Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi on Austerity

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

What is controversial about fiscal austerity?

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

Why did you write this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cass Sunstein on On Freedom

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

How did you come to write this book?

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

Can you give a summary of the main argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-Time Author Spotlight: Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire

Decolonization revolutionized the international order during the twentieth century. Yet standard histories that present the end of colonialism as an inevitable transition from a world of empires to one of nations—a world in which self-determination was synonymous with nation-building—obscure just how radical this change was. Drawing on the political thought of anticolonial intellectuals and statesmen such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere, Adom Getachew’s important new account of decolonization reveals the full extent of their unprecedented ambition to remake not only nations but the world.

In the book you argue that anti-colonial critics and nationalists in Africa and the Caribbean were worldmakers. What do you mean by worldmaking?

I use the term worldmaking in contrast to nation-building in order to highlight the global ambitions of anticolonial nationalism. In the book, I chart three different projects of worldmaking: the institutionalization of a universal right to self-determination, the constitution of regional federation in Africa and the Caribbean, and the effort to create a New International Economic Order. In these worldmaking projects, anticolonial nationalists took the international arena as the central stage for the politics of decolonization. In this context self-determination came to have a domestic and international face. Domestically, self-determination entailed a democratic politics of postcolonial citizenship through which the postcolonial state secured economic development and redistribution. Internationally, self-determination created the external conditions for this domestic politics by transforming conditions of international hierarchy that facilitated dependence and domination. Setting aside the better known story of the domestic politics of anticolonialism, I examine its forgotten international vision.

It’s surprising that nationalists seeking independence and national self-determination pursued these global projects. Why did anticolonial nationalists become worldmakers?

For anticolonial figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere the end of empire could not be limited to the achievement of national independence because empire itself was a globalizing force. For these anticolonial nationalists, empire had created a modern world, by politically and economically integrating disparate lands and peoples. However, this was always an unequal from of integration that engendered international racial hierarchy and produced dependence and domination. The hierarchical world of empire was not limited to colonies that had not achieved national independence. As I show in the book independent states like Ethiopia and Liberia were also subject to the consequences of unequal integration and racial hierarchy.

Studying the fate of these states, Nkrumah, Williams, Manley and others warned against a decolonization limited to the achievement of national independence. They argued for projects of anticolonial worldmaking that could overcome empire’s world of hierarchy by creating the legal, political, and economic foundations of an egalitarian and domination free international order.

While we often consider nationalism to be illiberal and parochial, I show that attending to the animating role the problem of international hierarchy played in anticolonial thought and excavating the worldmaking projects it inspired reveals the universalism of anticolonial nationalism.

Can you tell us about the research process? What inspired the project, how did you select actors and archives?

I started this project at a graduate student in African-American studies and Political Science at Yale University. I came to the project animated by what I thought were gaps in my two fields. First, studies of black internationalism and Pan-Africanism tended to stop at 1945, suggesting that the postwar period was one where the nation-state triumphed over alternative institutional imaginaries. In relation to this body of work, I wanted to trace the afterlives of black internationalism in the age of decolonization and excavate the forms of internationalism that anticolonial nationalists believe the postcolonial state required. Second, over the last two decades political theorists have turned their attention to the problem of empire tracing the ways in which canonical figures in this history of political thought developed their accounts of sovereignty, liberty, and justice against the backdrop of European imperial expansion. Emerging in the context of the post-2001 resurgence of American empire, this body of work has highlighted the way sin which earlier entanglements between liberalism and empire or domination and international law continue to shape our international order. Yet, political theorists have yet to systematically consider the political actors and movements that articulated the most far-reaching challenges to the world of empire. Worldmaking after Empire is a step in this direction. It traces how in the thirty years after World War II, anticolonial nationalists launched the most ambitious project of remaking the world.

I tell the story of this effort trough a Black Atlantic perspective that centers African and Caribbean anticolonial nationalists as well as their African-American interlocutors. The figures in the study— Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams—were worldmakers in part because they had emerged from black international and Pan-African circuits. While empire had created a world of inequality, it also facilitated connections between colonial subjects and created the conditions in which they developed a common language of critique and collectively envisioned a world after empire. In tracing the connections between these figures and in reconstructing their political projects, I traveled to archives in Barbados, Ghana, Switzerland, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom.  

Your book charts both the rise and fall of self-determination. What contributed to the fall and perhaps failure of these projects?

 I argue that we can locate the fall of self-determination in both the internal crisis of anticolonial nationalism and the external challenges to its vision of a world after empire. Internally, authoritarianism, secession, and humanitarian crises called into question the anticolonial insistence that the postcolonial state was the site of an egalitarian politics of citizenship that could accommodate religious, ethnic, and racial pluralism. Critics exploited these internal crises to repudiate anticolonial worldmaking. By the 1970s, North Atlantic intellectuals and statesmen such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the anticolonial right to self-determination and demand for equality amounted to no more than a hypocritical mobilization of liberal ideals to legitimize illegitimate states. This critique set the stage for a counterrevolution that dejected and displaced the short-lived moment of anticolonial worldmaking. Faced with these internal and external challenges, postcolonial statesman who had boldly called for the a post-imperial world retreated into a minimalist and conservative defense of the postcolonial state against domestic dissent and international critique.

One might say that Worldmaking after Empire is a history of unrealized political projects. Why is it important to recover these histories?

It might be easy for readers to walk away from this book thinking that the anticolonial visions of a world after empire were utopian, unrealistic or otherwise doomed to fail. But my hope is that in recovering these histories we are better able to grasp our present political predicaments and find resources in the past with which we can imagine new futures. We have inherited from the anticolonial worldmakers an incomplete and as yet unrealized project of decolonization. While we take imperialism to be a feature of our past, the world of hierarchy empire created remains with us in the erosion of sovereign equality, the dominance of unrepresentative institutions such as the Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the unrestrained power of private corporations, and the rise of American unilateralism. The persistence of international hierarchy demands new efforts at making a world after empire. To be sure we cannot simply recuperate the projects of worldmaking anticolonial nationalists pursued half a century ago. We will have to come up with our own languages for worldmaking, but we might learn anticolonial worldmakers that our efforts will depend on our ability to combine domestic and international transformation.

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.

William L. Silber on The Story of Silver

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

Why did you write this book?

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

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

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

Did the Hunt Brothers really manipulate the price of silver?

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

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

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

Was the Crime of 1873 really a crime?

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

Should investors own silver today?

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

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

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

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

What led you to write this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Thomas Crow on Restoration

Crow_Restoration book coverAs the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers—Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Vienna—with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas. Crow explores how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped these artists’ lives and careers with far-reaching consequences.

You say in your introduction, by positing that the essential subject of history is change, that periods of exceptionally rapid change contain a greater quantity of history than others.  Do you mean that a few years of upheaval might be equivalent in their historical density to a much longer epoch of more gradual transition?

