enthusiasm, that she had “the perfect title” for the book.  It was Judith who gave it its name.

Your first edition was nicknamed “The Little Green Book.”  Did its popularity surprise you? 

JK: It did.  It was flattering that many folks told me they carried my little green book on various tropical trips and found it very informative and easy to read.  And it was indeed a little green book that conveniently fit in a pocket or backpack.  I knew I had barely scratched the surface with regard both to breadth and depth of information but I was very pleased and a bit surprised by the warm reception the book received.  And as I began making frequent trips to lowland Amazonia as well as Andean ecosystems I knew it was time to expand and revise the book.  The little green book needed to grow.  It did that with the publication of the second edition in 1997 and obtained what I consider its “full maturity,” a coming of age, in the present edition.  It is no longer green and no longer little but much more comprehensive and far better illustrated than its predecessors. This is the book I had always wanted to write.

What is the biggest thing that has changed with regard to visiting the American tropics since you first wrote your Little Green Book? 

JK: In the nearly 30 years since I published the first edition the American tropics has become much easier and more comfortable to visit.  Good tourist lodges were relatively few when I first visited the tropics and now they abound. Talented local guides skilled in finding wildlife take groups to see all manner of fantastic species such as Harpy Eagle, for example. There are now tours in which you are virtually assured of getting fine views of fully wild jaguars.  I wrote in the first edition about being very careful as to what you eat, where you go, and various health concerns.  I scaled that way back in my new edition because it is no longer necessary to include it.  A determined traveler may make trips virtually anywhere in the Neotropics and do so safely and in relative comfort, though some areas do remain rugged and challenging.  There are now even tours to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “River of Doubt,” once considered a huge challenge to explorers.  This was unheard of when I began my travel to the tropics.

Are you still always being asked about encountering snakes and biting insects in the tropics?

JK: Indeed, I am.  And to be truthful, snakes, including many venomous species, are relatively common if not abundant in some tropical venues, though they are not necessarily easy to find unless one is skilled at searching for them.  It is important to be vigilant when on trails and walking around lodges and field stations, especially at night or after a rainfall.  Snakes may be out and about.  But very few encounters result in venomous snake bites.  I encourage people to experience snakes as interesting and beautiful animals and, as one would a lion on the Serengeti, make sure to maintain a respectful distance.  In Trinidad, my group encountered a huge bushmaster, the largest of the Neotropical venomous snakes.  It was crossing a road late at night and was caught in the headlights of our van.  We all saw it well and from a safe distance, a thrilling sight.  As for insects, I have rarely been very bothered by them, especially mosquitos, but if you travel in rainy season mosquitos may be locally abundant and highly annoying.  Visitors to the tropics must really beware of bees and wasps and even ants, some of which act aggressively if disturbed and may pack a powerful sting.  One ant is called the “bullet ant” because it bites you, holds on, and then stings you. The sting allegedly feels like you were hit with a bullet.

Now that The New Neotropical Companion is complete do you have any plans for further exploration of the Neotropics or are you satisfied that you have done all you set out to do?

JK: I continue to be strongly drawn to the American tropics.  I have very recently visited Honduras and Cuba.  I have plans for trips to numerous other Neotropical venues, from Guyana to Peru and Amazonia.  The wonder of the regional biodiversity has always compelled me to want to see more, go to new areas as well as revisit places I have come to know well, and just keep on learning.  No two visits to the tropics, even to a place where one has been repeatedly, are the same.  The more you go, the more you see.  So, I keep going.

John Kricher is professor of biology at Wheaton College. His many books include Tropical Ecology, The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth, and Galápagos: A Natural History.

Mitchell Cohen: The Politics of Opera

CohenThe Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.

Politics is not usually the first thing most people think about when it comes to opera. Why did you write a book on politics and opera?

MC: It was natural. I have a passion for opera and I am a professor of political theory and co-edited Dissent, a political magazine. I began writing the book in order to explore the intersection of two apparently disparate domains. Moreover, if the relation between aesthetic ideas and political ideas interests you, opera provides a great terrain for exploration. Of course, not all operas are political, but more are—or have political implications—than many people realize. I should add: politics does not consume all there is to say about those operas that are political. The Politics of Opera is about how and when two domains come together, and I define politics broadly. In any event, there was also a selfish dimension to my project: I had to go to the opera for work. There are worse things to have to do.

Your book is unusual because of the time span you cover, roughly from the birth of opera through Mozart, some two hundred years. Why choose this period?

