Joel Mokyr: How the modern economy was born

MokyrBefore 1800, the majority of people lived on the verge of subsistence. In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, esteemed historian Joel Mokyr explains why in the industrialized world such a standard of living has grown increasingly uncommon. Mokyr offers a groundbreaking view on a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe, showing how the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development. Recently, Mokyr took some time to answer questions about the book.


How would you sum up the book’s main points?

JM: Before 1800 the overwhelming majority of humankind was poor; today in the industrialized world, almost nobody lives at the verge of subsistence, and a majority of people in the world enjoy living standards that would have been unimaginable a few centuries ago. My book asks how and why that happened. The question of the Great Enlightenment is central to economic history; a Nobel prize winning economist, Robert Lucas, once wrote that once we start thinking about it, it is hard to think of anything else.

Do we know how and where this started? 

JM: Yes, it started in Western Europe (primarily in Britain) in the last third of the eighteenth century through a set of technological innovations we now call the Industrial Revolution. From there it spread to the four corners of the world, although the success rate varied from place to place, and often the new techniques had to be adapted to local circumstances.

How is this book different from other work looking at this event? 

JM: The literature looking at the question of why this happened has advanced three types of explanations: geographical (looking at resources and natural endowments), political-institutional (focusing on the State and economic policies), or purely economic, through prices and incomes. My book examines culture: what did people believe, value, and how did they learn to understand natural phenomena and regularities they could harness to their material improvement.

Whose culture mattered most here? 

JM: Good question! Technological progress and the growth of modern science were driven first and foremost by a small educated elite of literate people who had been trained in medicine, mathematics and what they called “natural philosophy.” The culture of the large majority of people, who were as yet uneducated and mostly illiterate, mattered less in the early stages, but became increasingly important at a later stage when mass education became the norm.

So what was it about these intellectuals that mattered most? 

JM: In my earlier work, especially my The Enlightened Economy (2009), I pointed to what I called “the Industrial Enlightenment” as the central change that prepared the ground for modern economic growth. In the new book, I explain the origins of the Industrial Enlightenment. At some point, say around 1700, the consensus of intellectuals in Europe had become that material progress (what we were later to call “economic growth”) was not only desirable but possible, and that increasing what they called “useful knowledge” (science and technology) was the way to bring it about. These intellectuals then carried out that program through continuous advances in science that eventually found a myriad of economic applications.

How and why did this change happen? 

JM: That is the main question this book is focusing on and tries to answer. It describes and analyzes the cultural changes in the decades between Columbus and Newton, during what is sometimes known as “early modern Europe.” It was an age of tremendous cultural changes, above all of course the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Equally important was the emergence of what is known as “the Baconian Program,” in which Francis Bacon and his followers formulated the principles of what later became the Industrial Enlightenment. The success of these thinkers to persuade others of the validity of their notions of progress and the importance of a research agenda that reflected real economic needs is at the heart of the story of how the Industrial Enlightenment emerged.

So why did this take place in this period and in Europe, and not somewhere else? 

JM: Europe in this age enjoyed an unusual structure that allowed new and fresh ideas to flourish as never before. On the one hand, it was politically and religiously fragmented into units that fiercely competed with one another. This created a competitive market both for and among intellectuals that stimulated intellectual innovation. It was a market for ideas that worked well and in it the Baconian Program was an idea that succeeded, in part because it was attractive to many actors, but also because it was marketed effectively by cultural entrepreneurs. At the same time, political fragmentation coexisted with a unified and transnational institution (known at the time as the Republic of Letters) that connected European intellectuals through networks of correspondence and publications and created a pan-European competitive market in which new ideas circulated all over the Continent. In this sense, early modern Europe had the “best of all possible worlds” in having all the advantages of diversity and fragmentation and yet have a unified intellectual community.

Of all the new ideas, which ones were the most important? 

