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.

Dave Colander: Where Economics Went Wrong

Economics

Milton Friedman once predicted that advances in scientific economics would resolve debates about whether raising the minimum wage is good policy. Decades later, Friedman’s prediction has not come true. In Where Economics Went Wrong, David Colander and Craig Freedman argue that it never will. Why? Because economic policy, when done correctly, is an art and a craft. It is not, and cannot be, a science. The authors explain why classical liberal economists understood this essential difference, why modern economists abandoned it, and why now is the time for the profession to return to its classical liberal roots. Contending that the division between science and prescription needs to be restored, Where Economics Went Wrong makes the case for a more nuanced and self-aware policy analysis by economists.

Where Economics Went Wrong is a somewhat audacious title. Can you briefly tell us what’s wrong with economics?

Why have a firewall? The firewall discourages applied policy economists from trying to be too scientific, and economic scientists from worrying too much about policy implications of their work. The firewall is necessitated by the values inherently applied policy analysis. Scientific methodology isn’t designed to resolve differences in values. If a theorist is thinking about policy, the theory won’t be as creative as it can be. And if applied policy economics is too related to current theory, it won’t be as creative as it can be. Applied policy work requires that scientific methodology be integrated with more open and discursive engineering and philosophical methodologies that are designed to narrow differences in values and sensibilities and arrive at solutions to policy problems.

Our central argument is that scientific work and applied policy work are best done when there is a firewall between science and policy. Classical liberal economists had such a firewall, and we are calling for a return to Classical liberal methodology.

There are a lot of books out there criticizing economics; how does your critique differ?

The biggest difference is that we aren’t criticizing all of economics, but only one aspect of it—how economics relates theory to policy. We see ourselves as friendly critics, critiquing from the inside the economics profession, rather than from outside. In our view most of the outside critiques of economics miss their mark—they don’t convey the way top economists see themselves doing economics, which leads top economists to discount the critiques. Our critique is focused narrowly on economists’ blending of economic science and economic policy methodology.

 How does the subtitle of the book, Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism, fit into your story?

Chicago is a useful case study for us because it was the last bastion of Classical liberalism in U.S. economics. It was Classical liberalism’s Alamo. Classical liberalism included both a methodology and a set of policy recommendations. The methodology involved keeping a firewall between economics science and policy for the protection of both science and policy. Classical liberals argued that if scientific researchers had policy views, those policy views would influence their science and their science would be tainted. If economists used scientific justifications for policy, which didn’t make clear that policy had to have a value component, policy would be tainted. It was a broad tent, not a narrow tent, methodology, and it reached its high point with the work of John Stuart Mill.

In the 1930s that changed; Classical liberalism was abandoned and was replaced with a new semi-scientific Pigovian welfare economics that blended science and policy into one field. Solutions to policy problems were to be found in better science, not in reasoned discourse.

The applied policy revolution started outside Chicago—at schools such as MIT and Harvard,and was quite pro-government interventionist. It seemed as if economic science was directing government to intervene in the economy. Chicago economists, led by Frank Knight, objected to both the change in methodology and the interventionist nature of the policy recommendations.

With the advent of the Chicago school of economics, the intellectual leadership of Chicago economics moved from Knight to Milton Friedman and George Stigler. They gave up Knight’s methodological fight, and concentrated on objecting to the interventionist nature of the new policy approach. They developed a pro-market scientific economic theory based on the Coase Theorem that led to the policy results they wanted. They presented it as a scientific alternative to the newly developed government interventionist scientific economics theory. In doing so they abandoned Classical liberal methodology, which held that science did not lead to policy recommendations. So the Chicago case study nicely highlights where economics went wrong.

What’s your solution to what’s wrong with economics?

Our solution is to bring back the firewall between science and policy. Using the Classical liberal approach, economic science includes only those aspects of economic reasoning and thinking that all economists agree can be scientifically determined. By design, there should be almost no debate about scientific economic theory. If there is serious debate about the theory, then the theory hasn’t reached the level of scientific theory; it is simply an hypothesis that needs further empirical study. Policy analysis uses economic science, but it also uses any other insights and analysis that the policy economist finds useful to arrive at policy conclusions.