MC: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Modern politics—the modern state in Europe—was, broadly speaking, born at the time of the Renaissance. Opera emerged in the late Renaissance. In the last decades of the 16th century, humanist intellectuals in Florence debated about “ancient” and “modern” music—they meant Greek antiquity and their own day. Galileo’s father was one of them. Their conversations led to experiments that, in turn, became opera at the turn of the 17th century. In roughly this era, in Italy and France, important debates occurred and books were published about politics and the nature of politics because it was transforming. One might say that Machiavelli, decades earlier, began the discussion. Of course he didn’t write operas (he did write plays). The parallel between the development of a new form of politics and a new form of musical stage art intrigued me. But in Mozart’s day there was a massive political crack-up, the French revolution—there was, then, great upheaval and great genius at the same time. That’s why I took the late 18th century as a natural historical border. The Politics of Opera seeks to sink operas into the political times in which they were first imagined and not to imagine them as somehow standing outside their times. Another way of saying that is that if you want truly to grasp the politics of an opera you must look deeply both into history and into the ideas that were current when it was written and composed. You have to know what was being argued about then and not just impose your own contemporary preoccupations, although your own preoccupations may be enlightening too—so long as you keep an eye on the differences between your ideas and those found, say, in an opera by Monteverdi or Rameau or Mozart.

For whom are you writing?

MC: I try to write for a broad intelligent public and for scholars. I sought to make a contribution to our understanding of interesting, not-always-evident matters but in accessible ways. I hope that opera fans along with scholars and students of history, culture, music and politics will all be engaged by it. I hope they’ll learn something of what I learned in writing and researching it.

Your book’s prologue speaks of the itinerary of your explorations. What was the route?

MC: Italy, France, Vienna. Florence under the Medicis was the obvious place to begin because those humanists I mentioned were talking about relations between music, feelings, and ideas. The earliest opera for which we still have both the libretto and the music retold the story of Eurydice and Orpheus for a political event, the marriage in 1600 of Maria de’ Medici to France King Henri IV in Florence (He didn’t show up but sent a stand-in!). But then there was a leap of musical imagination when, in Mantua just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi began composing operas, first of all his remarkable Orfeo. I am always tempted to call him “the great Monteverdi” and indeed he was the first great composer of opera, although he wrote many other wonderful compositions too. He would eventually be fired from Mantua’s ducal court but then he received a much more prestigious position in Venice, a republic. Towards the end of his life he composed some amazing operas in collaboration with librettists who were close to power in Venice. This included the first directly political and historical opera, The Coronation of Poppea. In it the philosopher Seneca and Roman emperor Nero quarrel over ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ in ruling. From Italy I went to France, more precisely to the birth of French opera thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully during the reign of Louis XIV. Then I turned to the quarrel in the 18th century between a great composer and theorist of harmony, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a popular but not-so-great composer of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau, the famous political philosopher who advocated sovereignty of the people but who also aspired to be a composer. Poor Rameau! Poor Rousseau! Rameau was the great artist and my book devotes considerable space to his opera Les Indes galantes, a remarkable opera that in part reflects the Age of Exploration—what others would call the Age of Imperialism. But Rameau was not a spectacular writer and Rousseau’s music, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to go too often to his best-known opera, Le Devin du Village (the Village Soothsayer). However, you really wouldn’t want to get into polemics with him since he was a master of them. 

From France I went on to Vienna, to Metastasio, the Imperial Poet of the Holy Roman Empire whose librettos were set by many composers, including Vivaldi. For my purposes the most interesting of them was Cato in Utica, which is about the last Roman republican resistance to the rise of the Roman Empire—Cato versus Julius Casesar. Of course, the book must finally come to Mozart’s operas.

As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times—ideas and problems that are embedded in them. So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers—some well-known, some less-known today—weaving throughout the book. These range from Machiavelli and Tacitus to Jean Bodin, Diderot, Edmund Burke, Rousseau and others.

Was Mozart political?

MC: Mozart was, of course, a man of music before anything else. We should be forever grateful for that. The more you study him, the more amazing he becomes. He didn’t write on politics but he certainly had problems with authority. His operas are filled with political themes and political issues of his time. He didn’t write his librettos but he helped to shape them. I try in The Politics of Opera to give a close reading (and hearing) to the results. The book actually stretches a little beyond Mozart and rounds off by discussing a little known work. The German poet Goethe wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute a few years after Mozart’s death. Goethe never finished it and nobody was brave enough to write music for it. In it there is a regrouping of the forces of darkness. Led by the infamous Queen of the Night they launch an assault against Sarastro’s enlightened realm—he is on a sabbatical—and Tamino and Pamina. Goethe wrote it in the mid 1790s. It is easy to think of it in light of wars and politics in Europe just then. There is, of course, much more to be found in it too.