JM: Many new ideas played a role in the intellectual transformations that eventually led to the waves of technological progress we associate with modern growth. One of the most important was the decline in the blind veneration of ancient learning that was the hallmark of many other cultures. Shaking off the paralyzing grip of past learning is one of the central developments that counted in the cultural evolution in this period. The “classical canon” of Ptolemy and Aristotle was overthrown by rebels such as Copernicus and Galileo, and over time the intellectuals of this age became more assertive in their belief that they could outdo classical learning and that many of the conventional beliefs that had ruled the world of intellectuals in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were demonstrably wrong. Evidence and logic replaced ancient authority.

Was the success of the new ideas a foregone conclusion? 

JM: Not at all: there was fierce resistance to intellectual innovation by a variety of conservative powers, both religious and political. Many of the most original and creative people were persecuted. But in the end resistance failed, in large part because both people and books — and hence ideas — could move around in Europe and move to more liberal areas where their reception was more welcomed.

Could an Industrial Enlightenment not have happened elsewhere, for example in China? 

JM: The book deals at length with the intellectual development of China. In many ways, China’s economy in 1500 was as advanced and sophisticated as Europe. But in China the kind of competitive pluralism and diversity that were the hallmark of Europe were absent, and even though we see attempts to introduce more progressive thinking in China, it never succeeded to overthrow the conservative vested interests that controlled the world of intellectuals, above all the Mandarine bureaucracy. Instead of explosive growth as in Europe, Chinese science and technology stagnated.

Does the book have any implications for our own time? 

JM: By focusing on the social and economic mechanisms that stimulated and encouraged technological innovation in the past, my book points to the kind of factors that will ensure future technological creativity. First and foremost, innovation requires the correct incentives. Intellectuals on the whole do not require vast riches, but they will struggle for some measure of economic security and the opportunity to do their research in an environment of intellectual freedom in which successful innovation is respected and rewarded. Second, the freedom to innovate thrives in environments that are internationally competitive: just as much of innovation in earlier times emerged from the rivalry between England, France, Spain and the United Provinces, in the modern era the global competition between the United States, the EU, China, and so on will ensure continuous innovation. International competition and mobility ensure the intellectual freedom needed to propose new ideas. Finally, global institutions that share and distribute knowledge, as well as coordinate and govern intellectual communities of scientists and innovators across national boundaries and cultural divides, are critical for continued technological progress.

Joel Mokyr  is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the recipient of of the Heineken Prize for History and the International Balzan Prize for Economic History. Mokyr’s other works include The Enlightened Economy and the Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge of Economy. His most recent book is a Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.

Our Anthropology 2017 catalog is now available

Be among the first to browse and download our latest Anthropology catalog:

Of particular interest in this year’s catalog is Making a Good Life by Katharine Dow. It is a timely look at the ideas and values that inform how people think about reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies.

Dow

Also be sure to note the new book by Richard G. Bribiescas, How Men Age.
Popular science at its most compelling, How Men Age provides new perspectives on the aging process in men and how we became human, and also explores future challenges for human evolution—and the important role older men might play in them.

Bribiescas

Don’t miss out on Digital Keywords edited by Benjamin Peters. Digital Keywords gathers pointed, provocative short essays on more than two dozen keywords by leading and rising digital media scholars from the areas of anthropology, digital humanities, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, rhetoric, science and technology studies, and sociology. Digital Keywords examines and critiques the rich lexicon animating the emerging field of digital studies.

Peters

For details on these and many more titles, check out our catalog above.

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Kenneth Rogoff: India’s Currency Exchange and The Curse of Cash

RogoffToday in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash, Rogoff discusses the controversy over India’s currency exchange. Read other posts in the series here.

On the same day that the United States was carrying out its 2016 presidential election, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced on national TV that the country’s two highest-denomination notes, the 500 and 1000 rupee (worth roughly $7.50 and $15.00) would no longer be legal tender by midnight that night, and that citizens would have until the end of the year to surrender their notes for new ones. His stated aim was to fight “black money”: cash used for tax evasion, crime, terror, and corruption. It was a bold, audacious move to radically alter the mindset of an economy where less than 2% of citizens pay income tax, and where official corruption is endemic.