The interval between my giving the Andrew Mellon Lectures at the Washington National Gallery in 2015 and their publication in this book strikes me as just such a period, in a way that few would have anticipated. The apartment provided by the Gallery in downtown Washington is only a few blocks from the White House, and it was always heartening to walk in that direction and think about the Obama family being inside. I wasn’t thinking much about the ominous portent in the signs across the street announcing the future Trump International Hotel hollowing out the gray stone of the old D.C. Post Office building.

Less than four years later, the dizzying reversals symbolized by the changed state of those landmarks hardly needs describing, and my proposition about the exceptional density of history between 1812 and 1820 may carry more intuitive resonance for everyone who has seen the most trusted form of order in domestic and international politics suddenly exposed as fragile or obsolescent.

Much the same can be said about the catastrophic effects of the Brexit referendum in the UK. In both societies, people share a pervasive anxiety over where these processes of history are taking us and what a suddenly uncertain future will be like.  Such were the states of mind among the artists whose personal stories make up this book. A friend (and former Mellon Lecturer) just wrote me and gratifyingly called Restoration “politically prescient for these dark times when all sorts of stuff we hoped had gone away seems to be restoring itself in unwanted ways.”

Paging through the book, with all of its splendid color illustrations, a reader wouldn’t immediately think of dark themes.

Firstly, I have the combined efforts of the National Gallery and Princeton University Press to thank for the number and wonderful quality of all those images. My hope for the book was that reading it would be as close as possible to being in the hall for the talks. I wanted the quickness of vivid images arriving just at the point they apply to the words. And the words would have as much of the immediacy of speech as possible, not slowing down or impeding the sense of rapid change and surprising innovation that Restoration tries to bring alive.

I think you can imagine, alongside all the devastation left by two decades of war, the wave of relief that swept across Europe at the apparent end of conflict. Rome, in particular, became the prime scene for this emotional release. Movements of armies and militarized borders had made normal travel in Europe nearly impossible. The British in particular had been shut out, and Rome became a magnet destination for them. The brilliant society painter Thomas Lawrence made the journey and created two of his most compelling portraits—one of the Pope himself and the other of his right-hand man, Cardinal Consalvi. The very fact that an artist from a deeply anti-Catholic society would undertake these at all speaks to the startling alterations of customary behavior engendered by Napoleon’s fall.

Lawrence was only one among an influx of artists from elsewhere, among them the brightest talents of the age. Théodore Géricault arrived in 1816, eager to absorb the lessons of Roman greatness in the arts. But his attention quickly wandered to the life of the city’s inhabitants, especially the rituals, ceremonies, and carnival celebrations that seemed to dominate their lives. And he had a companion in his artistic explorations of these exotic forms of life, a former Parisian rival named Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, who left the most astonishing, up-close visual record of the teeming Roman streets.

Nothing sounds too dark so far, rather the opposite.

In the street-level studies by both Géricault and Thomas, the costumes, Baroque church liturgy, and exuberant festivity are shadowed by events like public beheadings, which were clustered at the opening of the carnival season. Both artists drew analogies between cruel punishments of human beings and the agonies of animals led to torture and slaughter, which they witnessed in the bullring (installed inside the ruined mausoleum of Augustus) and the meat markets that surrounded it. Géricault’s drawings of these subjects are relatively well known, but you can’t really get the measure of them unless they’re seen side by side with the astonishingly vibrant watercolors of the same subjects by Thomas. I only had the rather pallid prints done after them when I gave the Mellon Lectures, but discovered the unpublished studies in Rome afterwards, and they make some of the most spectacular illustrations in the book, including some great two-page spreads.

What would be an example?

Both Géricault and Thomas were fascinated by the races of riderless horses, careening along the Corso, right down the central axis of the city, as a prime spectacle of carnival season since the Middle Ages. Géricault even planned to make a monumental painting out of the maddened animals held back by their handlers. But Thomas reveals the excruciating goads and fireworks in their bridles that induced these specially-bred Barbary horses to complete the course.

Did Géricault ever produce that painting?

He never did, but he carried back an imagination of endurance in the face of suffering, both animal and human, that then motivated a series of extraordinary, monumental canvases.

The Raft of the Medusa, you mean?

Yes, that would be its ultimate expression, the bare collection of decimated shipwreck survivors, summoning their last strength to attract their rescuers, which everyone knows from the Louvre—and it is truly one of the greatest paintings in art history. I try to put it in that light, but also bring out some less familiar, but astonishing work that also subsumes what he’d witnessed by going to Rome, and participates just as much in the upheavals of the time.

Immediately on his return to Paris, he set about painting three gigantic landscapes in an ostensibly classical vein, but their desperate and dejected inhabitants seem to traverse gloomy stretches of devastated terrain. Nothing obviously topical there, unless you’re aware of the catastrophic changes in the climate that struck Europe during exactly the period that Géricault was traversing northern France and the Alpine region on his way to and from Rome. The cause, which no one could grasp, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago. Its spreading plume of high-altitude ash cut sunlight to the point that 1816 in much of Europe was called “the year without a summer.” Widespread crop failures, famine, and vagabondage continued though the next summer as he was returning home. It would have seemed that the cosmos itself had been warped by the enormous social and political upheavals of the moment. No evidence survives of any commission or exhibition of the works during the artist’s lifetime, making them in all likelihood a compulsive effort to reconcile the traumatized, post-Tambora condition of rural Europe with his drive to make major art.

A last question: can you say something about the title of your book?  Is it just about the crowned heads of Europe putting the French monarch back on the throne?

More than that, I hope. That’s the technical meaning of the word, but it contains an irony, in that nothing so momentously altered can ever be restored as it was. The artists, from the finest grain of their work to their frequently towering themes, speak most eloquently to that existential reality.

And art itself became a prime object of restoration, in that the period saw the first major controversy about the return of works looted or otherwise displaced from their place of origin. The Pope dispatched the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova as his ambassador to broker the return of the Vatican antiquities and major paintings like Raphael’s Transfiguration, which the French had appropriated for the future Musée Napoléon in Paris. But it was no forgone conclusion that they would go back; when they did, Thomas Lawrence celebrated by placing key antiquities like the Vatican Apollo and Laocoön at the right hand of Pius VII in his portrait, as if the pontiff again commanded their mythical might as a boost to his own.

The paradox of Canova’s embassy was that, when traveling to London to secure British support, he publicly endorsed the recent looting of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, and there they remain in the British Museum, still the object of impassioned but unrequited pleas for their restoration to Athens.

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His many books include Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary FranceThe Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995; and No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art.

First Time Author Spotlight: Austin Carson’s Secret Wars

Secret Wars is the first book to systematically analyze the ways powerful states covertly participate in foreign wars, showing a recurring pattern of such behavior stretching from World War I to U.S.-occupied Iraq. Investigating what governments keep secret during wars and why, Austin Carson argues that leaders maintain the secrecy of state involvement as a response to the persistent concern of limiting war. Keeping interventions “backstage” helps control escalation dynamics, insulating leaders from domestic pressures while communicating their interest in keeping a war contained.