You certainly cover a lot of territory. How do you approach it all?

MC: By using insights drawn from many thinkers and varied methods—political, philosophical, musicalogical, historical—in different combinations. I don’t impose one model on everything. I prefer what I call a methodological medley. It seems to me a particularly fruitful way to be inter-disciplinary.

MitchellCohen Cohen is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York and an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Wager of Lucien Goldmann and The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and has written for many publications including the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement (London).

 

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Steven Weitzman: The Origin of the Jews

WeitzmanThe Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be. Weitzman recently took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.

Isn’t the origin of the Jews well known? The story as I learned it begins with the Bible—with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is it that we do not understand about the origin of the Jews?

SW: Arguably, modernity was born of a recognition that things did not originate in the way the Bible claims. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the intellectual elite in Europe began to realize that the Bible could not be relied upon as an origin account, they turned to science, to critical historiography, to archaeology and to other scholarly methods to try to answer the question of where things and people come from. The result of their efforts include Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Bing Bang theory and other enduring theories of origin, along with a lot of theories and ideas that have since been discredited. The same intellectual process unsettled how people accounted for the origin of the Jews. Scholars applied the tools that had been used to understand the origin of language, religion and culture to the Jews and in this way developed alternative accounts very different from or even opposed to the biblical account. This book tells the story of what scholars have learned in this way and wrestles with why, despite centuries of scholarship, the question of the origin of the Jews remains unsettled.

So what have scholars learned about the origin of the Jews?

SW: A lot and a little at the same time. There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship generated by the question. The Documentary Hypothesis, the famous theory that the Five Books of Moses reflects the work of different authors in different historical periods, was originally intended as an effort to explain how the people of the Old Testament became the Jews. Focusing on different textual sources, Assyriologists have uncovered evidence of a people in Canaan known as the Habiru that are believed to be the ancestors of the Hebrews, and others would trace the Jews’ origin to Egypt or see a role for Greek culture in their development. Every theory can cite facts to support its account; and some are quite pioneering in the methods they deploy, and yet even as someone conversant in this scholarship, I find that I myself cannot answer the question of what the origin of the Jews is. It is actually the difficulty of answering the question that fascinates me. From within my small field, I have always been drawn to questions that lie at the edge of or just beyond what scholars can know about the world, questions that appear to be just beyond reach, and the origin of the Jews represents one of those questions, lying inside and outside of history at the same time.

Can you explain more why the origin of the Jews is so hard to pin down?

SW: Partly the problem is a scarcity of evidence. If we are looking to prehistory to understand the origin of the Jews—prehistory in this context would refer to the period before we have written accounts of the Israelites—there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. We know that at some point a people called Israel emerged, but we have very little evidence that can help us understand that process—a lot of theories and educated guesses but not a lot of solid facts.
Origins are always elusive—they always seem to be buried, hidden or lost—and scholarship has really had to strain to find relevant evidence to base itself on.
But for me at least, the biggest challenge of all was the problem of pinning down what an origin is. The term covers a range of different ideas—continuity and novelty, ancestry and invention. An origin can refer to lineage, to whatever connects a thing to the past, but it can also refer to a rupture, the emergence of something fundamentally discontinuous with the past. I came to realize that one of the main reasons scholars explain the origin of the Jews so differently is that they begin from different conceptions of what an origin is. This project forced me to recognize that I didn’t understand what an origin is or sufficiently appreciate all the different assumptions, beliefs and questionable metaphors that lay hidden within that term.

Not only are there conceptual difficulties inherent in the search for Jewish origin, but there are political problems as well. The effort to answer the question of the origin of the Jews has had devastating consequences, as the Nazis demonstrated by using the scholarship of origin to rationalize violence against the Jews. Of course, more recently, the question has gotten caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and is entangled in various intra-communal and interfaith debates about the nature of Jewish and Christian identity. There were many reasons to avoid this topic, intellectual, political and arguably even ethical, but not pursuing it also has its costs. There are lots of ideas circulating out there about how the Jews originated, along with a lot of misstatements, unexamined assumptions and confusion, and I felt it would be helpful to describe the challenges of this question, why it is difficult to address, what we know and don’t know, and what is at stake.

