Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

by Jerry Muller

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance. 

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximise the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation. If the rate of major crimes in a district becomes the metric according to which police officers are promoted, then some officers will respond by simply not recording crimes or downgrading them from major offences to misdemeanours. Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

When reward is tied to measured performance, metric fixation invites just this sort of gaming. But metric fixation also leads to a variety of more subtle unintended negative consequences. These include goal displacement, which comes in many varieties: when performance is judged by a few measures, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a pay rise or raising the stock price at the time that stock options are vested), people focus on satisfying those measures – often at the expense of other, more important organisational goals that are not measured. The best-known example is ‘teaching to the test’, a widespread phenomenon that has distorted primary and secondary education in the United States since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Short-termism is another negative. Measured performance encourages what the US sociologist Robert K Merton in 1936 called ‘the imperious immediacy of interests … where the actor’s paramount concern with the foreseen immediate consequences excludes consideration of further or other consequences’. In short, advancing short-term goals at the expense of long-range considerations. This problem is endemic to publicly traded corporations that sacrifice long-term research and development, and the development of their staff, to the perceived imperatives of the quarterly report.

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organisation, while sapping their enthusiasm. In an attempt to staunch the flow of faulty metrics through gaming, cheating and goal diversion, organisations often institute a cascade of rules, even as complying with them further slows down the institution’s functioning and diminishes its efficiency.

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate co-operation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.

Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.

Organisations in thrall to metrics end up motivating those members of staff with greater initiative to move out of the mainstream, where the culture of accountable performance prevails. Teachers move out of public schools to private and charter schools. Engineers move out of large corporations to boutique firms. Enterprising government employees become consultants. There is a healthy element to this, of course. But surely the large-scale organisations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate. The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.

Economists such as Dale Jorgenson of Harvard University, who specialise in measuring economic productivity, report that in recent years the only increase in total-factor productivity in the US economy has been in the information technology-producing industries. The question that ought to be asked next, then, is to what extent the culture of metrics – with its costs in employee time, morale and initiative, and its promotion of short-termism – has itself contributed to economic stagnation?Aeon counter – do not remove

Jerry Z. Muller is the author of many books, including The Tyranny of Metrics. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.


This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.


What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 



Eric Posner & Glen Weyl on Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society

Radical MarketsMany blame today’s economic inequality, stagnation, and political instability on the free market. The solution is to rein in the market, right? Radical Markets turns this thinking—and pretty much all conventional thinking about markets, both for and against—on its head. The book reveals bold new ways to organize markets for the good of everyone. It shows how the emancipatory force of genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation. Only by radically expanding the scope of markets can we reduce inequality, restore robust economic growth, and resolve political conflicts. But to do that, we must replace our most sacred institutions with truly free and open competition—Radical Markets shows how. Read on for an interview between the two authors. 

Eric: I’ve never thought of myself as a radical, yet our book is called Radical Markets. Is this a marketing gimmick or are the ideas really radical?

Glen: Our proposals seem pretty radical to me. In our scheme, private property turns into a kind of an auction, so there would be a price on most property all the time and the benefits would flow equally to all citizens, eliminating most inequality of wealth.  The conventional system of democracy—one-person-one-vote and judicial protection of most minority rights—would turn into a market-based system of trading voice credits and using them to buy votes. The current immigration bureaucracy would be radically decentralized, as ordinary people would take over sponsorship of migrant workers. There are certainly ideas more radical than these, but not many that you hear discussed seriously by our academic colleagues.

Eric: Yet, unlike true radicals, we urge a go-slow approach. Test things out, we say. Things could go wrong, we warn. And then we claim to be in favor of markets. That doesn’t sound like Saint-Simon or Marx. Sure, enough our book is #1 on Amazon in the category of libertarianism, though neither of us think of ourselves as libertarians.

Glen: True revolutions occur in slow motion; they begin with ideas. Democracy is a revolutionary idea in a world of kingdoms; it did not happen overnight. Unions began as working men’s associations and only gradually gained power and state sanction. Even Saint-Simon inspired small-scale utopian communities. Revolutions that move rapidly to take over a whole society, like the French or Russian, usually quickly determine they didn’t have their plans fleshed out and end in chaos or greater tyranny than the system they replaced. We have radical, even revolutionary, aims, but we want the changes we propose to stick and that will only happen if they are fully developed, their weaknesses exposed by experimentation.

Eric. I’m still not sure. I like the title because I’m a sucker for word play. The root of the word radical is, well, root. Being radical means getting to the root of things. I think we do that. A radical in math is the root of a number, and several of the ideas in the book have their origin in quadratic equations. And then there is the idea of radical as left-wing. Here, I’m not so sure. In fact, one of our goals is to appeal to people with different political views.

Glen: Well, radical doesn’t necessarily mean left wing, though I guess it depends how you define it.  In fact, The Economist defines its ideology as the “radical center.” To me, that sense of radical is more about favoring fundamental changes to the social order rather than, say, putting the government in charge of everything or redistributing wealth. In that sense, I think we are very much radicals

Eric: We even appeal to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. What could be less radical than that?

Glen: Adam Smith has an unfair reputation as a “conservative” these days only because his ideas were so successful. He put the finishing touches, intellectually at least, on the unthinking feudalism of the day. In fact, Smith helped found the first major political movement to identify itself as “Radical,” the Philosophical Radicals who are our inspiration. Not surprisingly, ideas that were radical in the eighteenth century can be reactionary in the twentieth, when Friedman wrote. But we give Friedman credit for seeing that central planning and a certain kind of bureaucratic mindset leads to a dead end.