The approach we are advocating for applied policy has much in common with engineering methodology. It is much looser and more open than scientific methodology. Engineering methodology is designed to solve problems, not to find truth. For an applied policy economist a scientific theory is simply a useful heuristics, to be used when useful. Engineering methodology specifically allows for the integration of values and does not present itself as infallible. It invites challenges and discursive exploration. Using an engineering methodology will make values in economics more transparent, and more subject to philosophical debate that can clear up some of the value and sensibility differences.

Can you be more explicit about how an engineering methodology differs from a scientific methodology?

Adopting an engineering methodology involves a change in how economists think about theory and policy. For an applied policy economist, theory becomes simply a useful heuristic.Debates about science are reduced enormously because the domain of economic science is reduced. In policy analysis a much broader pluralistic methodology is used. Scientific methodology is designed to discover truth, which means it must be very precise. Engineering methodology is designed to solve problems in the least cost fashion. It is far less precise because precision is costly.

How do you see such a change coming about?

Slowly, but surely. We see it more as an evolutionary change than revolutionary change. The change is already occurring. Many top economists are already following the Classical liberal methodology we advocate—they just don’t call it that. So one of the goals of the book is   to highlight their work and encourage young economists to use it as a role model. In the last chapter of the book we consider the work of six top economists who do quite different types of economics—they include theorists,empirical economists, and applied policy economists—who are all currently following what we call a classical liberal methodology. We show how that methodology influences the work they do and the interpretation they give to their work.

Our advice to other economists is to follow their lead. That means that:

  • in policy work, economists should be far less worried about carefully following scientific methodological guidelines; they should replace those scientific guidelines with educated common sense engineering guidelines designed to answer the type policy questions they are dealing with.
  • in theoretical work economists should stop worrying about relating theory to policy and let their imagination roam without concern about policy. They should go where few economists have gone before.
  • in blended theoretical and empirical work, economists should be more creative and less concerned about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Leave that for the theoretical clean-up crew.
  • in econometric work, economists should use all the evidence that sheds light on the issue, not just the limited evidence that meets the profession’s current version of scientific rigor.

Our advice is for economists to free themselves from historically determined methodological scientific conventions and replace those conventions with pragmatic state-of-the-art conventions that take advantage of technological computational and analytic advances.

David Colander is Distinguished College Professor at Middlebury College. His many books include The Making of an Economist, Redux and Complexity and the Art of Public Policy (both Princeton). Craig Freedman is the author of Chicago Fundamentalism and In Search of the Two-Handed Economist.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

Brennan When All Else FailsThe economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so. The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

What led you to write this book?

Almost daily for the past year, I have come across news stories about police officers using excessive violence against civilians, or about people being arrested and having their lives ruined over things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. I watched the Black Lives Matter protests and started reading histories of armed resistance. I watched as president after president killed innocent civilians while pursuing the “War on Terror.” I see people’s lives destroyed by the “War on Drugs,” which continues on the same course even though we have strong evidence it makes things worse, not better. Every day, government agents acting ex officio are committing severe injustices. 

I ascertained that contemporary philosophy was largely impotent to analyze or deal with these problems. Most political philosophy is about trying to construct a theory of an ideal, perfectly just society, which means philosophers usually imagine away the hard problems rather than consider how to deal with those problems. Philosophers often try to justify the government’s right to commit injustice, but they often rely upon irrelevant or incoherent models of what governments and their agents are like. For example, Suzanne Dovi’s theory of political representation is grounded in a false theory of voter behavior, while John Rawls’s argument for government simultaneously assumes people are too selfish to pay for public goods, and government agents are too angelic to abuse their power. I saw an opening not only to do original philosophy, but to do work that bears on the pressing events of our times.

You can see that in the book. The “thought experiments” I use are all based on actual cases, including police officers beating up black men who did nothing more than roll slightly past a stop sign; officers shooting unarmed, subdued men; governments spying on and wiretapping ordinary citizens; drone strikes on innocent civilians; throwing people in jail for smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine; judges having to enforce absurd sentences or unjust laws; and so on.