The book surveys several different approaches—various historical approaches, archaeology, social scientific approaches, even psychoanalysis has been used to address the question—but the research most likely to interest many contemporary readers comes from the field of genetics. What does DNA reveal about the origin of the Jews?

SW: First of all, I should say up front that I am not a geneticist and much of what I present in the book is based on what I learned from geneticist colleagues when I was a faculty member at Stanford or read at their suggestion. But we happen to be in a period when geneticists are making great strides in using DNA as a historical source, a way to understand the origin, migration history, and sexual and health history of different populations, and Jews have been intensively studied from this perspective. Even though the science was new to me, I felt I could not write a book on this subject without trying to engage this new research. As for what such research reveals, it offers a new way of investigating the ancestry of the Jews, the population(s) from whom they descend, and potentially sheds light on where that population lived, its size and demographic practice, and its mating practices. It can even help us to distinguish distinct histories for the male and female lineages of contemporary Jewish populations. All fascinating stuff, but does genetics represent the future of the quest to understand the origin of the Jews? The research is developing very rapidly. The data sets are expanding rapidly; the analysis is getting more nuanced; studies conducted a decade or two ago have already been significantly revised or superseded; and it is hard for non-geneticists to judge what is quality research and what is questionable. What is clear is that there has been criticism of such research from anthropologists and historians of science who detect hidden continuities with earlier now discredited race science and question how scientists interpret the data. I tried to tell both sides of this story, distilling the research but also giving voice to the critiques, and the book includes bibliographic guidance for those who want to judge the research for themselves.

Has this project gotten you to think about your own origin differently?

SW: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. Of course, as a Jew myself, the questions were not just intellectual but also personal and relational, bearing on how I thought about my own ancestry, my own sense of connection to my forebears, to other Jews, and to the land of Israel and to other peoples, but what I learned about the history of scholarship just didn’t reveal the clear insight one might have hoped for. To give a minor and amusing example, I recall being impressed by a genetic study which uncovered evidence of a surprising ancestry for Ashkenazic Levites. A Levite is a descendant from the tribe of Levi, a tribe with a special religious role, and I inherited such a status from my father. I never put any real stake in this part of my inheritance, but it was a point of connection to my father and his father, and I admit that I was intrigued when I read this study, which found that Ashkenazic Levite males have a different ancestry than that of other Ashkenazic Jews, perhaps descending from a convert with a different backstory than that of the other males in the tiny population from which today’s Ashkenazic Jews descend. But then a few years later, the same scientist published another study which undid that conclusion. So it goes with the research in general: it tells too many stories, or changes too much, or is too equivocal or uncertain in its results to demystify the origin of who I am. But on the other hand, I did learn a lot from this project about how—and why—I think about origins at all, and the mystery of who I am as a Jew—and of who we all are as human beings—runs much deeper for me now.

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of WisdomSurviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity, and The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age.

Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Chris Chambers: The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology

ChambersPsychological science has made extraordinary discoveries about the human mind, but can we trust everything its practitioners are telling us? In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that a lot of research in psychology is based on weak evidence, questionable practices, and sometimes even fraud. The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology by Chris Chambers diagnoses the ills besetting the discipline today and proposes sensible, practical solutions to ensure that it remains a legitimate and reliable science in the years ahead.

Why did you decide to write this book?

CC: Over the last fifteen years I‘ve become increasingly fed up with the “academic game” in psychology, and I strongly believe we need to raise standards to make our research more transparent and reliable. As a psychologist myself, one of the key lessons I’ve learned is that there is a huge difference between how the public thinks science works and how it actually works. The public have this impression of scientists as objective truth seekers on a selfless mission to understand nature. That’s a noble picture but bears little resemblance to reality. Over time, the mission of psychological science has eroded from something that originally was probably quite close to that vision but has now become a contest for short-term prestige and career status, corrupted by biased research practices, bad incentives and occasionally even fraud.

Many psychologists struggle valiantly against the current system but they are swimming against a tide. I trained within that system. I understand how it works, how to use it, and how it can distort your thinking. After 10 years of “playing the game” I realized I didn’t like the kind of scientist I was turning into, so I decided to try and change the system and my own practices—not only to improve science but to help younger scientists avoid my predicament. At its heart this book lays out my view of how we can reinvigorate psychology by adopting an emerging philosophy called “open science.” Some people will agree with this solution. Many will not. But, above all, the debate is important to have.

It sounds like you’re quite skeptical about science generally.