Eric: And for market thinking: Friedman was right to emphasize the value of competition and exchange—essential features of market system—but, like many economists, took our system of property rights and politics for granted, as if thinking on these topics had stopped centuries ago. One way you can tell that you are being radical in an intellectual sense—the sense I care about—is that you find yourself being criticized by people with different political views. If you’re radical enough, people will get angry. We’ve already seen a bit of this. Immigrant advocates and alt-right types don’t agree on much, but they seem to be scandalized by our foreign worker proposal. I’ll be curious to see how people react to our other proposals.

Eric A. Posner is the Kirkland and Ellis Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His many books include Climate Change Justice. He lives in Chicago. E. Glen Weyl is principal researcher at Microsoft and visiting senior research scholar in economics and law at Yale University. He lives in Boston.

W. Kip Viscusi on Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society

ViscusiLike it or not, sometimes we need to put a monetary value on people’s lives. In the past, government agencies used the financial “cost of death” to monetize the mortality risks of regulatory policies, but this method vastly undervalued life. Pricing Lives tells the story of how the government came to adopt an altogether different approach—the value of a statistical life, or VSL—and persuasively shows how its more widespread use could create a safer and more equitable society for everyone. In this book, Kip Viscusi provides a comprehensive look at all aspects of economic and policy efforts to price lives. Pricing Lives proposes sensible economic guideposts to foster more protective policies and greater levels of safety in the United States and throughout the world.

What do you mean by “pricing lives,” and where does this occur?

What we mean by pricing lives depends on the context. For the government’s risk and environmental regulation policies, the challenge is to determine how much we are willing to spend to prevent each expected fatality. The principal measure used to set this price is known as the value of a statistical life (VSL), or the amount society is willing to pay to prevent the risk of each statistical death. Companies also set an implicit price on life every time they make products that are not risk-free. Sometimes companies have assigned numerical amounts to the value of the fatalities that are prevented, though how they have done so is seriously flawed and has greatly undervalued life. There is also a role for pricing lives after fatalities have occurred. Regulatory agencies set the penalties that firms must pay for regulatory violations that led to the fatalities. The courts also set a price on lives in wrongful death cases in terms of the amount of compensation that must be paid to the decedent’s family after the death.

Why should there be any limit at all on what the government spends to save lives?

So long as resources are limited, we cannot make an unbounded commitment to a risk-free society. The practical issue is where to set these limits. In the 1980s, I was asked to settle a dispute between OMB and OSHA over the proposed hazard communication regulation. OMB had rejected the proposal, concluding that the costs exceeded the benefits. In my analysis of this debate, I introduced the VSL concept to government agencies. Doing so made the calculation of the benefits of risk regulations ten times more valuable than they were under the previous cost of death approach. It also led to the issuance of a regulation that previously had been rejected because it was viewed as being too costly. Although some government agencies were slow to adopt the higher VSL numbers, this approach is now the norm in government agencies. The VSL is the most important single number used in the evaluation of government regulatory policies.

Where can we get these values of a statistical life numbers?

The most reliable evidence is based on U.S. labor studies of the extra pay workers get for extra risk.  Suppose, for example, that a worker was paid $900 extra per year to face a risk of 1/10,000. Then, for a group of 10,000 workers, they would be paid $9 million (10,000 × $900) for the one expected death to their group. My current estimates of the VSL in the U.S. place this value at $10 million. Once people understand that the VSL greatly exceeds people’s earnings, the criticism that the approach is immoral generally diminishes. Instead, people wonder how people can value their lives by more than what they make. The reason for this surprisingly large value is that they are not buying out of the prospect of certain death. Instead, the VSL only pertains to very small risks of death that are much less costly to prevent.

What do other countries do? Does this U.S. labor market evidence have any pertinence to them?

Many other countries have also adopted the VSL approach, usually based on studies in which people are asked in interviews how much they are willing to pay for safety. Unfortunately, the VSL estimates that are used outside of the U.S. are very low—far lower than is warranted based on the income levels relative to the U.S. Even countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia greatly undervalue lives, with far greater disparities observed for many low-income countries. In this book, I present an approach for transferring the U.S. estimates to other countries, along with appropriate adjustments for income level differences. The estimates I provide for a wide range of countries will greatly increase the value placed on safety throughout the world.

Are there other factors, like age, that can affect the VSL?

What matters is people’s own willingness to pay to reduce risk. Unlike purported economic measures, such as the cost of death approach, people can still have a high VSL even if they are retired. As it turns out, the VSL rises over people’s lifetime, and then does decline somewhat, but it does not plummet with age. The VSL for those age 65 and over is very similar to that of people in their early 20s. There was a public outcry against the Environmental Protection Agency when it attempted an age adjustment that put “seniors on sale, 37% off.” Unfortunately, this age adjustment was not based on any U.S. labor market evidence but on a more speculative interview study from the United Kingdom. Typically, government policies have impacts across the entire population so that in most instances, relying on an average VSL is all that is needed. 

This whole idea of pricing lives sounds similar what businesses do when they decide how much to spend on product safety improvements. Do they get it right?

