Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi on Austerity

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

What is controversial about fiscal austerity?

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

Why did you write this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cass Sunstein on On Freedom

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

How did you come to write this book?

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

Can you give a summary of the main argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Time Author Spotlight: Austin Carson’s Secret Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Your Parenting Style?

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

How does your parenting compare? Are you more authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive? Find out by taking this quiz! 

Your 17-year-old daughter would like to go on a week-long camping trip with her 19-year-old boyfriend of two months. What do you do?

Your son’s primary school teacher recommends that parents enroll their children in violin classes offered by the school, arguing that this will improve focus and concentration. Your child shows no enthusiasm. He would rather join a soccer team. What do you do?

Your 15-year-old son has a curfew of 11pm, but arrives home at 1am. How do you react?

You have some guests at your place. Your 6-year-old daughter refuses to sit quietly at the table and is generally being disruptive. How do you handle it?

Your 5-year-old son has pushed his 3-year-old friend in the playground. The smaller child has fallen and hit his head. Fortunately, it is nothing serious. However, the parents of the smaller child are upset. How do you handle the situation?

You are on a picnic with your son and some family friends. Your son gets bored and starts nagging. He wants to go home and play video games. What do you do?

You discover condoms in your 15-year-old daughter’s bag. How do you react?

Your 10-year-old boy is getting below average grades in school. According to his teacher, he is smart but does not work hard enough. What do you do?

Your child spends long hours watching TV and playing video games.

Your daughter is ambitious and achievement-oriented. Her teacher, however, thinks that she is trying too hard. Rather than encouraging and supporting her drive for excellence, he gives her lessons about taking it easy and being balanced. Your daughter is frustrated. How do you react?

Your child is a good student. However, he is dependent on his parents. He is leaving for college in another city and you are worried that he may not easily cope with the new situation. How do you react?

Your child is an enthusiastic basketball player, but she is neglecting the academic side of school and her grades are mediocre.

Your preschooler has poor eating habits. He only seems to want junk food and eschews anything healthy.

Your teenager has shown a great aptitude for mathematics, but she is not passionate about STEM. Instead, she wants to enroll in a specialized school for cartoon and graphic arts.

What is Your Parenting Style?
Permissive

According to Diana Baumrind, who coined the concept of a parenting style, a permissive parent “attempts to behave in a non-punitive, acceptant and affirmative manner towards the child's impulses, desires, and actions. … She makes few demands for household responsibility and orderly behavior. She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior. She allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”
Authoritative

You are an authoritative parent. You don’t think that children should have unlimited freedom, but neither do you expect blind obedience. Instead, you aim to guide your child through reasoning and persuasion. When you set limits you explain why you do so. According to Diana Baumrind, who coined the concept of a parenting style, an authoritative parent “attempts to direct the child's activities but in a rational, issue-oriented manner. She encourages verbal give and take, shares with the child the reasoning behind her policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. … She enforces her own perspective as an adult, but recognizes the child’s individual interests and special ways. The authoritative parent affirms the child's present qualities, but also sets standards for future conduct. She uses reason, power, and shaping by regime and reinforcement to achieve her objectives, and does not base her decisions on group consensus or the individual child’s desires.”
Authoritarian

You are an authoritarian parent. You believe it is best for children to obey the rules set for them by their parents. You monitor your child and are strict in enforcing rules. You don’t expect your child to understand the reasoning behind your decisions, and instead demand obedience as a matter of principle. According to Diana Baumrind, who coined the concept of a parenting style, an authoritarian parent “attempts to shape, control, and evaluate the behavior and attitudes of the child in accordance with a set standard of conduct, usually an absolute standard … She values obedience as a virtue and favors punitive, forceful measures to curb self-will at points where the child's actions or beliefs conflict with what she thinks is right conduct. She believes in keeping the child in his place, in restricting his autonomy, and in assigning household responsibilities in order to inculcate respect for work. She regards the preservation of order and traditional structure as a highly valued end in itself. She does not encourage verbal give and take, believing that the child should accept her word for what is right.”

Share your Results:

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

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

Issa-Kohler-Hausmann

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.

Gift Guide: Biographies and Memoirs!

Not sure what to give the reader who’s read it all? Biographies, with their fascinating protagonists, historical analyses, and stranger-than-fiction narratives, make great gifts for lovers of nonfiction and fiction alike! These biographies and memoirs provide glimpses into the lives of people both famous and forgotten:

Galawdewos Life of Walatta-Petros book coverThe radical saint: Walatta-Petros

Walatta-Petros was an Ethiopian saint who lived from 1592 to 1642 and led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. Written by her disciple Galawdewos in 1672, after Walatta-Petros’s death, and translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, The Life of Walatta-Petros praises her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader, providing a rare picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans—especially women—before the modern era.