The subtitle of the book refers to “covert conflict.” What is it?

Covert conflict refers to parts of war that are fought outside public view. Secrecy is the critical ingredient. The book focuses on military involvement by outside powers that is concealed and officially unacknowledged. An example is Soviet participation in the Vietnam War. Soviet leaders sent technicians to operate advanced missile systems on behalf of their North Vietnamese counterparts, and train them in the process. This led to hostile fire and even casualties among Soviet anti-aircraft crews and American pilots. Because neither side publicly acknowledged these incidents, they were a more-or-less hidden feature of the Vietnam War. The book’s chapter on Vietnam actually covers three examples of covert conflict: Soviet and Chinese anti-aircraft operations plus American covert bombing missions in Laos. The book describes the covert aspects of five major wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the American occupation of Iraq.

What is necessary for covert conflict and why does it emerge?

One theme of the book is that covert conflict tends to arise when opposing sides share an interest in keeping some aspect of a war on the “backstage.” In an important sense, it is not enough to know why one country or leader finds secrecy attractive. The real puzzle is mutual interests: why would opposing sides share an interest in secrecy? In the book I refer to this as collusive secrecy. Examples of it, such as mutual American and Soviet silence about their aerial combat during the Korean War, sparked my idea for book.  

My theory therefore answers a basic question: What is something both adversaries care enough about to tacitly cooperate in secrecy, despite bitter differences over the war more broadly?  Unwanted conflict escalation is my answer. I argue that limited war is hard to pull off. It requires clear geographic and other thresholds. Such limits are regularly endangered by accident (e.g. mistaken bombing over a border) or intentional abrogation (e.g. covert intervention into neutral territory). Secrecy about these inevitable extensions of war preserves flexibility and political maneuverability for the leaders trying to keep the war limited. Moreover, leaders watching one another conceal potentially explosive episodes provides tangible evidence of their interest in keeping a lid on the conflict. I trace the historical origins of this collusion to World War I. Leaders saw how easily a regional war could escalate, and the role of miscalculation and domestic hawkish pressure in facilitating that escalation. Covert intervention and collusion about it emerged as a solution to escalation in the modern age.

How does one research the secret side of war?  What are the practical challenges and how can researchers overcome them?

A central goal in writing Secret Wars was to show scholars of International Relations the viability of theorizing and empirically assessing secret state behavior. With a few important exceptions, the field has rarely addressed secrecy head-on. Historians have long taken the lead, but done so with a focus on a single country or conflict. Scholars of international politics need to build on these efforts to create comparative studies that allows for empirical and theoretical generalizations.

On the practical side, the book exclusively relies on declassified or leaked records that address covert military activity or the intelligence of a government monitoring such activity. I have never had a security clearance or other method of privileged access. Often the research felt like investigative journalism: I would chase citations from historians; I would accumulate “leads” for new batches of records from collections I could easily access; I would read oral histories or interviews for clues; and so on.

One also has to be opportunistic and the opportunities can come in many different forms. A key collection of records I used for the Korean War chapter were only declassified in 2010 on the war’s sixtieth anniversary. German records seized during World War II by the British and compiled into thematic volumes were essential for a chapter on the Spanish Civil War. The complete, declassified Pentagon Papers – originally leaked by Daniel Ellsberg – was an important source for the Vietnam War. My favorite example, though, is the material on U.S. covert operations in Laos. Because Laos was technically neutral, the American government had no overt military presence in-country. This forced covert military operations to be managed by the American ambassador and the State Department. Decades later, those records were declassified under more lenient State Department guidelines, rather than the Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency. The result is a much more robust record which I use to shed light on how the U.S. managed a covert program that was leaking to the media regularly by 1966.

How have covert conflict and the escalation issues you identify in Secret Wars changed over time?  Where do you start the story?  Is the book relevant to new developments like cyberwar?

The book traces the historical origins of this form of covert warfare to World War I. I argue that the Great War taught later leaders some important lessons, and those lessons prompted innovation in how war was fought.  Leaders saw how seemingly easy it was for a regional war in the Balkans to escalate to a global war. They saw the utter devastation industrialized conventional warfare could unleash. Lastly, they saw how escalation took place: the role of miscalculation among adversaries and hawkish domestic calls for entering and widening war.

I then trace how covert forms of military intervention evolved in the years after 1918. I describe some early examples of concealed, unacknowledged military activity and collusive efforts to ignore it. In a chapter on Spain, I go into quite a bit of detail about how a shared fear of pan-European war led even Nazi Germany to embrace covert conflict. In short, our modern methods of limiting war – including through secrecy – are a response to modern features like nationalism, democracy, and military technology.

Fast forward to today. In the final chapter of the book, I review how escalation-control effects of secrecy and deniability likely constitute an important part of the appeal of cyber operations. In the language of my theory, internet-based attacks take place on a kind of cyber-“backstage,” or a segregated space with limited visibility where governments can disavow responsibility. Such features can allow cyber operations to express a value for keeping a confrontation contained as well as reducing the impact of hawkish domestic pressure on future decisions. My guess is that there is considerable collusion taking place regarding cyber-attacks, especially those that take place during war. Moreover, this cyber-escalation nexus also helps make sense of why leaders end collusion and publicize on another. Doing so can usefully escalate tensions and act as a kind of coercive tool. All of this has clear parallels in the secrecy dynamics I describe in non-cyber contexts in Secret Wars.

You refer to war as a kind of “performance” and covert conflict as taking place on the “backstage.” Can you say more about how the metaphor of a theater helps drive the narrative of the book?

The theater metaphor is a recurring feature of the theoretical and historical analysis in Secret Wars. The front stage corresponds to activity by governments, in particular external intervening powers, which is visible to one another and to outside audiences. It is public. In my theory, the most important “audience” that watches the front stage is hawkish domestic constituents that can be a force for escalation. The backstage, however, corresponds to the concealed, unacknowledged parts of war. The audience may occasionally get a peak behind the curtain but, by and large, the backstage is only open and visible to the performers. The backstage enables a good performance on the front stage. Here I draw on Erving Goffman’s insight that how we present ourselves to one another (on the “front stage”) is dependent on our access to back regions (the “backstage”) where we can compose ourselves and hide inconsistent behavior.

I conceptualize limited war as a kind of performance by states. Rival intervening powers are the co-stars in this performance and they seek to create a narrative that a given war remains neatly confined to geographic and other boundaries. Like actors, rivals share access to the backstage and see one another there. This means covert activity is visible to rivals but often not to outsiders. This partial observability is what allows covert activity to control escalation dynamics through the two mechanisms I describe. Adversaries can see one another using the backstage, which reassures them that they are both dedicated to protecting the performance of limited war. Outside audiences, however, are unaware of or uncertain about activity on the backstage. This helps keep their reactions and pressure from affecting future decisions.

Lastly, what effect might a leader like Donald Trump have on covert conflict?