MOTIVATION SAME AS IN THE CURSE OF CASH

Is India following the playbook in The Curse of Cash? On motivation, yes, absolutely. A central theme of the book is that whereas advanced country citizens still use cash extensively (amounting to about 10% of the value of all transactions in the United States), the vast bulk of physical currency is held in the underground economy, fueling tax evasion and crime of all sorts. Moreover, most of this cash is held in the form of large denomination notes such as the US $100 that are increasingly unimportant in legal, tax-compliant transactions. Ninety-five percent of Americans never hold $100s, yet for every man, woman and child there are 34 of them. Paper currency is also a key driver of illegal immigration and corruption. The European Central Bank recently began phasing out the 500 euro mega-note over these concerns, partly because of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

BUT SETTING AND IMPLEMENTATION IS VASTLY DIFFERENT

On implementation, however, India’s approach is radically different, in two fundamental ways. First, I argue for a very gradual phase-out, in which citizens would have up to seven years to exchange their currency, but with the exchange made less convenient over time. This is the standard approach in currency exchanges. For example this is how the European swapped out legacy national currencies (e.g the deutschmark and the French franc) during the introduction of the physical euro fifteen years ago. India has given people 50 days, and the notes are of very limited use in the meantime. The idea of taking big notes out of circulation at short notice is hardly new, it was done in Europe after World War II for example, but as a peacetime move it is extremely radical. Back in the 1970s, James Henry suggested an idea like this for the United States (see my October 26 new blog on his early approach to the big bills problem). Here is what I say there about doing a fast swap for the United States instead of the very gradual one I recommend:

 “(A very fast) swap plan absolutely merits serious discussion, but there might be significant problems even if the government only handed out small bills for the old big bills. First, there are formidable logistical problems to doing anything quickly, since at least 40% of U.S. currency is held overseas. Moreover, there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime. Foreign dollar holders especially would feel this way. Finally, any exchange at short notice would be extremely unfair to people who acquired their big bills completely legally but might not keep tabs on the news.

In general, a slow gradual currency swap would be far less disruptive in an advanced economy, and would leave room for dealing with unanticipated and unintended consequences. One idea, detailed in The Curse of Cash, is to allow people to exchange their expiring large bills relatively conveniently for the first few years (still subject to standard anti-money-laundering reporting requirements), then over time make it more inconvenient by accepting the big notes at ever fewer locations and with ever stronger reporting requirements.

Second, my approach eliminates large notes entirely. Instead of eliminating the large notes, India is exchanging them for new ones, and also introducing a larger, 2000-rupee note, which are also being given in exchange for the old notes.

MY PLAN IS EXPLICITLY TAILORED TO ADVANCED ECONOMIES

The idea in The Curse of Cash of eliminating large notes and not replacing them is not aimed at developing countries, where the share of people without effective access to banking is just too large. In the book I explain how a major part of any plan to phase out large notes must include a significant component for financial inclusion. In the United States, the poor do not really rely heavily on $100 bills (virtually no one in the legal economy does) and as long as smaller bills are around, the phase out of large notes should not be too much of a problem, However, the phaseout of large notes is golden opportunity to advance financial inclusion, in the first instance by giving low income individuals access to free basic debt accounts. The government could use these accounts to make transfers, which would in turn be a major cost saving measure. But in the US, only 8% of the population is unbanked. In Colombia, the number is closer to 50% and, by some accounts, it is near 90% in India. Indeed, the 500 rupee note in India is like the $10 or $20 bill in the US and is widely used by all classes, so India’s maneuver is radically different than my plan. (That said, I appreciate that the challenges are both different and greater, and the long-run potential upside also much higher.)

Indeed, developing countries share some of the same problems and the corruption and counterfeiting problem is often worse. Simply replacing old notes with new ones does have a lot of beneficial effects similar to eliminating large notes. Anyone turning in large amounts of cash still becomes very vulnerable to legal and tax authorities. Indeed that is Modi’s idea. And criminals have to worry that if the government has done this once, it can do it again, making large notes less desirable and less liquid. And replacing notes is also a good way to fight counterfeiting—as The Curse of Cash explains, it is a constant struggle for governments to stay ahead of counterfeiters, as for example in the case of the infamous North Korean $100 supernote.