CC: Even though I’m quite critical about psychology, the book shouldn’t be seen as anti-science—far from it. Science is without doubt the best way to discover the truth about the world and make rational decisions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. We need to face the problems in psychology head-on and develop practical solutions. The stakes are high. If we succeed then psychology can lead the way in helping other sciences solve similar problems. If we fail then I believe psychology will fade into obscurity and become obsolete.

Would it matter if psychology disappeared? Is it really that important?

CC: Psychology is a huge part of our lives. We need it in every domain where it is important to understand human thought or behavior, from treating mental illness, to designing traffic signs, to addressing global problems like climate change, to understanding basic (but extraordinarily complex) mental functions such as how we see or hear. Understanding how our minds work is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and one of the fundamental sciences. And it’s precisely because the world needs robust psychological science that researchers have an ethical obligation to meet the high standards expected of us by the public.

Who do you think will find your book most useful?

CC: I have tried to tailor the content for a variety of different audiences, including anyone who is interested in psychology or how science works. Among non-scientists, I think the book may be especially valuable for journalists who report on psychological research, helping them overcome common pitfalls and identify the signs of bad or weak studies. At another level, I’ve written this as a call-to-arms for my fellow psychologists and scientists in closely aligned disciplines, because we need to act collectively in order to fix these problems. And the most important readers of all are the younger researchers and students who are coming up in the current academic system and will one day inherit psychological science. We need to get our house in order to prepare this generation for what lies ahead and help solve the difficulties we inherited.

So what exactly are the problems facing psychology research?

CC: I’ve identified seven major ills, which (a little flippantly, I admit) can be cast as seven deadly sins. In order they are Bias, Hidden Flexibility, Unreliability, Data Hoarding, Corruptibility, Internment, and Bean Counting. I won’t ruin the suspense by describing them in detail, but they all stem from the same root cause: we have allowed the incentives that drive individual scientists to fall out of step with what’s best for scientific advancement. When you combine this with the intense competition of academia, it creates a research culture that is biased, closed, fearful and poorly accountable—and just as a damp bathroom encourages mold, a closed research culture becomes the perfect environment for cultivating malpractice and fraud.

It all sounds pretty bad. Is psychology doomed?

CC: No. And I say this emphatically: there is still time to turn this around. Beneath all of these problems, psychology has a strong foundation; we’ve just forgotten about it in the rat race of modern academia. There is a growing movement to reform research practices in psychology, particularly among the younger generation. We can solve many problems by adopting open scientific practices—practices such as pre-registering study designs to reduce bias, making data and study materials as publicly available as possible, and changing the way we assess scientists for career advancement. Many of these problems are common to other fields in the life sciences and social sciences, which means that if we solve them in psychology we can solve them in those areas too. In short, it is time for psychology to grow up, step up, and take the lead.

How will we know when we’ve fixed the deadly sins?

CC: The main test is that our published results should become a lot more reliable and repeatable. As things currently stand, there is a high chance that any new result published in a psychology journal is a false discovery. So we’ll know we’ve cracked these problems when we can start to believe the published literature and truly rely on it. When this happens, and open practices become the norm, the closed practices and weak science that define our current culture will seem as primitive as alchemy.

Chris Chambers is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and a contributor to the Guardian science blog network. He is the author of The 7 Deadly Sins of Psychology: A Manifesto for Reforming the Culture of Scientific Practice.

Rebecca Tansley & Craig Meade: The Pacific Ocean as you’ve never seen it before

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before. Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers. In our latest Q&A, author Rebecca Tansley and showrunner Craig Meade ask each other questions about the series, the book, and the majestic Pacific Ocean:

Questions from Rebecca to Craig

There have been a lot of documentaries made about the oceans and the animals that live in them. How did the Big Pacific idea come about and what new perspectives did you think this series could bring?
It started ten years ago in a late night conversation in France with some of Japan’s best wildlife filmmakers.  We realized that after a thousand years of humanity dominated by the Atlantic and its people that the next thousand years would probably be owned by the Pacific. We conjectured that if we inverted the paradigm and considered the Pacific Ocean a continent, it would already hold many of the world’s major cities: Seattle, LA, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Taipei.  So what are the natural values of this new continent, what does it say to us, and what does it mean to us? What are its emotional messages? Let’s put a flag in it, explore it and see what we discover about it. So that night we started looking for the defining stories that we should tell of the Pacific Ocean.

The book sections match the episodes of the Big Pacific show – Passionate, Voracious, Mysterious, Violent. How did you come up with these themes and decide to structure the series around them?