This is a question all of us who study war and international politics are asking ourselves. For my book, I think a leader like Trump reduces the value of accumulated experience and makes secrecy as a limited war tactic less likely to succeed. Leaders learning across conflicts is a recurring theme in Secret Wars. I review documentary evidence in which leaders making sense of Korea reference Spain, in Vietnam reference Korea, and so on. Because open discussion of it is rare, leaders tend to resort to comparisons to make sense of covert conflict. Past experience helps you interpret covert interventions by others and helps with predicting how others will react to your covert intervention.

A lot of this is simply not applicable right now. A singular, unique leader like Trump disrupts this learning process. With good reason, his foreign counterparts are likely ditching the old playbook and developing expectations specific to Trump and his advisors. This makes misunderstandings about covert conflict far more likely. Other leaders will be more uncertain about the motives – escalation-related or not – when they observe covert American programs in a place like Yemen or Syria. Moreover, Trump and his advisors are less likely to rely on advice that is informed by the accumulated lessons of the past. Perhaps a silver lining is that everyone might react with more caution given pervasive uncertainty. A more likely outcome is that the same political and practical appeals of covert action will remain; the chances for mistakes will therefore grow.

Austin Carson is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Erika Lorraine Milam on Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

After World War II, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. Creatures of Cain charts the rise and precipitous fall in Cold War America of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials and in-depth interviews, Erika Lorraine Milam reveals how the scientists who advanced this “killer ape” theory capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even to answer the most fundamental questions of human identity.

What surprised you when you were researching the book?

I never intended to write about violence. The book started as a kernel of a story about the development and reception of an educational program called Man: A Course of Study, or MACOS. When Americans learned that the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first man-made satellite into orbit, they feared the technological prowess of Soviet engineers and scientists would quickly outstrip their own, unless they poured significant energy into science education. The result was a series of educational programs developed by experts and made available for use in elementary school classrooms around the country: the PSSC, BSCS, and others. MACOS was the first to tackle questions central to the social sciences. Led by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, it focused students’ attention on three questions: “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can we become more so?” I wanted to know more. The program, I discovered, used a wide array of materials—among them: films, booklets, and board games—to get students to contemplate these larger questions about the diverse communities in which they lived. But quickly I realized, too, that when MACOS was adopted by local school systems it was met with protests from community members who objected to the violent content of the materials. It was difficult for me to square the project’s intentions with the accusations hurled at it only a few years later. My research snowballed. Debates over violence during the Cold War—its causes and consequences—served as proxies for scientists thinking about questions of sex, race, and their own contested authority to answer these fundamental issues. This book is the result.

You interviewed a lot of people for the book, what was that like?

Thanks for asking me this! Creatures of Cain would have been a very different book without the generosity of the scientists and writers who took the time to speak with me about their research. In reconstructing past events, historians necessarily rely on archival research. This works brilliantly when people have already deposited their correspondence and papers in an archive, but those collections are more rare than you would think, are often highly curated, and are usually available only after someone has died. (Not everyone is keen to have future historians read through old letters.) When working on recent history, talking with scientists while they are still alive allows historians like myself access to voices and perspectives that would otherwise be difficult to include. Much about a scientist’s life is never recorded in a paper trail: from the books and experiences people found inspiring when they were teenagers to the friends and colleagues who sustained them during and after graduate school. Talking with people about their histories is thus invaluable, especially in trying to recreate informal networks of collaboration that I would have otherwise missed. Plus, I find it thrilling to meet people in person. The lilting cadence of a voice, the disorderliness of an office, or the art on a wall: each of these things leaves a singular impression impossible to glean from the written word alone.

How did you choose the images for the book?

For centuries images have played a crucial role in communicating scientific ideas, including concepts of human nature. After the Second World War, with the exciting coverage of paleoanthropological fossil discoveries in Africa and nature documentaries about modern human cultures from all over the world, still and moving images stirred audiences’ interests in anthropological topics. When selecting images for the book, I chose to emphasize drawings and illustrations that depicted the theories under discussion or scientists hard at work. Their striking visual styles reflect both the artistic conventions of the time and the highly visual nature of scientific conversations. More so than photographs, which can easily be read as flat representations of the past, I hope these images center readers’ attentions on the creativity required to bring theories of human nature to life.

How did you become a historian of science?

I came to the history of science fortuitously. In my undergraduate and early graduate work, I studied biology. Only in my second year of graduate school in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at the University of Michigan did I come to realize that there was a whole community of people, like me, who were interested in the humanistic study of science, technology, and medicine. I started reading books on the history of evolutionary theory, on gender history, and on the history of American science. I was gripped. Now I study how intellectual and social concerns are tightly bound together within scientific inquiries. I find especially fascinating research on the biological basis of sex and aggression in human behavior—each of which touches on the broader question of what it means to be human in a naturalistic world.

What are the lessons for us today that we learn from Creatures of Cain?

When I talk about my project, people ask me whether the growing violence of the struggle for Civil Rights domestically or the escalating Vietnam War made it easier for scientists and citizens to embrace the idea that humans were naturally murderous. The “killer ape” theory, as it came to be known, posited that the crucial divide between humans and all other animals lay in our capacity to kill other members of our own species. Did the violence of the era, perhaps, explain why it was easy to imagine the history of humanity as characterized by violence and only punctuated by moments of peace? I answer by saying that only a decade earlier, in the wake of the death and horrific atrocities of the Second World War, scientists chose instead to emphasize the importance of emphasizing the fundamental unity of humankind. Only through a common struggle against the environment, they argued, had our human ancestors survived life on the arid savannah—we humans may have clawed our way to the present, but we did it together. Biological theories of human nature have been used both to dehumanize and to promote progressive anti-racist conceptions of humanity as a whole. As these accounts demonstrate in juxtaposition, there is no consistent correlation between the desire to biologize human nature and either periods of violence or schools of ideological persuasion.

Equally important, fundamental questions about the nature of humanity—in the colloquial scientific books I make the center of my analysis—have helped recruit and inspire generations of students to pursue careers in the natural and social sciences. Even though such discussions rarely appear in the pages of professional scientific journals, they are central to how scientific and popular ideas about human nature change. Drawing a sharp distinction between specialist and non-specialist publications would thus distort the history of ideas about human nature in these decades. After all, scientists read (and reviewed) colloquial scientific publications, too, especially when exploring new ideas outside their immediate expertise.

When observations that chimpanzees also killed chimpanzees became broadly known in the latter half of the 1970s, it spelled the end of the killer ape theory. Although the idea that aggression provided the secret ingredient to the unique natural history of humanity has faded, this theory helped lay the groundwork for how scientists conceptualize human nature today.

Bonus question (if you dare): Please summarize the book in a tweet.

Oh wow! Okay, here’s a sentence from the introduction that actually fits: “In its broadest scope, Creatures of Cain demonstrates that understanding the historical fate of any scientific vision of human nature requires attending to the political and social concerns that endowed that vision with persuasive power.”

Erika Lorraine Milam is professor of history at Princeton University. She is also the author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology.