Unfortunately, companies historically have underpriced lives as well, as they have focused on how much they have to pay in court after a fatality rather than on how much it is worth to consumers to reduce the risk of death. Companies fell prey to the same cost of death approach that government agencies used to use. Jurors have expressed alarm after reviewing these corporate practices, sometimes levying punitive damages of $100 million or more against companies that have valued lives in this way. The result has been that most companies have abandoned such risk analyses altogether and now keep such deliberations secret, for fear of liability. In my book, I propose that companies adopt the VSL in their product safety decisions and that they be given legal protections to encourage responsible corporate risk analyses.

How is it that setting a finite price on life can provide “guideposts for a safer society?”

A properly set VSL raises rather than reduces the amounts that government agencies throughout the world assign to the prevention of fatality risks. Adoption of this approach for corporate risk decisions likewise would lead to safer products. In this book, I also advocate that the VSL be used to set penalties for regulatory violations leading to fatalities. Doing so would lead to an enormous increase in penalties by, for example, boosting penalties for job safety violations by a factor of 1,000. The courts similarly can use the VSL in both assessing product safety and setting damages in situations where deterring risky behavior is the concern. My proposed expansion of the application of the VSL will provide greater incentives for safety in all these contexts. What is particularly striking is that the single VSL number can serve multiple purposes and set the price on life in so many different situations.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.

David Vogel on California Greenin’

VogelOver the course of its 150-year history, California has successfully protected its scenic wilderness areas, restricted coastal oil drilling, regulated automobile emissions, preserved coastal access, improved energy efficiency, and, most recently, addressed global climate change. How has this state, more than any other, enacted so many innovative and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time? The first comprehensive look at California’s history of environmental leadership, California Greenin’ shows why the Golden State has been at the forefront in setting new environmental standards, often leading the rest of the nation. As environmental policy debates continue to grow more heated, California Greenin’ demonstrates that the Golden State’s impressive record of environmental accomplishments holds lessons not just for the country but for the world.

Why did you decide to focus your book on California?

Much has been written on every aspect of California’s environmental history. Books have been written on the state’s forests and wilderness areas, cars and air pollution in Los Angeles, oil drilling in southern California, the protection of the coast and the San Francisco Bay Area and, most recently, the state’s regulations to improve energy efficiency and stem the risks of global climate change. But no one had ever sought to answer what struck me as a central question, namely why has California long been the nation’s “greenest” state? I wrote this book to answer that question.

What are some important examples of California’s environmental leadership?

California enacted the world’s first emissions controls on automobiles and established the nation’s first coastal protection authority. Yosemite was the first protected wilderness in the United States and by 1890 three of nation’s four national parks were located in the state. California issued the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. Its greenhouse gas reduction targets are the most ambitious in the United States. Half of the nation’s rooftop solar installations are in California.

How do you account for the state’s long record of environmental innovation?

It traces back to California’s geography. The “Golden State” has an unusually beautiful natural environment. Its coastal area encompasses the best weather in the United States. It has a long and scenic coastline, miles of sand beaches, and inland there are the granite formations, rivers, lakes and valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The state’s forests contain the spectacular redwoods and sequoias, the largest and oldest living species on the planet. But every aspect of this attractive environment has been continually threatened by rapid economic development and population growth. It is in response to these threats that Californians have mobilized to protect the environmental amenities that they valued.

What is the “California effect?”

The “California effect” refers to the impact California has had in strengthening environmental protection outside its borders. The most important example is automotive emissions standards These were first introduced in California and then subsequently adopted by the federal government. Virtually all of the important innovations in emissions controls, such unleaded gasoline and the two-way catalytic convertor, originated in California and were then nationally mandated. California’s innovative greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles were subsequently adopted by the Obama Administration. Significantly, California is the only state permitted by the federal government to issue its own automotive regulations. Other states then have the option of adapting California’s more stringent standards and several states have chosen to do so.

What most surprised you in writing this book?

I was most struck by the role business has played in supporting environmental protection. Business has been traditionally viewed as the main opponent of stronger environmental standards. But in the case of California influential business interests have often actively backed stronger regulations  For example, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied to protect the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada mountains, while during the mid 20th century, the Los Angeles real estate community led the political struggle to reduce air pollution. Southern California’s shoreline property developers were the main opponents of coastal oil drilling. California’s renewable energy industry and clean tech investors have benefited from and been strong supporters of the state’s climate change initiatives. In sum, many business interests have recognized the economic benefits of placing the state on a greener growth trajectory.   

What practical lessons can other states learn from California?

The United States is a federal system in which states can play important policy roles. They have enormous potential to improve environmental quality. What other states can also learn from California is that regulations are more likely to be supported if they directly improve the quality of life of local communities, provide economic as well as environmental benefits, receive some business 6backing, and are administrated by competent public authorities. California’s example of regulatory leadership can and hopefully should be followed by other states.

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

That protecting the environment and growing economically can go hand in hand. Since the 1860s California has consistently enacted the nation’s most stringent, comprehensive and innovative environmental standards and its economy is now the sixth largest in the worlds. Had it not made such vigorous efforts to protect its fragile natural environment, California would now be a much less desirable place to visit, to live to work, and to invest. California’s economy has benefited substantially from its environmental regulations. This can be true for all states as well.

David Vogel is professor emeritus in the Haas School of Business and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include The Politics of Precaution and The Market for Virtue.

Paul Tucker on Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State

TuckerCentral bankers have emerged from the financial crisis as the third great pillar of unelected power alongside the judiciary and the military. They pull the regulatory and financial levers of our economic well-being, yet unlike democratically elected leaders, their power does not come directly from the people. Unelected Power lays out the principles needed to ensure that central bankers, technocrats, regulators, and other agents of the administrative state remain stewards of the common good and do not become overmighty citizens. Like it or not, unelected power has become a hallmark of modern government. This critically important book shows how to harness it to the people’s purposes.