Will Modi’s plan work? Despite apparent huge holes in the planning (for example, the new notes India is printing are a different size and do not fit the ATM machines), many economists feel it could still have large positive effects in the long-run, shaking up the corruption, tax evasion, and crime that has long crippled the country. But the long-run gains depend on implementation, and it could take years to know how history will view this unprecedented move.

THE GOAL IS A LESS-CASH SOCIETY NOT A CASHLESS ONE

In The Curse of Cash, I argue that it will likely be necessary to have a physical currency into the far distant future, but that society should try to better calibrate the use of cash. What is happening in India is an extremely ambitious step in that direction, of a staggering scale that is immediately affecting 1.2 billion people. The short run costs are unfolding, but the long-run effects on India may well prove more than worth them, but it is very hard to know for sure at this stage.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Find Kenneth Rogoff on Twitter: @krogoff

 

 

 

 

 

Cass Sunstein: A sneak peek at #Republic

Forthcoming in March 2017, Cass Sunstein’s new book, #Republic speaks to our heightened state of internet-driven polarization. Arguing that social media sorts us into like-minded groups, causing political fragmentation and even extremism, Sunstein proposes practical and legal changes to make the Internet friendlier to democratic deliberation. Today on Facebook, he shared a snapshot of a section of his page proofs addressing the 2016 presidential election:

Sunstein

Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

#Election2016: And then we came to the end

Our Election 2016 blog, active since last January, has featured our authors discussing everything from oration styles, to the particulars of populist rhetoric, to the politics of motherhood. And now, gratefully, for many an exhausted blogger and policy wonk, it’s a wrap. Time to get to the polls! If you’ve forgotten the location of your polling place, you can find it on Vote411 by entering your address.

 

GoVoteGraphic

 

Graphic courtesy of our Tumblr design blog.

James May: What would Cicero think of oratorical style in election 2016?

Election 2016

by James May

For me, it’s always a good thing to see references to Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the contemporary press. Indeed, those of us living in the twenty-first century stand to learn much from him and other great thinkers and writers of antiquity. In that regard, I thank Ms. Zauzmer for drawing a comparison between some of Donald Trump’s rhetorical techniques and those that Cicero recommends in his theoretical works on rhetoric and oratory in her recent article in the Washington Post entitled, Donald Trump, the Cicero of 2016.

To be sure, Trump, like most people who attempt to persuade others, resorts to the use of many standard, rhetorical devices—such as praeterition, rhetorical question, and others mentioned by Zauzmer—devices that were the staple of not only Cicero’s technical writings on rhetoric, but those written by the Greeks centuries earlier, which inspired and influenced him. In fact, as I pointed out a few weeks ago in a piece entitled How Donald Trump Wins Arguments, Trump seems to be following Ciceronian advice by grounding most of his attempts at persuasion in arguments based on the presentation of character, what the Greeks and Romans called ethos, (his own, but mostly the denigration of his opponent’s character), and on stirring the emotions of his audience (i.e., pathos). But, having spent a half-century reading and studying the works of Cicero, I must paraphrase an erstwhile vice-presidential candidate when I declare, I knew Cicero, and Donald Trump is no Cicero.

From boyhood on, Cicero’s entire life and education were spent in preparation for the Roman forum, i.e., the political arena of ancient Rome. As a youth, he studied not only rhetoric and oratory, but also poetry, literature, history, law, and philosophy. He wrote extensively in several of these genres. And while it is true that he broke into Roman politics as an outsider (what the Romans called a novus homo), his political aims, what we might call his “platform,” was to preserve the tried and true customs of Rome, what the Romans called the mos maiorum, or the tradition of the ancestors; rather than breaking the system, he wanted to restore and uphold it.