An Interview with the Authors of Dark Matter Credit

Imagine a world without banks. Because there are no credit cards, you have to pay cash for everything, and there’s no way to borrow either. How do you buy car or a house, or start a new business? You hide cash under your mattress. Such a world would be desperately poor, or so research in economics teaches us. Yet someone Europe managed to become rich long before banks spread across the continent. How was that possible?

Dark Matter Credit by Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal solves the mystery. Using data on 250,000 loans from France, the authors found that credit abounded in Europe well before banks opened their doors, thanks to a huge shadow credit system whose importance no one has ever measured before. The system let nearly a third of French families borrow way back in 1740, and by 1840 it funded as much mortgage debt as the 1950s US banking system. And when banks finally appeared, it out-competed them, helping people to borrow, save, and even make payments. It thrived right up to World War I, not just in France but Britain, Germany, and the United States, only to be killed off by government intervention after 1918.

According to the authors, their discovery overturns standard arguments about banks and economic growth and reveals a shadow system made up of thousands of loans between individuals, as in modern peer to peer lending.  Dark Matter Credit sheds light on the problems peer to peer lending will face as it spreads and suggests how those problems can be solved.

What led you to uncover a huge and unknown shadow banking system?

We knew that people were borrowing and lending long before banks existed, because thousands of loan contracts survived in the French archives. We wanted to know how that was possible without banks. How did the lenders know that the borrowers would repay? After all, there was no such thing as a credit score or even an easy way to tell if property had been mortgaged, and potential lenders had for centuries been worried about the risk of default. Could lenders only make loans to family members or close friends? Was that how credit markets worked? If so, lending would have been severely limited.  Early investigations suggested, though, that lending was not so small, and not as local as previous scholars had thought. We suspected that informal intermediaries were matching borrowers and lenders and increasing the level of confidence in the market. To get at what had actually happened, we set out to measure all this lending across France and to analyze what made it possible.

How much lending was there?

Well in 1840, outstanding mortgage debt came to 27 percent of GDP. That was almost as much as in the United States during the housing boom in the 1950s, when there were numerous banks, savings and loans, and government backed mortgages, but all the lending in France was done without any bank involvement, and without any of the government support that stimulated housing construction in the United States. Even way back in 1740, the credit system in France allowed a third of all families to borrow and lend. And the system was incredibly persistent: it was only killed off by government intervention after 1918, but even as late as 1931, it was still providing 90 percent of all borrowers with their loans

How did it work?

The loans, it turns out, were arranged by notaries, who had been drawing up legal documents and preserving official copies of records since the Middle Ages. Over time, they began serving as real estate brokers and providing legal and financial advice, and since they knew who had money to lend and who was creditworthy, they were soon matching lenders up with borrowers who had good collateral and were likely repay. And if they couldn’t find a match among their own clients, they referred borrowers and lenders to one another. One notary might send a good borrower off to another notary, or he might receive a lender from yet another notary. That allowed loans to be made when the borrowers and lenders didn’t know one another. The loans didn’t pass through banks at all—they were all loans between individuals, as in modern, web based peer to peer lending, but all without the web obviously.

Did it do anything else?

The notaries also helped people make payments and manage their savings. And their loan business continued to thrive after banks opened their doors. There were in fact more banks in France than anyone imagined (we know—we counted them), but it took them nearly a century to make any serious inroads into mortgage lending. We also discovered that notaries and bankers actually cooperated with one another to devise a new way for peasants to pay their bills at a time when doing so was difficult outside of cities. This sort of innovation is surprising because it runs counter to an influential argument that financial markets should have been stifled by the legal system prevailing in France and many other parts of the world—so called civil law, which was supposedly less favorable to financial development than British and American common law. That argument is also contradicted by the fact that the notaries themselves were thriving loan brokers, because the notaries kept the written records that were at the heart of the civil law.

How did you measure all the lending?

We visited a lot of archives! We had to because we started in a period before there were any government statistics about lending. So we assembled loan information from original contracts and fiscal sources. Of course, reading a quarter of a million loan contracts would have been impossible, but we also knew that summaries of the loans survived in French tax archives from the early eighteenth century up through the 1900s. The tax records plus some ingenious sampling allowed us to gather the data on our quarter of a million loans and to estimate what was happening in the credit market for France as whole across two centuries. With the sample, we could analyze the impact of urbanization, economic growth, financial crises, and enormous institutional changes during the French Revolution and the nineteenth century.   We also investigated the spread of banking in France and the interaction between bankers and notaries, and we compared French banking with banking in Britain. The comparison suggested that Britain probably lacked as strong a peer to peer lending system as in France, although it did have one. Evidence from other countries implies that similar systems operated in Germany, and the United States in 1900. They too had big peer to peer lending systems that have yet to be explored. And one has recently cropped up in China, but it has caused massive losses and triggered protests, because of problems that the French system avoided.

Philip T. Hoffman is the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and History at the California Institute of Technology. Co-author Gilles Postel-Vinay is professor emeritus at the Paris School of Economics, and co-author Jean-Laurent Rosenthal is the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology.

Luke Hunter on Carnivores of the World

Covering all 250 species of terrestrial, true carnivores, from the majestic polar bear and predatory wild cats to the tiny least weasel, Luke Hunter’s comprehensive, up-to-date, and user-friendly guide, Carnivores of the World, features 93 color plates by acclaimed wildlife artist Priscilla Barrett that depict every species and numerous subspecies, as well as more than 400 drawings of skulls and footprints. Features new to this edition include revised and expanded species coverage, a distribution map for every species, 25 new behavioral illustrations, and much more. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, distribution and habitat, feeding ecology, behavior, social patterns, reproduction and demography, status, threats, lifespan, and mortality. An introduction includes a concise overview of taxonomy, conservation, and the distinct families of Carnivora.

What’s new in the second edition?

The text has been completely revised for the second edition, with new data and observations published since 2011 to update and improve the original text throughout. By way of one example, most reproductive data for the Andean Bear in the first edition had been collected from captive animals, but the first population-level information from long-term research on the species in the wild (in Peru) was published in 2018, and has been incorporated in the book. Similarly, some species which were very poorly known at the time I wrote the first edition have since been the focus of at least one dedicated research effort, providing much better information for the new book; examples include the Bush Dog, Fishing Cat and Narrow-striped Boky.

A major addition in the new edition is the inclusion of 9 new species delineated since 2011, largely as a result of recent genetic analyses. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the African Wolf, formerly believed to be an African population of the Eurasian Golden Jackal.  The new book covers numerous cases where one species has been re-classified into two or even three, e.g. European, Asian and Japanese badgers, Northern and Southern Oncillas, and Mainland and Sunda Leopard Cats.

Finally, the IUCN Red List category indicating degree of endangerment has been revised for most carnivores, I provide a new assessment of Population Trend for each species, and the second edition includes distribution maps for every species based on the most recent IUCN Red List population data.

It is surprising that so many new species have been described since the first edition was published. How did these discoveries arise?