This is the oldest-known book-length biography of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence. This concise edition, which omits the notes and scholarly apparatus of the hardcover, features a new introduction aimed at students and general readers.

 

Devlin_Finding Fibonacci book coverThe forgotten mathematician: Fibonacci

The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent. But Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, his book Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death.

Finding Fibonacci is Keith Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks.

 

The college president: Hanna Gray Gray_Academic Life book cover

Hanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education.

Gray’s memoir An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers.

 

The medieval historian: Ibn Khaldun Irwin_Ibn Khaldun book cover

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death.

Ibn Khaldun was a major political player in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, as well as a teacher and writer. Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life.

 

The novelist and philosopher: Iris Murdoch Murdoch_Living on Paper book cover

Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed novelist and groundbreaking philosopher whose life reflected her unconventional beliefs and values. Living on Paper—the first major collection of Murdoch’s most compelling and interesting personal letters—gives, for the first time, a rounded self-portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers. With more than 760 letters, fewer than forty of which have been published before, the book provides a unique chronicle of Murdoch’s life from her days as a schoolgirl to her last years.

The letters show a great mind at work—struggling with philosophical problems, trying to bring a difficult novel together, exploring spirituality, and responding pointedly to world events. We witness Murdoch’s emotional hunger, her tendency to live on the edge of what was socially acceptable, and her irreverence and sharp sense of humor. Direct and intimate, these letters bring us closer than ever before to Iris Murdoch as a person.

Browse our Jewish Studies 2019 Catalog

Our new Jewish Studies catalog includes a new exploration of the ancient story of Masada, an engaging firsthand portrait of American Judaism today, and a gripping revisionist history that shows how ordinary Italians played a central role in the genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War.

If you’re attending the Association for Jewish Studies meeting in Boston this weekend, you can stop by Booth 206 to check out our Jewish studies titles!

 

Jodi Magness Masada book cover

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. In Masada, archaeologist Jodi Magness explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story.

 

Jack Wertheimer New American Judaism book cover

American Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. Like other religions in the United States, it has witnessed a decline in the number of participants over the past forty years, and many who remain active struggle to reconcile their hallowed traditions with new perspectives—from feminism and the LGBTQ movement to “do-it-yourself religion” and personally defined spirituality. Taking a fresh look at American Judaism today, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. The New American Judaism is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation.

 

Simon Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book cover

In this gripping revisionist history of Italy’s role in the Holocaust, Simon Levis Sullam presents an unforgettable account of how ordinary Italians actively participated in the deportation of Italy’s Jews between 1943 and 1945, when Mussolini’s collaborationist republic was under German occupation. While most historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of Jews during this time, The Italian Executioners tells a very different story, recounting in vivid detail the shocking events of a period in which Italians set in motion almost half the arrests that sent their Jewish compatriots to Auschwitz.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

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

What led you to write this book?

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

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

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

Can you give a summary of your argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

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

What led you to write this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kieran Healy on how to create effective graphics from data

Kieran Healy’s accessible primer, Data Visualization: A Practical Introduction explains what makes some graphs succeed while others fail, how to make high-quality figures from data using powerful and reproducible methods, and how to think about data visualization in an honest and effective way. Check out a few particularly successful examples from Healy:

1. Age distribution of U.S. Representatives, 1945-2019.

This is a “heatmap” of the ages of all U.S. House members, by party. Time runs from left to right, and age from bottom to top. The brighter the area, the more people there are of that age in that year. You can see, for example, the bright streak of Democrats elected in the early 1980s who have remained in the House since then.


2. Age distribution of U.S. Senators, 1945-2018.

The panels show the average ages of all Democratic and Republican Senators, with the colored ribbons covering the range of the 25th to 7th percentiles. The oldest and youngest 5% of Senators are shown by name. You can see Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond outliving everyone.


3. Men and Women in the House of Representatives

 

Every two years, some candidates are elected to Congress for the very first time.

This is the “Freshman Class”. This chart shows the proportion of those first-timers who have been women. The incoming Democratic freshman class has a record number of women in it. 


4. White Guys Named John vs African Americans in Congress

A slightly frivolous way to make a serious point. For most of the past seventy five years, there have been more white men named “John” in Congress than there have been African American representatives.


5. Mean Age of Congressional Members

Congress has been getting older. Many of the young representatives elected in the late 1970s and early 1980s are still in the House.