In oratorical terms, Cicero would gasp to have one of his polished orations compared to a speech by Trump (or for that matter, a speech by Ms. Clinton). The care, polish, and near perfection of a Ciceronian oration is a beauty to behold, and sadly few public utterances today can come close to its eloquence. And it is not only in terms of “courtesy,” as Ms. Zauzmer certainly tongue-in-cheek indicates in her conclusion, that Trump and Cicero differ. Consider what Cicero has to say about one of the virtues of oratorical style, appropriateness:

The foundation of eloquence, just as of everything else, is wisdom. In a speech, just as in life, nothing is more difficult than to discern what is appropriate…The speaker must pay attention to appropriateness not only in his thoughts but also even in his words…Although a word has no force apart from the thing, the same thing is still often either approved or rejected depending on its being expressed by one word or another. And in all cases, the question must be, ‘How far?’ For, although each subject has its own limits of appropriateness, too much is generally more offensive than too little.

That said, Cicero’s use of negative character description to describe his opponent can cross the line as inappropriately as do some of the utterances of today’s politicians about their opponents. Consider what he says about his enemy, Mark Antony, in his Second Philippic:

But let us pass over his acts that are of a more hardy sort of wickedness; rather let’s talk about his most profligate brand of worthlessness. You, with those jaws of yours, those sides of yours, and with that overall bodily strength similar to a gladiator’s, guzzled so much wine at Hippia’s wedding that you were forced to vomit the next day in the sight of the Roman people. Oh, a disgusting thing not merely to see, but even hear about! If this had happened to you at dinner in one of your drinking binges, who would have not thought it scandalous? But in an assembly of the Roman people, while carrying on public business, a master of the horse, for whom it would have been disgraceful even to belch, vomited up chunks of what he had been eating that stunk of wine, filling his own lap and the whole tribunal.

“Crooked Hillary” seems rather tame in comparison. Perhaps Donald Trump did learn a few tricks from Cicero!?

CiceroJames M. May is professor of classics, the Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor, and former provost and dean at St. Olaf College. An award-winning teacher, he is a widely recognized expert on Cicero and classical rhetoric and has written and edited many books on these topics. He is the translator of How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Cobble Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Cobble Hill.

With its tree-lined streets and beautiful brownstones, Cobble Hill is a desirable, picturesque neighborhood, and a favorite strolling destination for visitors. The neighborhood also offers affordable (and historic) housing options for residents. Along Hicks Street are distinctive condos that have been a part of the neighborhood for many years. Now renovated, these residences capture the spirit of the past at a reasonable price:

In the 1870s, a sturdy, well-designed group of buildings were constructed for lower-income residents on Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. About 140 years later, we see that they have withstood the test of time. In their renovated state, with beautiful brick exteriors and inner walkways, they are for sale, with an as outside the building proclaiming, “Landmark Condos for Sale.” Known as the Columbia-Hicks Buildings, they are an excellent example of how well-built housing can be renovated and improved to provide mixed income housing, containing both open market and affordable housing.

Cobble Hill also happens to be a popular destination for filmmakers looking for townhouses that capture the “quintessential New York City” backdrop. Helmreich chatted with one resident who provided his home:

New York City is a major venue for filmmakers, and those looking for elegant townhouses to use as settings in their films can usually find them with the help of location scouts. Cobble Hill is a place where those townhouses can be found, as I learn from a conversation with Raphael Linder, a Brooklyn College graduate and software engineer. He made his home at 53 Cheever Place available for a film: ‘They used my home for a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, and Renee Russo called The Intern...’

Another way in which areas acquire cachet is when famous people are associated with them. A good case in point is 426 Henry Street, a four-story brick Greek Revival structure, nice but not especially distinctive. Its claim to fame is that it was formerly home to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother… Churchill visited the Henry Street homein 1953, at age seventy-four, amid some fanfare by appreciative locals.

Brooklyn’s oldest functioning Jewish house of worship, the Kane Street Synagogue, can be found in Cobble Hill:

Founded in 1856, it has undergone various incarnations, from traditional, to Reform, to Conservative-Egalitarian, serving congregants from all over north Brooklyn. Music history buffs might be interested to know this is where Aaron Copland was bar-mitzvahed.