All new species in the book arose largely as a result of advances in genetic technology which has made very powerful and cost-effective analyses widely accessible to researchers. It has allowed geneticists to look with ever-increasing resolution at the differences between populations which, in some cases, turned out to be a so-called “cryptic species.” The same process has also revealed cases where populations formerly considered to be separate species (based mainly on appearance) actually have minor genetic differences, subsuming two former species into one. For example, Grandidier’s Vontsira is now regarded as a distinct population of the Broad-striped Vontsira. Whereas the first edition included accounts of 245 species, edition 2 covers 250 species, nine of them newly described.

To many readers, uncovering new species by genetic differences probably does not have the same excitement as news of an entirely unknown animal never before seen by scientists being discovered in a remote corner of the globe. Do you think the new species in the book are as interesting or even valid?

The question of validity is an interesting one; even geneticists debate the degree of genetic divergence indicative of two distinct species (versus lower-level delineations, for example, indicative of sub-species). There is the genuine danger of a ‘gold-rush’ in which researchers rush to publish new discoveries based on relatively minor distinctions between populations: there are already examples in the scientific literature. I took a conservative approach in the book, and included only those new species supported by strong published evidence and that are generally accepted by relevant authorities e.g. the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) Specialist Groups devoted to carnivores.

Even with that, the question of validity remains a moving target. I believe that any newly discovered genetic distinctions must reflect other significant biological differences, such as in morphology, ecology, distribution and especially in reproductive isolation, the classic (some say old-fashioned!) defining characteristic of species. This is not always well understood, even for some of the new species included in this new edition. In an introductory section on the 13 families of terrestrial carnivores, I list other cases that I consider borderline or questionable; these are not treated as full species in the book but some may eventually be recognized as such with better data and analyses in future. This is a story that will continue to unfold.

Priscilla Barrett’s artwork is superb, with many species which have never been so accurately and beautifully painted. What was it like working with her?

Priscilla is an exceptional collaborator. With her zoology background, she brings a scientist’s rigor to the process. She draws on her vast collection of reference material- photos of museum skins and samples, sketches and notes from the field- and we also used hundreds of recent camera-trap images, supplied by colleagues from around the world, including of many species or forms that have otherwise never been photographed in the wild. The result is art that is not only beautiful but also highly accurate; viewing Priscilla’s carnivores, I always feel a surge of recognition, that she has captured the true essence of each species.

Beyond each individual piece of art, each plate benefits from Priscilla’s very intuitive sense of design. The process started with her sketching rough lay-outs to decide the poses for each species or form, and how each interacted with the others on the page. Once we had decided that a plate worked, she painted all of the components. It has been very rewarding for me to come to understand how that process produces complete plates with both balance and life.

Field guides to mammals are becoming more common. Do you think this reflects greater interest in watching mammals?

Two colleagues who recently published a review of mammal-watching put it nicely when they said ‘Mammalwatching today is arguably where bird-watching was a century ago.’ That said, the same paper notes how mammal-focused tourism has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades, not only for the large charismatic species that every safari-goer to Africa wants to see, but increasingly for small and often difficult-to-see species requiring specialist guides and local knowledge.

Amateur mammal-watchers have also contributed to scientific discoveries including the first documented record, with terrific photos, of the virtually unknown Pousargues’ mongoose in Uganda since the 1970s, and the first records of Pale Fox and Rüppell’s Fox from northeastern Ethiopia; I referred to both papers for the second edition. I also had access to many dozens of trip reports written by mammal-watchers since the first edition. There’s little doubt all this reflects an increase in mammal-focused tourism, a trend that I am sure will continue. And one, I hope, that helps foster the growing demand for more and better mammal-focused field guides!

 

Luke Hunter is one of the world’s leading authorities on wild carnivores. His books include Wild Cats of the World and Cheetah. He lives in New York City.

Stanley Corngold on Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic

Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) was a charismatic philosopher, critic, translator, and poet who fled Nazi Germany at the age of eighteen, emigrating alone to the United States. He was astonishingly prolific until his untimely death at age fifty-nine, writing some dozen major books, all marked by breathtaking erudition and a provocative essayistic style. He single-handedly rehabilitated Nietzsche’s reputation after World War II and was enormously influential in introducing postwar American readers to existentialism. Until now, no book has examined his intellectual legacy. Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann provides the first in-depth study of Kaufmann’s thought, covering all his major works.

How did you come to write this book?

There is an immediate cause and a deeper one. The immediate cause was the Princeton University Press’s renewed interest in the work of Walter Kaufmann. After publishing a new edition of Kaufmann’s masterwork Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, the Press decided to republish another distinguished work by Kaufmann—The Faith of a Heretic (1959, 2015). I was approached to write a preface and gladly accepted. To do the job I read a good deal more of Kaufmann and was struck by his astonishing range of interests and the clear and vital precision of his writing. I then proposed a book to the Press that would cover the (near) entirety of his corpus—Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic—and here it is—a critical compendium to all his major works.

You said there was a deeper reason.

Yes, my “experience” of Walter goes back to early days. As I note in a chapter on Kaufmann’s extraordinary first book, “In summer 1954, a naval cadet in the NROTC unit at Columbia University, I lay sprawling on the steel floor of the destroyer USS Steinaker reading Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, the cover quite visible and flagrant. An officer saw me and shouted, ‘Why are you wasting your time reading this book!’ Ever since then, I have felt myself especially protective of this book, the author, and his subject.

Is that necessary? Does Nietzsche need protection from serious readers?

One reads that Kaufmann, on arriving at Princeton in 1947 as an assistant professor of philosophy, was introduced to Albert Einstein; both, after all, were German-Jewish émigrés from Berlin. Einstein asked Kaufmann about the subject of his Harvard Ph.D. thesis and Kaufmann replied, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Values.” Einstein is supposed to have responded, “But that is simply dreadful!” Nietzsche had been stained with a (mostly spurious) Nazi stripe. But Kaufmann was certainly not stopped in his tracks by Einstein’s dismay or other scholars’ horror of the subject. His 1950-masterwork is an original and decisive defense of Nietzsche as a serious thinker in a humanistic tradition of Bildung (or self-formation)—a thesis that has produced volumes of critical commentary by professional philosophers even until today, some 70 years later!

Weren’t you and Walter Kaufmann contemporaries—at least for a time—at Princeton?

We were. I’d like to recall my first encounter with Walter, though, which preceded our few, informal meetings at Princeton—they were few and informal because, at that time, owing to my training, I belonged to a rival school of thought—Deconstruction or, better, Rhetorical Analysis—that called for a different way of reading Nietzsche, tending to “put under erasure” all his substantive claims. I’ll quickly add that almost all of Kaufmann’s oppositional readers were dependent on his superb Nietzsche translations! But a certain resistance to Kaufmann’s work on my part had set in at that time and even beginning with his in-person presentation of the Existentialist worldview at Columbia University in 1955. To my regret, I was unable to feel myself addressed for the very callow reason that I could not expect a professor who himself looked like an undergraduate and, as I recall, wore lederhosen, to speak with much authority. Since then, evidently, I have learned to take him very seriously!