6. Business & Law in the House of Representatives

When it comes to former occupations, Lawyers and Business people predominate in the House, but there are differences by party, and in addition the predominance of a legal background has declined over the decades.


7. Men and Women elected to Congress

Winning Party by District

In this kind of map, called a cartogram, Congressional Districts are shown by shape. Districts are joined together to approximate the shape of the country while still representing the fact that more densely-populated regions have many more congressional districts than sparsely-populated ones.


8. U.S. Representatives by Race

Edward Burger on Making Up Your Own Mind

BurgerWe solve countless problems—big and small—every day. With so much practice, why do we often have trouble making simple decisions—much less arriving at optimal solutions to important questions? Are we doomed to this muddle—or is there a practical way to learn to think more effectively and creatively? In this enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring book, Edward Burger shows how we can become far better at solving real-world problems by learning creative puzzle-solving skills using simple, effective thinking techniques. Making Up Your Own Mind teaches these techniques—including how to ask good questions, fail and try again, and change your mind—and then helps you practice them with fun verbal and visual puzzles. A book about changing your mind and creating an even better version of yourself through mental play, Making Up Your Own Mind will delight and reward anyone who wants to learn how to find better solutions to life’s innumerable puzzles. 

What are the practical applications of this book for someone who wants to improve their problem-solving skills?

The practicality goes back to the practical elements of one’s own education. Unfortunately, many today view “formal education” as the process of learning, but what they really mean is “knowing”—knowing the facts, dates, methodologies, templates, algorithms, and the like. Once the students demonstrate that newly-found knowledge by reproducing it back to the instructor on a paper or test they quickly let it all go from their short-term memories and move on. Today this kind of “knowledge” can be largely found via any search engine on any smart device. So in our technological information age, what should “formal education” mean?  Instead of focusing solely on “knowing,” it intentionally must also teach “growing”—growing the life of the mind. The practices offered in this volume attempt to do just that: offer readers a way to hone and grow their own thinking while sharpening their own minds. Those practices can then be directly applied to their everyday lives as they try to see the issues around them with greater clarity and creativity to make better decisions. The practical applications certainly will include their enhanced abilities to create better solutions to all the problems they encounter. But from my vantage point as an educator, the ultimate practical application is to help readers flourish and continue along a life-long journey in which they become better versions of themselves tomorrow than they are today. 

How has applying the problem-solving skills described in your book helped you in your everyday life?

In my leadership role as president of Southwestern University, I am constantly facing serious and complex challenges that need to be solved or opportunities to be seized. Those decisions require wisdom, creativity, focus on the macro issues while being mindful of the micro implications. Then action is required along with careful follow-up on the consequences of those decisions moving forward. I use the practices of effective thinking outlined in this book—including my personally favorite: effective failure—in every aspect of my work as president and I believe they have served me well. Effective failure, by the way, is the practice of intentionally not leaving a mistake or misstep until a new insight or deeper understanding is realized.  It is not enough to say, “Oh, that didn’t work, I’ll try something else.” That’s tenacity, which is wonderful, but alone is also ineffective failure.  Before trying that something else, this book offers practical but mindful ways of using one’s own errors to be wise guides to deeper understanding that natural lead to what to consider next. I also believe that through these varied practices of thinking I continue to grow as an educator, as a leader, as a mathematician, and as an individual who has committed his professional life to try to make the world better by inspiring others to be better. 

Can we really train our brains to be better problem solvers?

Yes!

Would you care to elaborate on that last, one-word response?

Okay, okay—But I hope I earned some partial credit for being direct and to-the-point. Many believe that their minds are the way they are and cannot be changed. In fact, we are all works-in-progress and capable of change—not the disruptive change that makes us into someone we’re not, but rather incremental change that allows us to be better and better versions of ourselves as we grow and evolve. That change in mindset does not require us to “think harder” (as so many people tell us), but rather to “think differently” (which is not hard at all after we embrace different practices of thinking, analysis, and creativity). Just as we can improve our tennis game, our poker skills, and the playing of the violin, we can improve our thinking and our minds. This book offers practical and straight-forward ways to embraces those enhance practices and puzzles to practice that art in an entertaining but thought-provoking way.

Why do you refer to “puzzle-solving” rather than the more typical phrase, “problem-solving?”