To matter, stories must move us, trill our emotional strings. Usually these kind of words are embedded in the undercurrent of the script. Hinted at. But the Pacific is big and bold and we thought our statements about it should be so too. It’s all those things: passionate, voracious, violent and mysterious, but it’s also many other things. So I don’t believe this journey to capture its multitude of faces is yet over. Please let me do the Ecstatic, Selfish and Uncertain shows one day as well!

I talked to crew members about some of the special moments in the series’ production, but which is the most special Big Pacific moment for you, on screen?

The Yellow eyed penguins in the Passionate episode. Less than 4000 adults remain. They are a species that may have just a decade or two left and the cinematographer captured their cold and lonely existence beautifully. It’s not a story of sorrow but one of the bird’s passionate relationship with its mate and family. Like a black and white waddling hobbit he comes home from work and wanders through the mossy forest to the cave they all share. It’s an idyllic glimpse of natural New Zealand and a rare and wonderful animal few people are ever going to see. If they disappear for good from the wild I’ve no doubt this story is the one they’ll play to teach kids what a Yellow eyed penguin once was like.

The Big Pacific series is highly entertaining but also packed with fascinating information – I learned a lot writing the book! In a world of increasing pressure on our natural environment, what is the role of natural history storytelling?

I think it’s increasingly important we do not sugar-coat the truth. We mustn’t be the blind purveyors of a dream while a nightmare plays out in the natural world. So as filmmakers there’s always a tension in what we do. I actually want to bring you a dream so you know why we must protect what we have left in the wild world – but I mustn’t let that dream lie to you and hypnotize you into believing the dream is entirely real. Because in some cases the dream is already over. Like the Yellow eyed penguin story I mentioned, I find myself handling a story as though I am preserving something already lost; instead of revealing something new I find myself working to faithfully capture the essence of what was.

Questions for Rebecca from Craig

The Pacific Ocean is many things to many people: a place, a home, a source of food, a gulf between land masses. How did writing the Big Pacific book change your sense of what the Pacific is to us?

I grew up with the Pacific literally at my front door and I’ve never been far from it for my entire life. It’s been my playground, my pastime and my place of solace. Because of this, for me as well as millions of other people like me, it’s hard to define just what the Pacific means – it just infuses our lives. This is one of the many reasons I was attracted to this project, because of the way it focuses not just on the Pacific’s natural history but on people’s relationship with it too. I hope that comes through in the book, because you can’t separate the animals or the people from the ocean they live in and around. We are, actually, in many ways defined by our place in or on the Pacific. Writing the book reinforced this view and gave me an opportunity to express it.

There are so many evocative images in the Big Pacific book, is there one that you keep on returning to?One animal that you want to meet?

Oh that’s a tough one, because I’m in love with so many of the animals and the images! I’ve always had a strong interest in whales so I find the images of the rare Blue whale captured by Big Pacific Director of Photography, the late and obviously very talented Bob Cranston, mesmerizing. But in the course of writing the book I discovered many other wonderful members of the Pacific community. Among them are the Wolf eels, whose dedication to their partner and to their brood is totally endearing. I love the images of the Firefly squid because they seem so ethereal and their lives are so fleeting, yet nature has nonetheless equipped them miraculously for their short, spectacular journey. Plus I can’t not mention the Chinese horseshoe crab, because they are such admirable survivors. I hope the whole world wakes up to the beauty and value of all the animals that live in and around not just the Pacific but all the planet’s oceans, and recognizes that they deserve their place in it for the future as much as we do.

Natural history stories at their heart are science stories – but with fur and scales. To be enjoyable and understandable they usually require simplification, but still need to be highly accurate. That sounds like a complicated dance to perform when writing, was it?

I’m a storyteller, not a scientist, but like a scientist I’m curious about the world. The process I used for Big Pacific worked well. First I read the (draft) series scripts and watched the Big Pacific footage. This meant I became intrigued with the animals first and foremost as characters, and was drawn into other aspects of the Pacific’s natural history – such as the Silver Dragon and the Ring of Fire – as stories. When I set about writing I drew on the science that was provided to me by Big Pacific researcher Nigel Dunstone. Then it was a matter of asking myself, what do I find interesting about that animal or story that others might also enjoy? What might people not know? What is dramatic about this story? Of course I also ensured I was covering off important information, such as environmental threats and conservation status, and everything I wrote was checked afterwards by Nigel and the Big Pacific team.

You’ve made some fantastic films between your writing jobs, is it hard to transition from the spoken word to the written?  Are they two different crafts?