Do you treat Kaufmann’s life and personality in your book?

Only glancingly. I’ve been eager to follow Kaufmann’s own instruction, and to address the very best part of him in the pages that he wrote. That is how he wished to be remembered. But you cannot overlook the striking features of his life and personality: the fact, for example, that at the age of 13, being dissatisfied with his converted-father’s Lutheran account of the Holy Spirit, he demanded an official state document certifying his withdrawal from the church, which prepared him for his conversion to Judaism. In fact, his heritage was Jewish in the very first place. What stands out is the extraordinary boldness of a very young man in 1933, no doubt aware of Hitler’s ascension to power, converting “back” to Judaism!

Do you treat him, then, as a Jewish writer?

Well, it is not perfectly clear what a “Jewish writer” is, beside the obvious, but the thrust of your question is to ask about his commitment to Judaism. The answer is that soon after his arrival in the United States in 1939 (he attended Williams College), he turned away from this and any other devotion to the rituals of a church or synagogue. On the other hand, his work is marked by a deep admiration for the ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible. And he remained attached to the “religious experience” of both himself and others.

What do you mean by “religious experience” outside of an attachment to this or that world religion?

One could quote Einstein, in this case, to give color to Kaufmann’s position. Einstein speaks of “the mysterious … the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science … the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” Kaufmann, the humanist, would locate the “mysterious” in the human aspiration to overcome its “ontological deficit”—in a word, to become more. Challenged to explain this fundamental aspiration, Kaufmann wrote, early on: “As human beings, we have ideals of perfection which we generally find ourselves unable to attain. We recognize norms and standards of which we usually fall short; we long for a triumph over old age, suffering, and death; we yearn for perfection and immortality—and seem incapable of fulfillment. We desire to be ‘as gods,’ but we cannot be so.” And still, we strive—or ought to strive. This is his great refrain: a heightening of the Faustian ideal of continual effort or—equally—of the Nietzschean ideal of self-overcoming.

And religion in this?

Toward the end of his short life, his passion for religion was enriched, if you like, by his pilgrimage to the places of religion. He traveled around the world five times and seems to have covered most of the ground by walking. He inspected the sacred places in Asia and the Middle East that armchair philosophers encounter only in photographs and in his later work Religion in Four Dimensions supplied us with these very photographs in a brilliant format.

Do you think the work of Walter Kaufmann has contemporary relevance? And whom did you imagine as your audience?

I have learned a ton from Kaufmann, both by absorbing his statements and by pushing myself to respond to them, either with gratitude or resistance. The latter, especially, called for solid commentary: I was pushed to defend my objections. I do hope the book conveys this lively obligation to the readers I wish for it.

Does a book on Walter Kaufmann inspire other books?

A mathematician, Carl Faith, recalled in his memoirs that in the 70s he had seen Walter Kaufmann and Erich Kahler—a polymathic émigré and, if I may say so, (Thomas) Mann’s best friend—frequenting Princeton’s PJ’s Pancake House.

This led me to the figure of Erich Kahler and the discovery that ca. 1940 in Princeton there was a Kahler Circle, involving several of the great German, mostly German-Jewish émigrés then living in Princeton, including, besides Erich Kahler, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Hermann Broch, and to some extent Ernst Kantorowicz, Erwin Panofsky, and Kurt Gödel. I think a wonderful book could be written about the Circle’s world of thought.

Stanley Corngold is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. His many books include The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory; Complex Pleasure: Forms of Feeling in German Literature; Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka (Princeton); and Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

 

Public Thinker: Issa Kohler-Hausmann on Misdemeanors and Mass Incarceration

Issa-Kohler-Hausmann

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this new interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.

While most critics of the American criminal justice system condemn mass incarceration, fewer have turned a critical eye to practices that result in punishment other than imprisonment. In Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing, Issa Kohler-Hausmann argues that we must understand non-carceral policing and punishment in order to fully appreciate the reach of the American criminal justice system.

She focuses on the rapid expansion of these practices in New York City during the early 1990s, following the introduction of a new policing regime targeting allegedly disorderly conditions throughout the city. While felony cases had outpaced misdemeanor ones in the city’s criminal courts prior to the implementation of this regime, misdemeanors—and especially crimes like possessing marijuana or jumping the subway turnstiles—increased dramatically and far outpaced felonies from the mid-1990s to the present.

This growth in misdemeanor arraignments, Kohler-Hausmann observes, has produced a new model of criminal law administration. Rather than turning on questions of guilt or innocence, the “managerial model” uses criminal records, procedural hassles, and behavioral evaluation to achieve social control over the tens of thousands of people annually ensnared by the city’s misdemeanor courts. These practices disproportionately burden low-income communities of color, but imprisonment or even formal convictions are rare.

Kohler-Hausmann is an associate professor of law and sociology at Yale University. In May, we met at a café near Washington Square Park to discuss her new book, the legacy of Broken Windows policing, and the politics of criminal justice reform. The interview lasted an hour and has been significantly edited for length, clarity, and precision.


Jackson Smith (JS): Most of the infractions adjudicated in “misdemeanorland” are not violent, but violent crime does appear to haunt misdemeanorland. As you note in the book, it is at the core of the Broken Windows theory of policing. Could you speak to how conceptions of violent crime shape misdemeanorland, even if violent crime is not what is being adjudicated there?

Issa Kohler-Hausmann (IK): Haunting is a great way of putting it. Violent crime haunts misdemeanorland in a couple of ways. First, policing is concentrated in spaces with more crime. The police will always say that and they are mostly right. I don’t think that necessarily answers the fairness question, or the justice question, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that this is true. The important thing to remember is that what Broken Windows policing is doing is essentially casting a very, very wide net over those spaces and essentially asking everyone who is hauled in to prove that they are not a bad guy. It feels acceptable to have this vast dragnet, because we essentially think it is fair to put the burden on the people who live in high-crime neighborhoods to prove that they are not high-crime people. This is acceptable because they are black and brown people.

The other point is that people will ask, “Well, isn’t it true that this policing diminished serious crime in New York?” The answer is that nobody knows and certainly nobody knows the magnitude and the extent to which this may be true. You also have to think about the mechanism for reducing crime. Is it by virtue of bringing in a lot of people for misdemeanors? By definition, somebody who is arrested for a misdemeanor is not arrested for a felony. If they stopped you for smoking weed and found a gun on you, your top arrest card would be a felony, not a misdemeanor.

The idea is to arrest a lot of people who might grow up to be serious felons, but the mechanism has always been a little unclear to me. The data that I show in the book is that very few of the people arrested for misdemeanors end up with a violent felony conviction after a number of years. This is unsurprising given that we were arresting 100,000–150,000 people at the height of it—that would be a lot of people who would become serious felons.

JS: The first part of your book outlines how and why misdemeanor arraignments reached those peaks of 100,000–150,000 per year in New York City during the 1990s. You trace what you call the “managerial model” of criminal court adjudication back to the rise of Broken Windows policing, but also to the limits of the due process revolution. What can the rise of mass misdemeanors tell us about the unintended consequences of such policy reforms?