Because throughout our lives we all face challenges and conundrums that need to be faced and resolved as well as opportunities and possibilities that need to be either seized or avoided. Those negative challenges and possibilities are the problems in our lives. But everything we face—positive, negative, or otherwise—are the puzzles that life presents to us. Thus, I do not believe we should call mindful practices that empower us to find innovative or smart solutions “problem-solving.” We should call those practices that enhance our thinking about all the varied puzzles in our lives what they truly are: “puzzle-solving.” Finally, I believe we thrive within an optimistic perspective—and no one likes problems—but most do enjoy puzzles.

How did this book come about?

As with most things, this project natural evolved from a confluence of many previous experiences. My close collaborator, Michael Starbird, and I have been thinking about effective thinking collaboratively and individually for dozens of years. That effort resulted in our book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (published by Princeton University Press and referenced in this latest work). Then when I began my work as president of Southwestern University over five years ago, I wanted to offer a class that was not a “typical” mathematics course, but rather a class that would capture the curiosity of all students who wonder how they can amplify their own abilities to grow and think more effectively—originally, wisely, and creatively. So I created a course entitled Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving, and I have been teaching it every year at Southwestern since 2016.

How did your students change through their “puzzle-solving” journey?

Of course that question is best answered by my students at Southwestern University, and I invite you to visit our campus and talk with them to learn more. From my perspective, I have enjoyed seeing them become more open-minded, think in more creative and original ways (“thinking outside the box”), practice a more mindful perspective, and make time for themselves to be contemplative and reflective. Also, I have them write a number of essays (which I personally grade), and over the course of our time together, I have seen their writing and overall communication improve. Obviously, I am very proud of my students.

Edward B. Burger is the president of Southwestern University, a mathematics professor, and a leading teacher on thinking, innovation, and creativity. He has written more than seventy research articles, video series, and books, including The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (with Michael Starbird) (Princeton), and has delivered hundreds of addresses worldwide. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

Louise Shelley on Dark Commerce

ShelleyThough mankind has traded tangible goods for millennia, recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. In the past three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and, as Dark Commerce shows, now operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. In this new world of illicit commerce, which benefits states and diverse participants, trade is impersonal and anonymized, and vast profits are made in short periods with limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. Demonstrating that illicit trade is a business the global community cannot afford to ignore and must work together to address, Dark Commerce considers diverse ways of responding to this increasing challenge.

What led you to write this book?

My last book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, pointed to the centrality of illicit trade as a funding mechanism for terrorism and transnational crime. As I finished that work, I realized that illicit trade was at the core of many of our most critical contemporary problems—the perpetuation of conflict, environmental degradation, and the destruction of human life. I wanted readers to understand that there are many who profit from this dark commerce, not just those associated with traditional crime groups. I wrote this book as a wake up call to the existential challenges that we now face from the many diverse participants in illicit trade.

How has illicit trade changed profoundly with the advent of computers and social media?

In the last three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents. Old forms of illicit trade persist that have been in place for millennia, but the newest forms operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. Illicit trade is developing rapidly in all sectors. No area of this trade has diminished in its volume or its geographic reach, as technology is a driver of the growth of illicit trade.

In this new world of illicit commerce, trade is impersonal, anonymized, and vast profits are made in relatively short periods. There is limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. New technology, communications, and globalization fuel the exponential growth of many of the most dangerous forms of illegal trade—the massive sales of narcotics and child pornography online; the escalation of sex trafficking through web and social media-based advertisements; and the sale of endangered species for which revenues now total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.[1]

In the cyberworld—particularly its most hidden part, the Dark Web (entered only through special anonymizing software such as TOR)—payments no longer occur with state-backed currencies, as customers pay for their purchases in a plethora of new anonymizing cryptocurrencies of which Bitcoin is the best-known. Moreover, in this illicit world, the very commodities have changed— many can no longer be touched or exchanged through human hands. Rather, many of the most pernicious illicit traders buy commodities based only on algorithms, including malware, Trojans, botnets, and/or ransomware (denies users access to their data), marketed by malicious suppliers in both the developing and developed world.[2]

Is illicit trade less of a problem in developed countries such as in the West, or is it a problem everywhere? Many potential readers may think of illicit trade as something that is far removed from them in their everyday lives. To what extent, if at all, is this an illusion? 

Many think that the problems of illicit trade are most pronounced in the developing world, and that the developed world is largely exempt. Clearly the markets of less industrialized countries are filled with numerous types of harmful counterfeit goods such as medicines, pesticides, and electronic parts. But dangerous counterfeit medicines have penetrated the supply chain of developed countries as well. Deadly drugs such as fentanyl are readily accessible through the web and the Dark Web, and they contributed to the death of over 72,000 Americans from drug overdoses in 2017. Consumers in the developed world purchase large quantities of fish that have been caught outside of approved catches, and timber that has been cut illegally and then transformed into furniture or plywood.