Writing and filmmaking are related in terms of both entertaining and organizing information for an intended audience, but they do that in different ways and to a large extent employ different skill-sets. Obviously filmmaking is a collective pursuit that usually requires a team of people, whereas writing is a solitary craft. I enjoy both equally and writing/directing my own films enables me to do this. I was fortunate enough to spend time with the Big Pacific team when I selected the images for the book, and also interviewed others, so in this writing project I did get to collaborate. I would add that when I write I’m very conscious of rhythm – an aspect that’s also important to aspects of filmmaking, such as narration and editing. I’m not really musical, but I like to think that I have that sense of linguistic rhythm and flow. Perhaps that’s why I studied languages for many years!

TansleyA documentary filmmaker herself, Rebecca Tansley has previously worked at the production company that made the Big Pacific series, NHNZ. In addition to writing and directing films she has written two other internationally published books and been a contributor to national magazines and newspapers in her home country of New Zealand. Rebecca has degrees in languages, media production and law.

Craig Meade and the production team at NHNZ are some of the most successful and prolific producers of natural history programs on the planet—more than 50 wildlife shows completed in just the last four years. But after 30 years of writing and directing Craig still doesn’t class himself as a wildlife filmmaker—he’s a science guy that prefers mud, tents and mosquitoes to laboratories. When he’s not making films Craig is a deer hunter and an on-call fire fighter.

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.

Craig Bauer on unsolved ciphers

In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried—and failed—to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In Unsolved, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why focus on unsolved ciphers?

They’re much more intriguing because they could be concealing anything. Some might reveal the identities of serial killers. Others could unmask spies, rewrite history, expose secret societies, or even give the location of buried treasure worth millions. This sense of mystery is very appealing to me.

Did you try to solve the ciphers yourself first?

There are so many unsolved ciphers that I realized I would never finish writing about them if I kept stopping to try to solve them. There’s one that I’m confident I could solve, but instead of doing so, I simply presented the approach I think will work and am leaving it for a reader to pursue. I expect that several of them will be solved by readers and I look forward to seeing their results!

Does someone who wants to attack these mysteries need to know a lot of mathematics or have computer programming skills?

No. Many of the ciphers were created by people with very little knowledge in either area. Also, past solvers of important ciphers have included amateurs. One of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers was solved by a high school history teacher. Some of the ciphers might be solved in a manner that completely bypasses mathematics. A reader may find a solution through papers the cipher’s creator left behind, perhaps in some library’s archives, in government storage, or in a relative’s possession. I think some may be solved by pursuing a paper trail or some other non-mathematical avenue. Of course, there are mathematical challenges as well, for those who have the skills to take them on. The puzzles span thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to today’s online community. Twentieth century challenges come from people as diverse as Richard Feynman (a world-class physicist) and Ricky McCormick (thought to have been illiterate).

Are all of the unsolved ciphers covered in the book?

No, far from it. There are enough unsolved ciphers to fill many volumes. I limited myself to only the most interesting examples, and still there were too many! I originally set out to write a book about half the size of what was ultimately published. The problem was that there was so much fascinating material that I had to go to 600 pages or experience the agony of omitting something fabulous. Also, unsolved ciphers from various eras are constantly coming to light, and new ones are created every year. I will likely return to the topic with a sequel covering the best of these.

Which cipher is your favorite?

I’m the most excited about the Paul Rubin case. It involves a cipher found taped to the abdomen of a teenage whiz-kid who was found dead in a ditch by the Philadelphia airport, way back in 1953. While I like well-known unsolved ciphers like the Voynich Manuscript and Kryptos, I have higher hopes for this one being solved because it hasn’t attracted any attention since the 1950s. The codebreakers have made a lot of progress since then, so it’s time to take another look and see what can be learned about this young man’s death. I felt it was very important to include cases that will be new even to those who have read a great deal about cryptology already and this is one such case.

Should the potential reader have some prior knowledge of the subject?

If he or she does, there will still be much that is new, but for those with no previous exposure to cryptology, everything is explained from the ground up. As a teenager I loved books at the popular level on a wide range of topics. In particular, the nonfiction of Isaac Asimov instilled in me a love for many subjects. He always started at the beginning, assuming his readers were smart, but new to the topic he was covering. This is the approach that I have taken. I hope that the book finds a wide readership among the young and inspires them in the same way Asimov inspired me.

Is there anything that especially qualifies you to write on this topic?