IK: What is interesting about misdemeanorland is that the whole thing was sort of unintended, but there were theoretical tenets that underspinned the Broken Windows policing experiment. First, the theory says that people inherently care about disorder, and they might care about it just as much as—if not more than—serious violent crime. Second, it says that there is a developmental sequence between tolerating low-level disorder and the conditions under which serious street crime and violent crimes flourish. The claim is that if you enforce basic norms of civility, people will not think that they have a license to do very serious things.

But no one seemed to give any thought whatsoever to what would happen if you essentially doubled the volume of human bodies moving through a system that is supposed to do adjudicatory work. This system is charged with using the pretty finicky rules of criminal procedure that were established in the due process revolution. It turns out those processes are costly. They involve using resources and time, and people are always going to look for ways not to use resources and time—especially if they are overburdened.

So it was interesting to me to not see any real forethought as to what might happen or even what should happen to these cases. I have not seen anyone write about people who piss on the sidewalk, jump the turnstile, take candy bars from bodegas, walk into buildings that they are not authorized to walk into, or have small amounts of narcotics or marijuana. The people charged with actually doing something with these cases had to make a series of adjustments. They had to solve a series of problems—basically, what do I do with all these cases when I can’t actually adjudicate them? I can’t actually use the rules of criminal procedure to properly figure out if this person did in fact piss on the sidewalk, jump the turnstile, take the candy bar from the bodega, or push or harm or strangle or threaten to hurt this person. It turns out that instead of figuring out if it happened in the past, they could use a series of tools to try to figure out if they think it is likely to happen again in the future.

JS: That temporal orientation is very interesting to me. The penal law looks backwards, as you note in the book, but the “managerial model” evaluates a defendant’s future behavior. This struck me as consistent with the temporality of policing, which also looks forward to essentially safeguard public order. Did the increase in misdemeanor arrests entail a “police-ification” of the lower criminal courts? To what extent does policing dictate the terms of engagement in misdemeanorland?

IK: This is why I spent extended time in the first part of the book talking about the logic of Broken Windows policing. The “managerial model” was an acceptable solution to the daily problems faced by legal actors, because it was quite contiguous with and complementary to the policing model that generated it. It is an ingenious set of answers for dealing with all those cases in a way that did not create conflict with the organization sending you all those cases. It actually vindicated the very logic of that organization. For example, you are a young black man in a high-crime neighborhood, you are smoking weed, or maybe I just put my hands in your pocket and found weed. I don’t know what you are up to, so I demand that you come into this space and prove to me that you are not up to no good. That logic is entirely consistent with the policing model, as you said.

JS: I want to switch directions now to discuss the role of fees and fines in misdemeanorland, as my own research concerns the role of money in what you call “non-carceral criminal justice encounters.” There is a popular understanding that fees and fines reveal a hidden profit motive. Your research complicates that narrative, however, because the immense volume of misdemeanor arraignments also entails an immense public cost. It costs a lot of money to cast that very wide net. Moreover, the lack of public resources apportioned to misdemeanor courts casts doubt on this idea that fees and fines are purely motivated by profit—the costs appear to outpace any revenue generated. In lieu of a profit motive, what can your concepts of “procedural hassle” and “performance” tell us about the logic of misdemeanor fees and fines? Is there something like an austerity logic operative here, such that defendants and their communities are made to bear the costs and responsibilities for their own punishment?

IK: The symbolic logic of profit might be there, but that doesn’t mean it is effective. It is very important to realize this disconnect. That is not to say that it is not punitive, unfair, and burden-shifting. It is certainly a regressive tax on the poorest communities, because the most heavily policed places are where you are going to find infractions like dogs not wearing a leash and public consumption of alcohol, because it is exactly in those places that you have the most police officers wandering around seeing those things. As we know, there is a hell of a lot of Sauvignon Blanc sipping in Prospect Park and very few summonses being issued there. But I think you are right to question this fiscal motive.

As the name of a great article says, you can’t get blood from a stone.[1.See Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett, “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States,” AJS, vol. 115, no. 6 (May 2010).] The number one conviction in New York City for decades has been disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct entails a mandatory court surcharge of $120. I would be shocked if more than 30 percent can or do pay it. If you refuse to pay and there is a finding that you are willfully refusing to pay, you could be subject to jail time, but usually what happens is that civil judgment is entered and civil judgment basically just ruins people’s credit. What we are essentially doing is ruining the credit of people who are already impoverished. It is a really stupid thing to do, but it is not successfully getting blood from a stone. We are saying, “We’re not going to pay for courts; you have to pay for them.” But we end up entangling people in a web of debt, a web of being out-of-compliance with legal rules and orders. We push you further outside the boundary of civic inclusiveness and make you an outlaw, make you out of compliance, and express that you are not a deserving taker of state services. You are a special type of person that does not even deserve the standard things of the state.

JS: Many of the problems in misdemeanorland that you identify throughout your book stem from the outsized power of prosecutors, so I am curious what you make of the nationwide movement to elect progressive prosecutors in local jurisdictions. Do you see it having any impact on what happens in misdemeanorland?

IK: What I say about prosecutors is a line I read somewhere about it being more power than a bad man should have or a good man should want. Once people are given power they tend to think they are the right ones to have it. Very few people in power think, “You know what, I should have some of my discretion taken from me.”

Take [New York County District Attorney] Cy Vance. Here is a guy who for years had probably the most punitive offer policies in the five boroughs. According to my estimates, you had a higher probability of being convicted and going to jail for turnstile jumping in Manhattan than in any other borough. He is now claiming that he will decline to prosecute those cases, which is great. But he is fighting tooth and nail against discovery reform, which would actually give leverage to the other side. In terms of legal reform, we need to give more leverage points to defense attorneys. Prosecutors who fight against that don’t get to call themselves progressive.

Having said that, does the view of the person in power matter? Of course it matters, so I am happy that there is light on this because, as we know, district attorney races have been largely uncontested.

JS: On that note, what is your appraisal of the broader movement for criminal justice reform?

IK: I am often leery of our newfound alliance with the Right on Crime people. What we have in places like Brownsville is the thoroughly anticipated upshot of hundreds of years of racial injustice and a deeply unequal economic system that actually does not care about people who have been left behind. What we need is a huge investment in fundamentally rupturing intergenerational poverty. That is where we are going to part ways with the Right on Crime people, because it is not going to be cheaper and might even be more expensive. Ultimately, we need a Marshall Plan for the ghetto. We need to be willing to put in massive amounts of resources into addressing the very real social problems in many of the heavily policed spaces.

Crime is a real problem because violence disproportionally affects the most vulnerable communities, mainly low-income and minority communities. Violence is a terrible intergenerational harm, and we need to start by recognizing that. But that is why we need to simultaneously be fighting for distributive justice, a union movement, school reform, and the basic social good. Because those are social controls, they are just the benign ones that we think are good.

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.