The changes brought by technology are most evident in the G7 countries—the largest economies in the world—but they are by no means confined to them. Investigations of computer-facilitated crime have identified their impact in the vast preponderance of the world’s countries. For example, in one recent online ransom attack victims were identified in over 180 countries.[3]

How has illicit trade contributed to current global conflicts?

Illicit trade plays a significant role in global conflicts, one example being the crisis in Syria. The Syrian crisis started with a drought. The subsequent illicit trade in water rights that made agricultural life impossible resulted in millions migrating to marginal communities on the fringes of cities where they were neglected by the state. To give you an idea of scale, there were 8.9 million Syrians city dwellers before the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. By 2010, 13.8 million. Of this almost 5 million person rural exodus, approximately 1.5 million were fleeing the drought.[4] The story of the Syrian drought refugees does not end with the beginning of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is the beginning of a “domino effect.” The Syrians departure from rural areas was the first phase of a longer trajectory that then took a more tragic course. These rural to urban migrants had to then flee civil war and destruction, many becoming illegal migrants relying on smugglers. The Syrian case is one of the worst examples of the growth of regional conflicts that has characterized the post-Cold War period. Illicit trade has funded many of the most important disputes and clashes of recent decades in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and between Russia and Ukraine.[5] The illicit goods associated with conflict include not only arms, drugs, and humans, but also consumer goods, counterfeits, and natural resources such as oil, minerals, gold, and coltan—ubiquitous in mobile phones and laptops.

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

Illicit trade has survived for millennia, but it has expanded in recent decades as the financial advantage grows in an ever more competitive and globalized world. The profit from this trade can be more than financial. States obtain political advantage as a result of illicit commerce, a phenomenon as old as the raids on the pirate ships of antiquity and the theft of new technologies. Yet its costs today are even higher and command greater priority from the global community.

Is there any good news in this story? Are we finding ways to combat illicit trade?

Countering illicit trade requires serious and concerted action by different sectors of society working together. We need a multilateral approach that encompasses governments, organizations, businesses, community groups, NGOs, journalists, and others working together to find effective ways to combat illicit trade. Already, exceptional individuals risk their lives for this objective, including activists and investigative journalists who counter human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal timber harvesting, and illicit financial flows. Many honest members of law enforcement are on the front lines against illicit trade, dying in the line of duty annually as they try to save human lives and protected species. New technology and data analytics tools are being developed by the government and the private sector to counter the growth of illicit trade, particularly in the cyberworld. Many individuals are involved at the local level in their communities to prevent harm to all forms of life. All these efforts must be enhanced and coordinated. Finally, citizens as consumers have an important role to play as individuals demanding more of corporations to counter the abuse of the new technology they control.

Louise I. Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy and University Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and founder and director of its Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Her many books include Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements. She lives in Washington, DC.

**

[1] Larry Greenmeier, “Human Traffickers Caught on Hidden Internet,” February 8, 2015,  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-traffickers-caught-on-hidden-internet/ and also the accompanying visualization that reveals the international links, Scientific American Exclusive: DARPA Memex Data Map. Accessed July 13, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow/scientific-american-exclusive-darpa-memex-data-maps/; Channing May, Transnational Crime and the Developing World (Washington, D.C.: Global Financial Integrity, 2017), xi.

[2] Ransomware is extensively used in India, see CSIS, “Net Losses Estimating the Global Cost of Cybercrime: Economic Impact of Cybercrime II,” June 2014, 15, http://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-economic-impact-cybercrime2.pdf, accessed Jan. 23, 2017. A major analyst of the Dark Web suggests that ten percent of the content of the dark web consists of this stolen material.

[3] Investigators identified 189. Joe Mandak, “Prosecutor’s Office Paid Bitcoin Ransom in Cyberattack,” December 5, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017,  https://phys.org/news/2016-12-prosecutor-office-paid-bitcoin-ransom.html; Complaint U.S. Government vs. flux and flux 2, filed November 28, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/915216/download; “Avalanche” Network Disrupted in International Cyber Operation,” December 1, 2016.Accessed Feb. 1, 2017,https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/%E2%80%98avalanche%E2%80%99-network-dismantled-in-international-cyber-operation This is the Avalanche case discussed in chapter five.

[4] Ibid.; Collin Kelley et. al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” pnas,  vol. 112 no. 11, 3241-46; http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3241.full, accessed March 6, 2016.

[5] Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the 21st Century, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 151-2.