Early work on this book was supported by the National Security Agency through their Scholar-in-Residence program at the Center for Cryptologic History. They wanted me in this role because, while I have a PhD in mathematics and have carried out mathematical research in cryptology, I also have a passion for history and other disciplines. In fact, both of my books have the word “history” in their titles. The journal Cryptologia, for which I serve as the editor-in-chief, is devoted to all aspects of cryptology, mathematical, historical, pedagogical, etc. My love of diverse fields allows me to write with enthusiasm about ciphers in music, art, criminal cases, ancient history, and other areas. The broad approach to the subject is more entertaining and ensures that there’s something in the book for nearly every reader.

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

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.

Elizabeth Anderson: Is your workplace a dictatorship?

AndersonOne in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses. Recently she took time to answer some questions about her new book.

Most contemporary discussions of work focus on wages, benefits, and unemployment.  You want to focus on the power of employers over workers.  How does that matter for workers today?

EA: Millions of workers in the United States labor under humiliating and abusive conditions. Most poultry workers, for example, aren’t allowed to use the bathroom during their shift, and are told to wear diapers to work. The vast majority of restaurant workers suffer from sexual harassment. Managers scream at warehouse workers when they can’t keep up with the grueling pace, or get injured on the job. They search workers’ bodies and personal property, and listen in on their conversations with co-workers. These conditions aren’t inherent in these types of work. The aren’t like the dangers that firefighters unavoidably face. They are imposed by employers. Employers can do this because they have power over workers and can threaten their livelihoods if they don’t submit. This kind of unaccountable power is objectionable even when workers are paid decently. Many professional and managerial workers who enjoy good pay are pressured by their bosses to contribute to political candidates their bosses prefer, and know that their contributions are being monitored. Workers up and down the organization chart are bullied by their bosses. It’s high time that we drew attention to these problems.  Work doesn’t have to be this way.

You claim that current political discussions confuse government with the state.  Why is that a point of confusion, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

EA: Politicians are constantly telling people that “the government” is interfering with their freedom.  What they mean by “government” is the organs of the state—the Federal government, or agencies of the 50 states. This way of talking misleadingly suggests that if we only got the state out of our hair, we’d be perfectly free to lead our lives as we choose.  It masks the fact that other kinds of governments, with unelected leaders, also rule our lives. The workplace is a type of government, and bosses are the rulers of this government. It’s important to recognize this reality, because managers often regulate workers’ lives far more intrusively and minutely than state governments regulate the lives of ordinary citizens. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government. State regulation of workplaces can actually make them more free by setting constraints on what their bosses can do to them—for example, barring harassment and discriminatory treatment.

You’re concerned about the conditions for workers today.  Yet you begin your discussion with the Levellers of the mid-17th century.  What can we learn from them?

EA: The Levellers were a group of egalitarian activists in mid-17th century England. They advanced a way of talking about free market society as liberating for workers. They saw that the state was not the only government that ruled their lives. As small craftsmen, they were also governed by the monopolistic guilds. Freeing up markets meant ending monopoly control, which would enable craft workers like themselves to be their own bosses, and expand the ranks of the self-employed. Other 17th and 18th century figures, including Adam Smith and Tom Paine, similarly believed that freeing up markets would open the way to nearly universal self-employment. Lincoln carried that vision into the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution destroyed their ideas of how free markets would make workers free. It bankrupted self-employed craftsmen and forced them to submit to bosses in big factories. We still talk today as if markets make workers free, forgetting that this idea depended on pre-industrial conditions. The originators of free market ideas were vividly aware that wage workers were subjected to the arbitrary rule of their employers, and thought that free markets would make workers free by enabling them to escape rule by bosses. Today, talk of how markets make workers free is magical thinking, masking the reality that bosses govern their lives.

How do you think the governance of the workplace can be improved?

EA: I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed.  Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.

What inspired you to write this book?

EA: I have long been interested in the lived experience of workers, particularly those at the bottom of the labor market. Their experiences are unjustly neglected in today’s public discourse. It should be a major public outrage that so many workers today are denied bathroom breaks, and suffer innumerable other indignities that almost no politicians talk about! Instead, a common response of politicians and the managerial class is: if you don’t like it, then why don’t you quit? The freedom of workers is just the freedom to quit. The inadequacy of this response should be glaring. But today’s public discourse doesn’t help us see why. My research on the history of egalitarianism uncovered the reasons why public discourse is so inadequate, and motivates alternative ways of talking about workers’ complaints, so they can be taken seriously. In the United States, it’s normal to complain about government regulation interfering with our freedom. Once we recognize that employers subject workers to their own dictatorial government, it’s easier to sympathize with workers’ complaints, and think about remedies.

Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).