What is the regulatory state?

It’s a term that has come to be used to describe a host of government bodies that regulate particular economic sectors or the public more generally to protect, say, investors, the environment, consumers, workers, and so on. In a rudimentary form it has existed for a long time, going back to the 19th century and beyond. Going wider, Americans sometimes refer to the administrative state, meaning the evolution of government beyond a world of legislators and courts to one in which the executive branch makes policy and is divided up into departments, agencies, bureaus, commissions, and so on.

What are Independent agencies, and why do they matter?

They are government organizations that are not under the day-to-day control of elected politicians, whether in the executive branch or the legislature. Obvious examples today are the central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, but also various regulators insulated from ongoing political control. By no means all agencies in the administrative state are independent. On both sides of the Atlantic, many are under the control of cabinet ministers or subject to annual budget approvals from the legislature, which makes them sensitive to politicians’ sentiments and whims. Independent agencies are distinctive in that politicians can control them only by amending or repealing legislation.

That sounds problematic in a democracy. Is it?

That’s the point of the book. The way I’ve just described them it could be a hell of a problem. Imagine an independent agency that had lots of powers but only the vaguest purpose and objective. Who would be able to tell whether it had succeeded in its mission if it set its own goal posts?! That’s at odds with some of our deepest values: just as “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry a couple of centuries’ ago, we might just as well demand “no regulation without representation.”

Are central banks a particular problem?

They have become the poster boys and girls of today’s unelected power. Compared with what happened after the Great Depression in the 1930s, when it was politicians who did the heavy lifting, this time it has been central banks that have led the way in reviving the economy and redesigning the financial system. They have used their balance sheets on a truly gigantic scale to influence credit conditions in lots of markets, and have been given lots of new regulatory powers. They are more powerful than ever before, ranking with the judiciary and military as a third core pillar of unelected power.

Do people object to all this?

Yes, but in rather different ways in different countries. In the US, since the New Deal there have been critics who object that regulatory agencies violate the values associated with the separation of powers or even the Constitution itself. In France, not long ago the parliament passed legislation to put more structure around such agencies. In the UK, there is episodic antagonism to government by ‘experts.’

And on central bank independence, there have been challenges in the German constitutional court and attempts to pass reforming legislation in the US Congress.

So what is the solution?

Our democracies need norms for whether and how to delegate to independent agencies that measure up to the deep political values of our democratic, liberal republics: the various values of democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism. My book proposes and defends just such a set of Principles for Delegation, as I call them. They come in two broad parts: criteria for whether to delegate, and precepts for how to delegate.

Criteria for whether to delegate: I argue that a policy function should not be delegated to a truly independent agency unless (1) society has settled preferences; (2) the objective is capable of being framed in a reasonably clear way; (3) delegation would materially mitigate a problem of credible commitment; and (4) the policymaker would not have to make big choices on society’s values or the distribution of its resources.

Precepts for how to delegate: (1) the agency’s purposes, objectives and powers should be clear and set by elected legislators; (2) its decision-making procedures should be set largely by legislators and should accord with the values of the rule of law; (3) the agency itself should publish the operating principles that will guide its exercise of discretion within the delegated domain; (4) there should be transparency sufficient to permit accountability to the legislature for the agency’s stewardship of the regime and, separately, for politicians’ framing of the regime; and (5) it should be clear what (if anything) will happen, procedurally and/or substantively, when the edges of the regime are reached but the agency could do more to avert or contain a crisis. 

Perhaps the biggest thing is that elected legislators should set a monitorable objective. Independent agencies really can improve the credibility of commitments made by government, but only if we know what we want them to do and can track whether or not they are doing it.

Would those Principles affect anything much?

Yes. Here are just three examples.

They would challenge the acceptability of judges completely having completely overhauled the principles of competition policy a few decades ago. The legislation was vague and the views of economists had moved on, so the courts had room and reason to act. But, given our democratic values, this should have been work for elected politicians.

They suggest that role of some financial-market regulators in preserving a stable financial system needs either to be better insulated from politics (such as the SEC in the US) or subject to much clearer objectives (UK).

And they would restrict the roles and activities of central banks rather more than we have seen in recent years.  

Is any of this realistic in actual democratic states?

Well, that’s the point of the book. There are no deep constitutional blockages, so it’s a question of whether we want to be governed in a way that’s consistent with our values. I’m hoping that people who see merit in my Principles for Delegation (or something like them) will cite many more examples than I can (or even know about), generating the kind of debate that is badly needed about how state power is allocated.

Anyway, surely something has to be done to bring the role of experts in government in line with our democratic commitments.

Why did you write the book?

I spent a good part of my central banking career helping to design regulatory and monetary regimes, none more important than the expansion of the Bank of England’s powers after the Great Financial Crisis. We resisted some powers, wanted others constrained, and had strong views on how the different responsibilities should be assigned to distinct committees so as to disperse power and focus incentives. I wanted to try to write down the values and considerations lying behind that. When I moved to Harvard in late-2013, I had the opportunity to do so.

Paul Tucker is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and chair of the Systemic Risk Council. For more than thirty years, he was a central banker and regulator at the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements. He lives in London.

Caitlyn Collins: Take Your Child to Work Day

MotherhoodFor my mom, Take Your Child to Work Day happened a lot more than once a year. And they weren’t planned as part of a national “holiday” sponsored by the likes of Goldman Sachs, MetLife, and Chevron. They usually weren’t planned at all, and they weren’t a celebration.

Babysitters called in sick and daycare closed early. Schools had snow days, teacher planning days, holidays, and what seemed to be closed-for-no-clear-reason days. We ran a fever or caught a cold and needed to be picked up early. Or we were too sick to attend daycare or school at all.

So like mothers throughout the country, she hauled us to her office. I realize now, only decades later, the many ways she paid a price. Trying to keep us happy and quiet while she rushed to finish her work wasn’t Alyson’s idea of a quality learning experience for her kids or an ideal workday for her. These times filled her with dread, not joy.

And they weren’t always fun for us either. A child sick with the flu would rather be home than napping in an office during a conference call (not to mention that the flu is a health risk at work as well as at school). And a snow day spent cooped up at a parent’s workplace is a special kind of hell for kids.

This isn’t what the creators of Take Your Child to Work Day envisioned.

My mom would rarely have had to bear these panicked days if our system was set up differently. Work and family are largely incompatible in the United States. Women still to do most of the work involved in raising kids today. And benefits to support this caring labor are few and far between. U.S. society thinks of kids and families as private responsibilities. For instance, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no minimum standard for sick days and vacation days. The country stands alone as the only nation with no federal paid maternity leave (well, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea). The word “family” appears in nearly every country’s Constitution except the U.S.’ National childcare is the norm in other western market economies, but it’s not even a glimmer on the horizon here.

What does life look like for mothers elsewhere? Do all moms struggle like mine to schlep their children to work when plans go awry? Or are there other ways to organize work and care (that still involve donuts and snow days)?

My book, Making Motherhood Work (forthcoming 2019), explores the daily lives of working moms in four countries that offer very different policy solutions to work-family conflict and gender inequality. Using interviews with 135 women in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.S., I consider how women perceive motherhood and employment in light of the available policies.

After five years of conversations, I realized that work-family conflict like my mom’s is not an unfortunate certainty for women everywhere. Life for all women and their families—regardless of income, race, region, faith, or migration background—can look different, and better.

The tradition of taking one’s children to work each April began 25 years ago with Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Then it was called “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Ten years later, it expanded to include boys and is now “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” I see two big reasons to celebrate this day.

First, the original intent was to introduce girls to a wide variety of occupations. Encouraging girls and young women to dream big about their career aspirations remains a laudable goal. Our work organizations and labor market remain deeply unequal. Women still lag behind men in hiring, earnings, and promotions in the workplace—especially women of color. Many women remain clustered in female-typed jobs that are less prestigious with lower pay, which sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky call “occupational ghettos.” And a woman has yet to hold the highest office in the country.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important that girls meet women role models in all lines and at all levels of work. I witnessed my mother achieve her career goals, but others don’t get this privilege. Not all jobs are good jobs. The lessons a child learns visiting a parent who works as a bus driver are wildly different than those gleaned from a day at a parent’s law firm. Upgrading working conditions across the labor market would give children of all backgrounds more to aspire to, and better odds of achieving these goals with the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

Second, employers come face to face with the reality that workers have responsibilities outside of their jobs, and these commitments are very often to children. Recognizing employees’ childrearing responsibilities shouldn’t mean that these workers are seen as less capable and committed on the job as a result. Helping parents is good not only for families, but also for business.

I would like us to set our sets much higher than Take Your Child to Work Day. Let’s think more ambitiously and brightly about what it means to work and care and dream about one’s future in the United States.

Rather than asking girls to set their sights higher or for workplaces to accommodate families one day a year, what changes can be made on a national level to make the lives of all families better and happier? And what role can organizations play in making this vision a reality? Making Motherhood Work demonstrates that we need to overhaul our social policies and cultural attitudes about work and family if we really want to improve conditions for families.

So take your child to work today, or even someone else’s. Encourage kids to think expansively about their interests, especially those who too often aren’t encouraged to dream at all. Remind employers that you’re a better worker because of your family, not in spite of it.

But let’s also hold ourselves to a higher standard as a nation.

Moms like mine deserve better, and so do the country’s kids. And not just 1/365th of the time.

Caitlyn Collins is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University. Her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, is forthcoming in January 2019. 

Eviatar Zerubavel on Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable

ZerubavelWhy is the term “openly gay” so widely used but “openly straight” is not? What are the unspoken assumptions behind terms like “male nurse,” “working mom,” and “white trash?” Offering a revealing and provocative look at the word choices we make every day without even realizing it, Taken for Granted exposes the subtly encoded ways we talk about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. A little book about a very big idea, Taken for Granted draws our attention to what we implicitly assume to be normal—and in the process unsettles the very notion of normality.

What is this book about?

This book examines how we separate the “special” from the “ordinary,” which we tend to assume by default. By drawing explicit attention to what we implicitly take for granted, it thus highlights the presumed normality of our social world. In so doing, it is actually designed to unsettle our very notion of normality.

The two opening chapters of this book are titled “The Marked and the Unmarked” and “Semiotic Asymmetry.” What do you mean by that?

I am essentially referring to the cultural asymmetry between what we consider special, or marked, and ordinary, or unmarked. It is the unmistakably asymmetrical semiotic arrangement whereby we have a special road sign indicating a curvy road ahead yet none for a straight one, parking spots and toilet booths specifically marked for the disabled yet none for the able-bodied. It is the asymmetrical arrangement whereby, unlike vegetarians, other dinner guests are rarely expected to notify their hosts in advance that they do eat meat, which is conventionally presumed.

This is a function of uneven distributions of semiotic “weight” between what we conventionally consider “normal” and “abnormal.” Thus, for example, while African and European ancestors are equivalent in terms of what they contribute to their American descendants’ genetic makeup, they differ considerably in their respective semiotic contributions to their racial identity, which is why we consider Barack Obama a black man whose mother was white rather than a white man whose father was black. By the same token, although bisexuality is a blend of both homo- and heterosexual dispositions, bisexuals nevertheless tend to be lumped with homosexuals rather than heterosexuals.

Whether or not we mark something is not just a matter of personal choice. Yet nor is anything inherently marked. As I demonstrate in the book, ordinariness (“normality”) and specialness (“abnormality”) are products of particular semiotic norms, traditions, and conventions we share as members of particular communities.

Does all this also skew the way we view people?

It certainly does, as suggested by the fact that when a character’s racial identity is not specified in a play or a script, white actors are more likely than non-white ones to be cast in that role. Furthermore, we have distinct cultural stereotypes of Asians, lesbians, and drug addicts, for example, yet rarely ones of law-abiding citizens, the mentally healthy, or the able-bodied. Such glaring asymmetry underscores the relative semiotic ease at which we construct stereotypes of cultural abnormality compared to those of cultural normality.

Does that also affect prejudice?

Of course it does. After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, for example, no one demanded tighter security measures against Christian Americans! Nor do Americans expect “moderate whites” to publicly condemn mass shooters the way “moderate Muslims” are often expected to publicly condemn Muslim terrorists, even though mass shooters tend to be white. And had Donald Trump lived at the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, I am sure he would not have insisted that he produce his birth certificate, as his Dutch roots would not have clashed with Trump’s presumed notion of “normal” Americanness the way Obama’s African ones evidently did.

Does power play any role in all this?

Social dominance involves the power to set standards of normality and “other” whatever and whoever deviates from them. Moreover, it involves the privilege of being assumed by default and therefore the ability to protect a group’s assumed normality from being challenged. What allows a certain idea, practice, or identity to maintain its cultural dominance, in short, is the fact that it is conventionally considered “self-evident” and thereby taken for granted.

“Normality” thus helps establish as well as maintain social dominance. By marking something, we actually normalize what remains unmarked, thereby implying that it can be assumed by default. Marking femaleness, blackness, homosexuality, and disability, for instance, is thus inseparable from presuming the normality of maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness.

Furthermore, social dominance also includes the power to affect what others take for granted by essentially leading them to almost habitually make certain tacit assumptions without even realizing that they are making them.

Much of the evidence on which you draw in this book comes from language. Why?

Language offers us a window into the way we think. Furthermore, it also affects the way we think. It was the very act of labeling it sexual harassment, after all, that gave this hitherto preconceptualized phenomenon a cultural life!

Examining the words we use is particularly useful in helping reveal what we assume by default and therefore take for granted. Indeed, the extent to which we consider something ordinary, or “normal,” is inversely related to the availability of cultural labels to denote it. Its taken-for-grantedness is therefore evidenced in its semiotic superfluity, so clearly manifested in the paucity of words and phrases denoting what we conventionally assume by default. In other words, since what we take for granted is essentially presumed, it need not be explicitly articulated. Since romantic relations are conventionally presumed to be monogamous, for example, the term polyamory is in fact used much more widely than its conventionally taken-for-granted counterpart monoamory. The term biracial is likewise used far more widely than its nominally equivalent counterpart monoracial.

Therefore, as we encounter the term male nurse, for example, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of its lexical counterpart female nurse. By the same token, as we encounter the term LGBT community, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of the term straight community, which implies that, unlike being gay, to be straight is to have the option of disregarding one’s straightness. And when we hear the term Black History Month, we must likewise “hear” the absence of the term White History Month, a sad testimony to the fact that black American history is still regarded by many as separate from “American” history, and African Americans as tacitly excluded from the cultural category “Americans.” The same can be said of phrases such as “the best female tennis player in the world.” As Serena Williams reminds us, “do people say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes?”

What are your thoughts about social change?

In the book I address fundamental “assumption reversals” that often accompany major cultural changes. The recent change from an essentially passive to a pronouncedly active definition of consent in American sexual ethics (that is, from silence implying consent to silence implying absence of consent) is a perfect case in point. Such reversals are often manifested lexically. Although housekeeping used to be married middle-class American women’s most common occupation, the emergence of the term stay-at-home mom and the waning prominence of its contrasting counterpart working mom (yet rarely working dad …) thus attest to the decline in its presumed normality.

That is why we also need to attend to the semiotically subversive use of language. The term cisgender, for instance, is explicitly designed to cast transgender persons and people whose gender identity conforms to their birth-assigned sex as categorical equals. Putting “trans” and “ordinary” identities on an equal semiotic footing, in other words, helps normalize the former by subverting the latter’s presumed normality, which is also true of terms such as straight (with regard to gay) and neurotypical (with regard to autistic). Our conventional view of what is so “normal” as to be assumed by default, in short, need not be taken for granted as self-evident.

Eviatar Zerubavel is Board of Governors and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. His many books include Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, and Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. He lives in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Keith Whittington: Tolerating Campus Dissent, Left and Right

WhittingtonThe reminders come nearly daily that tolerating freedom of speech and thought on college campuses—and in American society—is hard. It is very easy to say that we love freedom of speech in the abstract. It is much harder to adhere to that conviction when confronted with speech that we ourselves find to be, well, intolerable. When we encounter ideas or rhetoric that we find abhorrent, we are tempted to look for loopholes in the freedom of speech, to rationalize efforts to silence those who make us uncomfortable. This instinct is only natural and all too human, but it is an instinct at odds with the requirements of a liberal democracy and very much at odds with the ideals of a modern university.

The passing of Barbara Bush unfortunately became the occasion for another such reminder. An English professor at California State University, Fresno took to Twitter to celebrate the former first lady’s death, denouncing Bush as a “racist” and the mother of a “war criminal.” No stranger to provocative Twitter posts, the professor seemed to initially revel in the outrage she had generated before retreating from the increasingly intense public glare.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro was soon engaged in damage control, but in doing so did not represent the principles of either the university or the Constitution well. Castro did not content himself with reminding members of the public that the professor spoke only for herself and not the institution and did not even get around to emphasizing that universities are home to a large number of independent-minded individuals who hold a wide range of views and frequently disagree with one another. Instead, he chose to join the outraged public in denouncing a member of his own faculty for expressing views “contrary to the core values of our University,” which he identified as values of “empathy” and “respect.” The president subsequently emphasized that “we are all held accountable for our actions.” Indeed, the tweet was, in Castro’s view, “beyond free speech,” apparently because it was “disrespectful.”

Castro is, of course, correct that everyone is accountable for their actions. The question is what accounting is appropriate for appalling opinions expressed on a personal social media account. The speech of university professors can and should be criticized when it is wrong. Students and colleagues may choose to avoid quarrelsome professors. University professors are subject to discipline, and even termination, if they engage in professional misconduct. When American citizens who happen to be members of the faculty at a state university express unpopular political opinions in the public sphere, their speech is constitutionally protected from reprisals by state government officials, including university presidents. When members of the campus community spend their free time engaging in public debate, any university leader should refrain from asserting that “disrespectful,” uncivil, or odious comments are beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and subject to official sanction.

Universities should strive to nurture campus communities that are open to intellectual diversity and raucous debate. University professors should strive, even in their free time, to contribute positively to our social discourse and not to drag it further into the gutter. But freedom of speech is often messy and sometimes unpleasant. The disagreements among members of a diverse society are often deep and intense, and those disagreements will sometimes be expressed with passion. We are quick to recognize when others have offended us, but slow to recognize when we have given offense. We make greater progress in overcoming those disagreements and in making productive use of unconventional thinking, however, when we accept that we will sometimes be offended and we tolerate that with which we fervently disagree. Not every expressed idea is a good one. Not every disagreement will give way to greater insight. But intellectual and social progress is best made when we tolerate dissent rather than shout it down, when we criticize rather than punish, when we turn away from the provocateur rather than fan the flames.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: The Ten Commandments of Political Risk

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little
When we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

—Excerpts from Sir Francis Drake’s prayer, 1577 (apocryphal)

HulsmanThe great goal, the Everest of my book, has been to identify the historical elements that comprise the rules of the road for mastering political risk analysis and to holistically put our ten commandments to use in explaining the baffling world we presently live in. Having discovered these commandments—and illuminated them through the use of historical story-telling, deriving them from real-world policy situations throughout the ages—we can get to the Holy Grail of actual understanding.

Here at the end of our story, through the use of this unique heuristic method, we have delineated the long and neglected history of political risk analysis, linking this important tale to the broader efforts of both business and political leaders to master risk in general. Confident in what geopolitical risk analysis has been, is, and can be, it is clear that the Delphic dream of soothsaying—in a limited way, over limited issues, for a limited period of time—can be partially fulfilled.

  • “We are the risk.” As the history surrounding Sejanus and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire makes clear (alongside the corroborating tale of present-day Europe’s decadent decline), geopolitical analysts have a terrible time looking in the mirror and seeing that the society they are part of can itself be the major geopolitical risk problem.


  • Gaming out “lunatics.” Far too often geopolitical risk analysts let those with very different belief systems off the hook by lazily assuming that they must be crazy, rather than looking for the method to their madness. As the story of “The Old Man of the Mountain” and the Third Crusade (with inter-chapters on both Charles Manson and ISIS) makes clear, there is almost always an internal logic to any seemingly mad geopolitical interlocutor that can be followed and assessed.


  • Gaming out “chess players.” Amidst the daily tumult of a constant barrage of information, it is easy to lose sight of the intellectual needle in the haystack: the assessment of “chess players,” those geopolitical decision-makers who have stable, rational, coherent, long-term strategies in place to further their geopolitical goals. As reviewing the history of Niccolo Machiavelli and Pope Julius II (with an inter-chapter on George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) illuminates, finding these rare geostrategic birds is well worth the effort, as once they are identified (which is difficult), their future actions can rather easily be predicted.


  • Recognizing game changers. As the stirring story of John Adams in the sultry summer of 1776 makes clear, seeing the bigger picture—discerning how specific contemporaneous events fit into the larger historical pattern—is a mighty tool in political risk analysis. Separating the wheat from the chaff and intellectually drilling down on what really matters and its historical meaning (as we see both Adams and inter-chapter hero Winston Churchill doing in very different historical contexts) allows the political risk analyst as well as the foreign policy practitioner to see the world as it actually is.


  • Balance is the key to foreign policy. Having discovered the secrets of one major driver of geopolitics—be it macroeconomics, geopolitics, or cultural power—far too often analysts quickly forget that there are others and that it is the mix that explains everything. The twin stories of a beleaguered Venetian Republic and a seemingly all-conquering Napoleon in 1797 allow a dual critique of both an economics-only and overly militaristic policies and the doom to which both one-sided initiatives inevitably lead.


  • If you are digging yourself an intellectual hole in foreign policy analysis—stop. The “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome affects both policy-makers and analysts. As the legendary Robert E. Lee found to his supreme peril at Gettysburg (and also “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as they met their nemesis in Indochina), pushing ahead with an already failed policy in a desperate effort to recoup past losses leads to calamity.


  • Know your country’s place in the world. The singular case of the late Victorian titan Lord Salisbury—who bravely and correctly righted Britain’s foreign policy to fit the paradox of its relatively declining but still dominant place in the world of the 1890s—highlights this vital requirement for both policy-makers and analysts alike. Only by fearlessly and correctly assessing your country’s true place in the world (as the inter-chapter on the Genro of Japan makes clear happened across the globe from Salisbury a generation earlier) can you pursue successful political risk analysis.


  • Do not put all your eggs in one strategic basket. Distantly related to the “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome, the “promised land fallacy” besets decision-makers and analysts who ruinously rely on one overall strategy to magically attempt to alter their country’s overall geopolitical position in the world. In the case of Wilhelmine Germany, Admiral Von Tirpitz’s disastrous plan to challenge British naval might (echoing the inter-chapter on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s equally ruinous “Wars of National Liberation” gambit) helped lead to the Great War and Germany’s destruction.


  • Know the nature of the world you are living in. The trials and tribulations of Beatle George Harrison (with the inter-chapter focusing on the diametrically opposed case of the fall of Brian Jones and the rise of the Rolling Stones) and the stunning, lightning-quick dismemberment of his band dramatically underline that successful systems can collapse in the blink of an eye if their underlying power realities change, failing to any longer reflect the systemic power facts on the ground that created such a system in the first place. Policy-makers as well as political risk analysts must know both the nature of the global system they are living in (is it characterized by one great power, two, or many?) as well as if that system is durable, fragile, or evolving.


  • Prepare for the “butterfly effect.” The telling present-day case of Deng Xiaoping and the colossal success he made of both Chinese foreign and economic policy must not obscure the reality that East Asia today sits on a powder keg, a single random event away from 1914; just one drunken Chinese sea captain could quite plausibly upset the strategic equilibrium in Asia. The best policy-makers and political risk analysts (as the inter-chapter example of Harold Macmillan also makes clear) see the weaknesses in even the most successful foreign policies, having resilient initiatives at the ready to stave off seemingly unexpected disasters.


In traveling far from home, as Sir Francis Drake bid us to do in the swashbuckling, mesmerizing prayer that opens this article and To Dare More Boldly, our journey through history has been bountifully rewarded. For yes, within limits, the future can be foretold through the use of political risk analysis. Truly venturing far from our intellectual shore, in daring more boldly, we have come to see the stars. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 3—Increased access to knowledge


This is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to increased access to knowledge. In particular, I’ll provide information about the general readership patterns, and I’ll specifically focus on readership of the versions of the manuscript that were machine translated into more than 100 languages. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.


During the Open Review period, people from all over the world were able to read Bit by Bit before it was even published. The map at the top of the page shows the locations of readers around the world.

In total, we had 23,514 sessions and 79,426 page views from 15,650 users. Also, unlike annotations, which decreased over time, there was a relatively constant level of traffic, averaging about 500 sessions per week.


How does these sessions begin? The most common channels were direct navigation followed by organic search. Only about 20% of the traffic came from referrals (following links) and social.


What devices were people using? About 30% of sessions were on mobile phones. Therefore, responsive design is important to ensure access.  


In fact, mobile was more common for users from developing countries. For example, in the US, there were about 6 desktop sessions for every 1 mobile session. In India, however, there were about 3.5 mobile sessions for every desktop session. Also, there were more mobile sessions from India than mobile sessions from US.  Here are the top 10 country-platform combinations.


Machine Translations

In addition to posting the book in English, we also machine translated the book into more than 100 languages using Google Translate. Of course, Google Translate is not perfect, but reading a bad translation might be better than no translation at all. And because Google Translate is getting better quickly, a few years from now machine translation might be a viable approach for many languages.

So, did these machine translations get used? No and yes. In terms of page views, no other single language had more than 2%. So, this seems to argue against the value of machine translation. On the other hand, if you add up all the page views in languages other than English it becomes a sizable number. The non-English page lead to a 20% increase in page views (65,428 English to 79,426 Total).


If you are considering Open Review of your manuscript, you might be wondering if machine translation was worth it. There were two main costs: adjusting the website to handle multiple languages and the money we had to pay Google for the translations. Now that we’ve open sourced our code, you won’t need to work about the fixed cost related to website design. But, we did pay approximately $3000 USD to Google for translations in August 2016 (I expect that the cost of machine translation will come down). In terms of benefits, they are not really clear. I don’t know if people actually learned anything from these machine translations, and I don’t think they did much to support the other goals of the Open Review: better books and higher sales.  But, it did certainly capture people’s attention when I said that the book was available in 100 languages, and it showed a commitment to access. Future authors and publishers will have to decide what makes sense in their case, but as machine translation continues to improve, I’m optimistic that multiple languages will be part of the Open Review process in some way in the future.

This post is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.

You can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.