Can you give a summary of your argument?

The thesis is very simple: the conditions under which you may exercise the right of self-defense or the right to defend others against civilians and government agents are the same. If it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a civilian committing an act, then it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a government agent committing that same act. For instance, if I wanted to lock you in my basement for a year for smoking pot, you’d feel no compunction in defending yourself against me. My thesis is that you should treat government agents the same way.

My main argument is also simple: Both laypeople and philosophers have offered a few dozen arguments trying to defend the opposite conclusion: the view that government agents have a kind of special immunity against defensive resistance. But upon closer examination, we’ll see each of the arguments are bad. So, we should conclude instead that our rights of self-defense or to defend others against injustice do not simply disappear by government fiat. On closer inspection, there turns out to be no significant moral difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia imprisoning you for owning pot and me imprisoning you in my basement for the same thing.

To be clear,  I am not arguing that you may resist government whenever you disagree with a law. Just as I reject voluntarism on the part of government—I don’t think governments can simply decide right and wrong—so I reject voluntarism on the part of individuals. Rather, I’m arguing that you may resist when governments in fact violate people’s rights or in fact cause unjust harm.

Some will no doubt complain this thesis is dangerous. In some ways it is, and I take care to highlight how to be careful about it in the book. But on the other hand, the opposite thesis—that we must defer to government injustice—is no doubt even more dangerous. People tend to be deferential and conformist. Most people will stand by and do nothing while armed officers send people to death camps. Stanley Milgram showed most people will electrocute another person to death because a man in a white lab coat told them to. If anything, defenders of the other side—of the view that we should defer to government injustice—have a duty to be cautious pushing their dangerous view.

Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the title? What exactly has to fail in order to justify the actions you describe?

Usually, lying, stealing, destroying property, hurting others, or killing others is wrong. However, you may sometimes perform such actions in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle of defense, codified in both common law and commonsense morality, is this: you may use a defensive action (such as sabotage, subterfuge, deceit, or violence) against someone else when they are initiating a severe enough injustice or harm, but only if it is necessary to defend yourself. Here, “necessary” means that you cannot use violence if a nonviolent means of defense is equally effective; you cannot use deceit if a non-deceitful means of defense is equally effective. So, the title is meant to signal that defensive actions—such as deceit or violence—are, if not quite last resorts, not first resorts either. 

What is the place of uncivil disobedience within a peaceful and successful polity?

What we call “civil disobedience” is a form of public protest. In civil disobedience, people publicly and explicitly break the law for the purpose of trying to have the law changed. They will often accept legal punishment, not necessarily because they think punishment is warranted and that even bad laws must be respected, but because it is strategic to do so to garner sympathy for their cause. Civil disobedience is about social change.

But self-defense is not about social change. If I kill a would-be mugger, I’m not trying to reduce crime or change gun policy. I’m trying to stop myself from being the victim of that particular injustice. Similarly, if you had been present and had acted in defense of Eric Garner, you would not necessarily have been trying to fix American policing—you would have just been trying to save Garner’s life. Defensive actions—or uncivil disobedience—are about stopping particular wrongdoers from committing particular harms or violating particular people’s rights. 

What are your thoughts on recent protests and movements such as Take a Knee, Me Too, and March for our Lives?

Globally, US policing and US criminal policy are outliers. American criminal justice is unusually punitive and harsh. We have 4.4% of the world’s population but around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We give longer, harsher sentences than illiberal countries such as Russia or China. Our police are unusually violent, even to the most privileged in our society. I applaud movements that bring attention to these facts.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, though the US had a higher than normal crime rate, its sentence lengths, imprisonment rate, and so on, were on the high end but similar to those of other liberal, rich, democratic countries. But starting in the 1970s, things got worse. 

Right now, Chris Surprenant and I are writing a book called Injustice for All explaining why this happened and offering some ideas about how to fix it. We argue that the problem is not explained by racism (as leftists argue), the War on Drugs (as libertarians argue), or crime and family collapse (as conservatives argue), though these things are each important factors. Rather, the US criminal justice system became dysfunctional because nearly every person involved—from voters to cops to judges to politicians—faces bad incentives created by bad rules.

Are there examples from history of individuals or groups following your philosophy with success?

Two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back provide strong evidence that the later “nonviolent” phase of civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because in earlier phases, black Americans involved in protest armed themselves in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and law enforcement learned that they would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and activists in turn began using the nonviolent tactics with which we are familiar.

Do you think there are changes that can be made that would lessen instances in which uncivil disobedience is justified?

A facile answer: all governments have to do is respect citizens’ rights.

More realistically: we need to train police differently, change recruitment tactics, and stop using SWAT teams so often. We should decriminalize many behaviors that are currently criminalized. We need to change tax codes so that poor localities are not dependent upon law enforcement issuing tickets to gain revenue. We need Congress to rein in the executive branch’s war and surveillance powers.

But even these kinds of ideas are too facile, because there is no willpower to make such improvements. Consider an example: violent crime in the US has been dropping since 1994 (and no, it’s not because we keep locking up all the violent criminals). Yet most Americans mistakenly believe, year after year, that crime is rising. They feel scared and vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. The politicians in turn support more confrontational, occupying-force style methods of policing. Here, we know what the problem is, but to fix the system we need to fix the voters, and we don’t know how to do that. To be clear, When All Else Fails is not a theory of social change, and not a prescription for fixing persistent or systematic social problems. As I often tell my political economy students, while we may know which institutions work better than others, no one yet has a good account of how to move from bad institutions to good.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His many books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

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

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

Hassan Malik on Bankers and Bolsheviks

In a year that has seen emerging markets, including Argentina and Turkey, experience major market crashes, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks is a timely reminder of the long history of emerging market booms and busts. Bankers and Bolsheviks charts the story of the foreign investment surge that made Russia the largest net international borrower in the global bond market, and the collapse which culminated in the largest default in history in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Based on research in government and banking archives in four countries and three languages, the story is truly global. It focuses on the leading gatekeepers of international finance in Europe and the United States, showing their thinking about the most significant emerging market of the age through some of the most important events in world history.

Many scholars, writers and filmmakers have engaged with the period you chose to write about. What in particular attracted you to it?

I was always struck by how frequently financial history surveys focus on a few set stories and episodes – the Dutch Tulipmania of the seventeenth century, the hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, or the 1929 stock market crash – but how rarely they mention Russia, especially given the scale of the Russian borrowing binge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a banker living and working in Moscow during mid 2000s, I was constantly walking by pre-revolutionary buildings that had once housed banks. These vestiges of a previous Russian boom piqued my interest in the role of finance during the revolutionary period and inspired me to approach the subject through the archives and writings of key individual players in this drama. The Russian case was particularly interesting given that all the major players in global finance were able to participate in Russian markets. Unlike other emerging markets that were dominated by a single country or bank, the Russian story featured a diverse group of actors, and so provided an ideal vantage point from which to write about global finance during the first modern age of globalization.

What are the parallels with today’s standoff between Ukraine and Russia over sovereign debt?

Central to the book is the notion of “odious debt” – the idea that a population cannot be held liable for the debts contracted on its behalf but without its consent by an illegitimate regime. The Bolshevik default of 1918 was remarkable for reasons other than sheer magnitude. Unlike Argentina in 2001 or Greece in 2012, the Bolsheviks not only defaulted but repudiated the debts contracted by pre-revolutionary governments. It is notable that the Bolsheviks were not outliers in this respect – moderate liberals in Russia also objected to debts the Tsarist government in particular raised in international bond markets.

Fully 100 years on, the Ukrainian government is fighting Russian claims on a similar basis with respect to a bilateral loan structured as a $3bn Eurobond contracted by the government of Viktor Yanukovych in December 2013, shortly before it was overthrown in the 2014 uprising. The Ukrainian government ultimately defaulted on the loan in 2015. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918, the current Ukrainian government claims that Yanukovych was a dictator ruling without the consent of his people, and that therefore, they should not be held accountable for debts contracted by his government. Like the Bolsheviks and liberal opponents to the Tsarist regime in the early twentieth century, the present Ukrainian government is also claiming that the creditor in question actively sought to undermine and control the debtor country.