If you’re looking for a great place for a bite to eat, Sam’s is an Italian restaurant known for its delicious cuisine along with its history and atmosphere:

For those who like their dining experience to include a touch of history, Sam’s on Court Street, near Baltic Street, serves mostly inexpensive Italian food. The setting features red and white checked tablecloths and matching red leather booths; it takes you back to the post-World War II period. The place has been around for more than ninety years, and I found it fun to hang out with the old-time Italians who eat there regularly.

And, if kids are coming along for the trip, they won’t be disappointed:

Cobble Hill has six toy stores (as of 2015), quite a few for an area this small. One of these establishments is Mini Max Toys and Cuts, at 152 Atlantic Avenue, owned by four mothers. It’s a rather unique place that offers haircuts for kids and also toys.

Toys and haircuts under one roof? This could catch on.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Game of Loans: 10 facts about student debt in the United States

LoansThere is considerable concern about the student loan crisis in the United States, where stories in the media have frequently emphasized the increasing cost of college, and the inability of many students to shoulder their debt. In Game of Loans, Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos argue that the problem is much more nuanced than has previously been thought—in fact, they claim, there is not one student loan crisis so much as a series of smaller issues that all require their own solutions. Akers and Chingos flesh out the imperfections in the student borrowing system and make recommendations for change. We’ve put together 10 points from the book that shed some light on the state of student debt in the U.S.


 

1. The prevailing public narrative surrounding student loan debt, that is a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately, is not new. A 1986 report commissioned by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reported increasing alarm over the increasing rate of student debt and its implications for the national economy.

2. In the mid-1980s, student debt was at about $22 billion in today’s dollars, or $4,200 per student. Today, the amount is closer to $100 billion, or $7,000 per student.

3. Public attention paid to student debt has surged in recent years. In the New York Times, coverage of this topic reached an all-time high in 2014.

4. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt.

5. The key feature of federal student loans is that, unlike loans made in the private sector, they are made to anyone regardless of their anticipated ability to repay.

6. The best places to find facts and figures on student debt in the United States is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), the only publicly available source of detailed information on borrowing at the student level, and the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), the only dataset that links information on outstanding debt and income and is administered on a regular basis.

7. On average, independent, undergraduate student graduates owe about $22,000 in federal debt, compared to $13,000 for dependent students.

8. Over the last 20 years, the share of Americans in their late twenties who had attended college increased from 53% to 63%; the share with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 24% to 34%. Over the same period, the share of undergraduate students taking out loans more than doubled, from 19% to 43%. Increased enrollment explains only part of the picture as far as the rising amount of money owed for student loans. Other factors include increased net price to attend college.

9. By the time Lyndon B. Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in 1930, he owed $220 to the college’s loan fund, or about $3,100 in today’s dollars. As president, he created the Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program, later renamed the Stafford program.

10. States vary widely in how large of a subsidy they provide to public colleges. The state with the highest list price (New Hampshire) has the lowest funding level, and the state with the lowest list price (Wyoming) has one of the highest funding levels.

Hopefully these facts lend some clarity to and inspire deeper thinking about the issues surrounding student debt in the United States. For a fuller picture, and for the authors’ recommendations for ways to address the problems related to student debt, pick up a copy of Game of Loans by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos.

This Halloween, a few books that won’t (shouldn’t!) die

If Halloween has you looking for a way to combine your love (or terror) of zombies and academic books, you’re in luck: Princeton University Press has quite a distinguished publishing history when it comes to the undead.

 

As you noticed if you follow us on Instagram, a few of our favorites have come back to haunt us this October morning. What is this motley crew of titles doing in a pile of withered leaves? Well, The Origins of Monsters offers a peek at the reasons behind the spread of monstrous imagery in ancient empires; Zombies and Calculus  features a veritable course on how to use higher math skills to survive the zombie apocalypse, and International Politics and Zombies invites you to ponder how well-known theories from international relations might be applied to a war with zombies. Is neuroscience your thing? Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Or of course, you can take a trip to the graveyard of economic ideology with Zombie Economics, which was probably off marauding when this photo was snapped.