What lessons does the book hold for investors in emerging market bonds today?

Another of the book’s central messages is that investment in emerging markets does not happen in a vacuum. Politics matter, on several levels. Most obviously, managing and hedging against geopolitical risk remains very important. Global politics also influenced thinking about Russia, even amongst ostensibly clear-eyed investors. Fears of an ascendant Germany during the time period discussed in the book are mirrored in present-day apprehension about the rise of China and relative decline of “the West.” More specifically, such fears can generate biases and influence investment decisions. The strategic decisions of the first National City Bank of New York – one of the largest in the world at the time, and a forerunner to Citigroup – were heavily influenced, for example, by the wartime context, and led to a remarkable expansion of the bank’s operations in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.

Politics also operate on a subtler level. The case of Russia, for example, demonstrates how the act of investing itself became a political act–when investors enter an emerging market, they often are aligning themselves with a particular set of political forces. Bankers in Russia at the time failed to appreciate the degree to which they were becoming entwined in domestic politics – and with the Tsarist regime in particular. Today, a similar theme is evident along the New Silk Road that China is developing across Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean as part of President Xi Jingping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What are the implications for China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The investment wave Russia witnessed during the first modern age of globalization was inextricably intertwined with contemporary geopolitics. While notionally private French, British, and American banks were key gatekeepers channeling capital into Russia, they did so in a particular geopolitical context. The French and Russian authorities in particular cooperated to a significant degree in channeling French savings to Russian markets. The French, however, frequently failed to persuade Russia to direct industrial orders to French firms, which often lost out to their German rivals.

In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is markedly different from the Franco-Russian financial ties of the Belle Époque. Under the BRI, China extends loans largely to developing countries for infrastructure projects built primarily by Chinese workers employed by Chinese engineering firms, using mainly Chinese equipment and materials. At a time when Chinese economic growth is slowing and there are signs of excess capacity in areas such as the construction industry, the BRI holds significant promise for China, not least since it diversifies the country’s trade routes away from contested territory such as the South China Sea. The benefit to countries receiving BRI funds is less clear. While there is little doubt that infrastructure is being built, the utility of some projects is arguable; and crucially, there is little transparency with regard to the commercial terms of the deals, to say nothing of contracting processes.

Several cases of questionable China-related deals are already evident. Before the formal launch of the BRI in 2013, Sri Lanka infamously signed a deal for a Chinese port of dubious feasibility and under terms that saw Sri Lanka’s debt balloon. When a new government faced difficulties in making payments, the Chinese ultimately took control of the strategic asset via a 99-year lease. More recently, erstwhile Malaysian premier Najib Razak signed major Chinese investment deals under the BRI. His successor has attacked the deals as shady and wasteful, and has already announced their cancellation in the amount of at least $22bn.

As the Malaysian case shows, the Chinese government – like foreign investors in Tsarist Russia – is willing to sign deals with leaders of contested legitimacy. The latter, in turn, are incentivized to seek BRI funding given the relatively higher degree of scrutiny and conditionality imposed by more traditional lenders such as the World Bank or individual developed countries. As both the Malaysian and Russian cases show, however, such an approach carries the risk that new regimes – whether they arrive through revolution or the ballot box – can question, push to renegotiate, or outright repudiate debts contracted by their predecessors.

Have emerging markets evolved, or have they repeated cycles of boom and bust that are fundamentally the same, with only superficial changes in context? Are the mistakes of the past vis-à-vis emerging markets destined to be repeated?

It would be simplistic to say that history repeats itself in emerging markets, but at the same time, financial history can be useful in thinking about historical analogs to current market conditions and potential future scenarios. Of course, government and businesses in emerging markets have evolved both over the centuries, as well as in the last several decades that witnessed the growth of “emerging markets” as a specific institutional asset class. For instance, macroeconomic management has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years in markets from Argentina to Russia, not least through the abandonment of fixed exchange rate regimes that contributed to past crises. At the same time, macroeconomic prescriptions directed at emerging markets from institutions such as the IMF, academia, and the investment community have themselves changed as investors and economists learn and re-learn lessons from the major EM crises of recent years.

Emerging markets have changed in other respects, too. Tsarist Russia attracted investors in part due to its relatively large population and resource base. Today, Russia’s demographics are seen as a handicap by investors, as is the economy’s dependence on commodity exports. Of course, even high-growth Asian economies have become victims of their success, with improvements in living standards and life expectancies contributing to ageing populations in major emerging markets such as China and India.

Nevertheless, there are strong continuities. The political dimension in particular remains very real in emerging markets, as seen in the major market moves surrounding regime changes in places such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Malaysia in recent years. In this respect, there are strong parallels between emerging markets today and in the past.

Hassan Malik is an investment strategist and financial historian. He earned a PhD at Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute in Florence and the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. He lives and works in London.

 

 

David Hu on How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls (Part 2)

Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim. Animals move with astounding grace, speed, and versatility: how do they do it, and what can we learn from them? In How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls, David Hu takes readers on an accessible, wondrous journey into the world of animal motion. From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious. In turn, the latest discoveries about animal mechanics are inspiring scientists to invent robots and devices that move with similar elegance and efficiency.

In the second part of our Q+A with David Hu, he describes what we know (and don’t know) about animal motion, and what the future of robots will look like. Check out the first part of our Q+A here.

Don’t we already know everything about animal motion?

From cave paintings to today’s videos of cats on YouTube, the movement of animals has always fascinated people. The thesis of my book is that there is an explosion of new interest and progress in understanding animal motion. Recent technological developments and the teamwork of biologists, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers, are leading to changes in the way animal motion is now studied.

What can we learn from studying animal motion?

Animals have existed for millions of years. As a result, they have evolved a huge diversity, inhabiting nearly every part of the planet, across terrains from desert to forest to sea. This range of environments, combined with their intense competition to eat or be eaten has led to the evolution of ingenious methods of locomotion. Their varying locomotion mechanisms can inspire new ways of propulsion for humans, from robots that walk across the clutter in our homes to tracked vehicles that move across the dusty surface of Mars. But before we robots are improved sufficiently to enter our everyday lives, an understanding how animals movement is of great benefit.

What kind of approach is needed to study animal motion?

We already have many of the tools to understand the movement of animals.  Because animals move through air and water, the same tools that engineers use to design boats and airplanes can be applied to animals. The brains of animals can be studied in a similar way. To react quickly to their surroundings, animals rely on a system of nerves that can act autonomously, similar to the cruise control in your car, and the motion of an autonomous robot. Since animals share things in common with boats, airplanes, and robots—the same tools to study these human-made systems can be used to reverse-engineer systems in nature.

How did you become interested in studying animals and insects?

My PhD was on the physics of insects that walk on water. People who study the motion of fluids have often looked to birds and fish for inspiration. During my PhD, I realized that while we often see insects as annoying, they are the dominant non-microscopic life form on earth, and their small size gives them an even greater versatility to move. After my PhD study on water striders and a postdoctoral study on snakes, I founded my own laboratory for studying animal movement.

What are the applications of your work, whether it’s a shaking wet dog or animals waving their tails?

In the course of my work, I often design and build new devices based on animal movement. My work on water striders led to a collaborator building a palm-sized water-walking robot. My work on cat tongues led to a cat-tongue inspired brush that combs with lower force and is easier to clean. From this book, I hope to show curiosity-based research on animal motion can lead to useful new inventions.

What are the robots of the future going to be like?

Many robots rely on wheels and are tested on linoleum floors. Robots built for such structured environments often do poorly in nature. A grassy field, a moss-covered stream, even a living room littered with children’s toys. These are terrain that is impassible by most robots. To traverse these cluttered areas, robots will likely need multiple legs, or no legs at all, resembling insects or snakes. I bet that robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments will show some resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics provide immutable constraints that have influenced the shape and kind of motion that is most effective on these terrain.

David L. Hu is associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology and adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.