If you’re feeling more ascetic, Black: The History of a Color tells the social history of the color black—archetypal color of darkness and death—but also, Michel Pastoureau tells us, monastic virtue. A strikingly designed choice:

In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us in Black: A History of a Color

A photo posted by Princeton University Press (@princetonupress) on

 

Happy Halloween, bookworms.

Beth Akers & Matthew Chingos: Does the public narrative about student debt reflect reality?

Are we headed for a major student loan crisis with borrowers defaulting in unprecedented numbers? In Game of LoansBeth Akers and Matthew Chingos draw on new evidence to explain why such fears are misplaced—and how the popular myth distracts from what they say are the real problems facing student lending in America. The authors recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.


In Game of Loans you argue that the public narrative about student debt has become disconnected from the reality. How do you suppose this has happened?

It’s tough to say precisely, but it’s clear that the media coverage of this issue has played a role. The typical borrower we hear about in news stories about student loan debt tends to have an enormous balance, is unemployed or working a low-paying job, and lives with his or her parents to save money on living expenses. These struggling borrowers are real, and their problems are troubling, but they are outliers in the broader picture of student borrowing in the United States. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt. Given the prevailing media coverage, it’s unsurprising that many people are confused.

The public narrative about this issue commonly refers to the state of student lending as a crisis. You argue that this is a mischaracterization of the issue. Why is that?

There is no evidence of a widespread, systemic student loan crisis, in which the typical borrower is buried in debt for a college education that did not pay off. The crisis that permeates public discussion is a manufactured narrative based largely on anecdotes, speculation, shoddy research, and inappropriate framing of the issue. The reality is that large debt balances are exceedingly rare; typical borrowers face modest monthly payments (4 percent of monthly income at the median); the government provides a system of safety nets; and borrowers with the largest balances are typically the best-off because of high earnings.

There is not a single student loan crisis, but there are many crises, ranging from the fact that most students have no more than a vague idea of how much they’ve borrowed, to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers needlessly defaulting on their student loans, to the pockets of students who are making decisions that lead to predictably bad completion and repayment outcomes.

Critics of your argument might suggest that you’re doing more harm than good by dismissing the notion of a crisis. Even if the language used to describe the situation in student lending is exaggerated, isn’t a good thing if it draws public attention to an issue in need of policy reform?

The problem with allowing an inaccurate narrative to persist is that it prompts policy solutions that solve the fictional problems and do little or nothing to help borrowers who really are in need of assistance. A good example of this is the prominent efforts to reduce the interest rates on existing loans under the guise of “refinancing.” The idea has been vigorously promoted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and endorsed by Hillary Clinton. But reducing interest rates on existing loans would provide a big handout to affluent borrowers and do close to nothing for truly struggling borrowers, who tend to have small balances.

It seems that the crux of your argument is that the notion of a macro level crisis in student lending obscures the real problems. So, what are the real problems?

The real problems can be seen in the stories of borrowers struggling to pay back their loans or suffering the consequences of default. Generally, crises occur when students are “underwater” on their educational investment. They’ve paid the price, aren’t seeing the benefit they’ve anticipated, and are stuck with the bill.

One reason students get into this position is because historically we’ve had a dearth of information available on college cost and quality for students to use when shopping for college. This has gotten better recently, but we’ve still got a ways to go in helping students make savvy choices regarding college.

But even with perfect information and rigorous decision making, some students will inevitably find themselves with difficulty repaying their debt. In the existing system, the government offers a pretty robust system of repayment safety nets that exist to ensure that borrowers will never have to face an unaffordable loan payment. Unfortunately, the system of safety nets is incredibly complex for consumers to navigate. And it’s very likely that this complexity has meant that many borrowers in need of assistance did not receive it. In the book, we propose simplifying the system of both borrowing for and repayment of federal loans to alleviate this problem.

LoansBeth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the coauthor of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton). Together, they are the authors of Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt.