Clifford Bob on Rights as Weapons

Bob_Rights as WeaponsRights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak. Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate.

How exactly are rights weaponized?

Rights become weapons when political forces use them aggressively to advance their goals and attack other groups, institutions, and customs. Of course, rights do not literally become material weapons, but politically they have similar effects. For instance, powerful or majority groups often claim their own cultural rights as a way of attacking minority and immigrant groups by forcing them to assimilate or by keeping them out of the society completely. This use of majority rights seems to be increasingly common, and I analogize it to the use of dynamite because it is often intended to undermine or destroy the minority culture itself (at least in its adopted home). In other chapters, I show how rights are used in other weapon-like ways, as rallying cries to mobilize political forces and as camouflage to cover up sometimes questionable political goals.

Overall, one of the key points I make in the book is that rights are tools or weapons that political groups of any ideology can pick up and use to advance their goals. Why can rights be used on multiple sides of conflicts? It is chiefly because they are a means of achieving political or economic goals, rather than ends in themselves. A right, even a human right, is a right to something. It is that thing, whether abstract such as privacy or concrete such as food, rather than the right to the thing, that is the ultimate focus of conflict. It is true that the right and its underlying content are often discussed interchangeably, but analyzing them in isolation from one another, as I do, makes it possible to see how rights can be used in multiple ways, as various types of political tools or weapons.

What are some historical examples of the biggest culprits in the use of rights to further nefarious ends?

As I’ve said, my view of rights as weapons does not apply only to what we might call the misuses of rights by the nefarious. But let’s talk about them first! One of the most important examples in the U.S. has been states’ rights, in effect a form of majority rights used by powerful interests along with outright violence to block the political advance of African Americans. That sordid story is well known. Less known, at least to me  as a political scientist before I began this book, was the way in which major voting rights movements in nineteenth-century America competed against one another. There were three major suffrage movements, among those without property, African-Americans, and women. Although there was no necessary bar to their working together for universal suffrage, and although some forward thinking activists proposed such unity, for the most part the three movements sought suffrage for their own group alone. Even more interesting, at times each movement used its own rights claims as a blockade against the similar claims of the other groups. White men without property urged that a grant of the vote for them would help ensure the continuing power of white males. For their part, although women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began their careers in the abolitionist movement, they frequently argued against the vote for freed slaves or argued that women should receive the vote first. When the opposite happened after the Civil War, suffrage leaders continually proposed that women should receive the vote as a way of blocking black power, because white women would vote with white men against African-Americans. I used this and other cases to develop a systematic conceptual account of when and how rights are used as blockades.

Is this phenomenon of rights as weapons an inevitable aspect of democracy, or are there strategies that can be employed to prevent it?

I do see the use of rights as weapons as an inevitable part of modern politics—and not necessarily a bad part. For one thing, it is usually better than the use of real weapons to achieve political goals, although at times political forces combine the two sets of tactics, with rights arguments serving to legitimate violence. Trying to prevent political groups from using rights aggressively would be futile. What I hope to have contributed, however, is a way that observers can cut through the righteous rhetoric in which most conflicts are clouded—to uncover what is truly driving the rivals and to understand the tactics they are using to promote themselves and attack their foes. Recent American wars have frequently been draped in rights talk. The war in Afghanistan, for instance, began as a response to 9/11, but within weeks the Bush administration justified it as a means of improving women’s rights. Clearly, women were treated terribly by the Taliban, and some Afghan women welcomed the invasion as a means of advancing their rights. But others, even Afghan women who fought for their rights before 2001, opposed the invasion and saw it as a greater threat to the lives of Afghan women than the Taliban’s laws. They also argued that women’s rights could never succeed in Afghanistan if they were imposed by foreigners at the tip of a drone, rather than growing indigenously through the efforts of Afghan women themselves. In the U.S., however, this complex reality was obscured by the appealing nature of women’s rights (which I of course fully support). This may be one reason we are still fighting there, whatever the Afghan people really want.

When rights are used in this way, is it always a negative? Are there examples of groups weaponizing rights for positive aims?

Many! For centuries, political movements have used rights to advance human progress, as in the abolitionist, suffrage, and civil rights movements in the U.S. and similar movements worldwide. In the book, I discuss the American Revolution and the reasons that in the 1770s the colonists transformed their prior claims to the rights of British subjects into demands for their “natural right” to independence. I would call that a positive example of using rights as a rallying cry, with the express purpose of advancing the revolt and attracting foreign fighters and support. But of course the British saw things rather differently—as illegitimate claims put forth, in Samuel Johnson’s words, by “dictators of sedition” who had strategically “put in motion the engine of political electricity, to attract, by the sounds of liberty and property.”

In the modern era, we have many examples of minority groups in democratic countries using rights as what I call spears. Because of such groups’ political weakness, majoritarian political institutions may not offer promising fields for their operation. One way they can achieve their goals of equality and nondiscrimination is to mount narrowly targeted attacks on a single key law, with the hope that a court will support their cause as a matter of right. There are many such cases, including Brown v. Board of Education and the recent Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage decision. In the book, I examine a more ambiguous and less successful case in Italy. In the mid-2000s, a small group of atheists unhappy at the power of the Catholic Church in Italian society brought a lawsuit challenging one small but important policy, mandating crucifixes in public school classrooms. The group had no chance of ejecting the crucifix through legislation. So instead they opted for a spear-like thrust in the courts, based on Italian and European human rights law. And they won at the European Court of Human Rights! But only for a brief time, because a transnational coalition of religiously conservative countries fought back and reversed the judgment on appeal. In the end the court found that the crucifix symbolized Italian culture and history, as much as Catholicism, and held that the majority had a right to maintain its culture, even if in other countries with other traditions, a crucifix would be illegal in a public school classroom.

What should vulnerable groups know about the use of rights as weapons as they work to further their goal of equality?

Vulnerable and minority groups have often used rights claims to advance their agendas and improve their lives. Many have been experts at using rights to mobilize their constituencies and appeal for outside support. In many cases, they have succeeded in establishing their rights claims as laws and have been able to move toward achievement of the underlying social, economic, and political goals they seek.

But what the vulnerable may not always be prepared for is the way in which contrary rights claims may be used by their opponents to mobilize their constituencies and counter-attack. Moreover, they may be caught by surprise that opponents they thought they had defeated long ago have risen again, in new guises promoting novel rights. This has been the case with the radical feminists discussed previously, many of whom say that they have been shocked by the possibility that the advances for women they thought they had won long ago may now be threatened by people they consider to be men. Long-running conflicts over voting rights in the U.S. take the same form, with current voter suppression efforts in many ways an echo of rights-based battles fought in decades and centuries past. Vulnerable groups need to remain constantly on guard and adept at defending what they have previously achieved—as in fact most of them are.

Was there anything that surprised you as you were researching for this book?

Lots of things! One of the most interesting parts of the research focused on the use of rights as camouflage for ulterior goals. This is hard to study because political forces that use rights in this way typically cover up their real purposes. I examined the use of animal rights to mask nationalist aims in Spain, specifically how Catalan nationalists implemented a ban on bullfighting in the region, ostensibly to protect the bulls but in fact as a means of attacking a key symbol of Castilian nationalism. The bullfighting ban was the brainchild of a transnational animal rights movement that interacted strategically with the Catalan nationalists—and fought against Spanish nationalists and the bullfighting lobby. I learned a great deal about how multiple social movements make use of one another in complex political struggles (and far more than I intended about bullfighting). In the end, I was able to find very good proof of camouflaging in this case, and on that basis I developed a framework for understanding how rights are used as camouflage in many other conflicts.

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

In addition to reading about fascinating rights conflicts from around the world and learning how to analyze them systematically, I hope that readers take away a fuller idea of how political groups view and use rights. Rights are not only shields to protect the powerless or hoists to uplift the downtrodden. Although that is one aspect of rights, they can also be offensive weapons, that the powerful can use to oppress the weak. Ultimately, this means that although rights claims can be helpful to political movements, it is political power, amassed through any number of means, including the use of righteous rallying cries to galvanize support for one’s cause, that is crucial to allowing a movement to achieve and maintain its goals.

Clifford Bob is professor and chair of political science at Duquesne University. His previous books include The Marketing of Rebellion, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, and The International Struggle for New Human Rights. Twitter @cliffordbob

 

Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

William L. Silber: Invest Like Buffett…Buy Silver When It’s Cheap, but Don’t Repeat his Mistake

The global economy in 2019 may seem unsettled because of trade wars and friction in the European Union, but it is nothing compared with the Great Recession. Few worry today about the collapse of the world financial system, a serious concern ten years ago, and the decline of precious metal prices since then confirms that most investors do not expect a return of that sentiment. Which makes it the perfect time for Americans to learn a lesson from the recent history of the country’s most famous investor: Warren Buffett. He bought silver after it had collapsed in value but left more than four billion dollars on the table by selling too soon. 

Buffett is a contrarian, making investments that are unpopular and waiting for them to return to favor. He says: “You pay a very high price…for a cheery consensus…pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels.” This approach suggests that now is a good time to buy precious metals and to keep them for the long haul. Gold and silver are not popular today, but they should be viewed as insurance policies for everyday Americans. Both metals work when nothing else does, like during the Great Recession, when silver quadrupled in value between 2008 and 2011, and gold rose by 250 percent. Those increases mirrored the performance of precious metals 30 years earlier, in 1979, at the peak of the Great Inflation, when fear of runaway consumer prices had taken hold.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, bought silver in 1997 because it was cheap. The white metal had dropped more than 90 percent from its record price of $50 an ounce in January 1980. It was almost twenty years after Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, had cured the inflationary spiral that had griped the U.S. economy and Buffett pounced. He bought at the right time but sold much too soon and said, “I bought it very early and sold it very early.” Buffett’s experience provides guidelines for how to see precious metals today.

Buffett’s purchase of more than 100 million ounces of silver, about 25 percent of the world’s annual production of the white metal in 1997, was deeply out of character. The white metal did not belong among his investments. He had prided himself on picking companies that are “understandable, possess excellent economics, and are run by outstanding people.” Buffett traditionally dismissed owning assets like precious metals that “will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else…will pay more for them in the future.” His least favorite investment is gold which he said would “remain lifeless forever.”

The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway gave silver a reprieve because the white metal is a cross between precious and industrial, a store of wealth for millions and productive in electronics and medicine. He explained his reasons for the investment, which totaled about two percent of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio: “I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand.” Buffett liked silver because annual consumption by industry outpaced mine production.

And Buffett was ideally positioned to benefit from silver’s low prices. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO had long understood the power of patience, having told his stockholders when he first bought Coca Cola stock in 1988, “Our favorite holding period is forever.” Patience is key to maximizing value from precious metals.

As it turned out, however, Buffett failed to stick to his principles, with serious consequences. An expanding U.S. economy spurred prices to about $7.50 in 2005 and Buffett began to worry about excess speculation. A year later he told his investors at their annual meeting that Berkshire Hathaway had sold all its silver. Buffett said “We made a few dollars,” but he was not pleased. Berkshire had earned about $275 million on an investment of $560 million in 1997, about a five percent annual return over the eight years, less than they would have earned investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger deadpanned, “I think we’ve demonstrated our expertise in commodities, if you look at our activities in silver.” Buffett added “We’re not good at figuring out when a speculative game will end.”

He did not realize the party was about to begin.

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. It was the largest Chapter 11 filing in American history, and turned a mild recession into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The failure destroyed trust in financial assets, triggered panicked withdrawals from money market mutual funds, until then considered the equivalent of cash, and forced the U.S Treasury to guarantee their safety.

The exploding financial chaos eventually sparked gold prices to an all-time record of $1,900 an ounce on September 5, 2011, an increase of 250 percent in the three years since Lehman’s collapse. Silver hit $42.92 that same day, for a 400 percent increase, almost twice the move in gold. Buffett’s uncharacteristic impatience, therefore, cost him dearly. Had Berkshire Hathaway sold at $42.92 on September 5, 2011, well below the $48 crisis peak, he would have made $4.2 billion on his investment of $560 million. His 14-year silver speculation would have earned a respectable 16.5 percent annual return.

No one expects to sell at the top so precious metals should remain in an investor’s portfolio forever, just like Warren Buffett’s Coca Cola. His allocation of two percent to silver makes sense — not too much to cause insomnia, but enough to provide for food, clothing and a driverless car during the next crisis. Today, we have recovered from the Great Recession, and precious metals are out of favor, a prime time for a contrarian purchase. Silver has declined to about $15 an ounce, one-third its 2011 peak, so it is relatively cheap to insure against the next financial upheaval. Once you’ve bought it, don’t touch it. Selling would be like cancelling insurance after an accident.

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

Austin Smith on Becoming a Poet

SmithBecause my father is a poet, I met many poets as a boy. They would come to Freeport, Illinois to read through a series curated by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson, who taught Spanish at the community college: Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Armand Schwerner, John Haines, Michael Heller. They would sometimes come out to our farmhouse for dinner. I vaguely recall those evenings, the warmth and laughter, the candlelight, the copious amount of eating and drinking. They were late nights, despite the fact that my dad had to be up at 4 to milk cows. The neighboring farmer, Colberg, would have seen Michael Mott walking down Winneshiek Road with a walking stick and a cape. My Dad still talks with him on the phone almost weekly. When Snyder visited, he told my Dad that he should teach the cows to meditate, so they wouldn’t need to be milked or fed for three days, and then he could come out West for a visit, and Snyder could show him his trees. It struck me even as a boy that being a poet was about more than merely writing poems (though there’s nothing “mere” about that): it was an entire livelihood, a way of being in the world. Were I to become a poet too, there would be friends to welcome come evening, books to exchange, good meals by candlelight, long walks in the morning, conversations that bordered on the theological. That has been more or less true. My best friends are the friends I have made through poetry. One becomes part of a larger family, composed of both the living and the dead. Indeed, sometimes the latter seem more present than the former.

The first time I heard my father read poems, at the art museum in town, I understood that there was a different register of language available to us. It was a similar register to the language I heard at Mass on Sunday mornings. Not long after learning of this register, I wrote my first couplet, in a notebook titled Poetrey (sic):

 

            The fire is burning hot.

            I can hear the hunter’s shot.

 

I can still recall how it felt to write this line, kneeling before the fire on an old woven oval rug that sparks from past fires had charred black divots in. I had built the fire. Now, by its light, I was writing of it. I was writing also of the sound of the hunters on the hill shooting geese. It was a lie: I couldn’t hear them in that moment (after all, who hunts at night?) and yet it was somehow still true. The domestic comfort of the fire was somehow connected to the firing of guns on the hill, and the rhyme of “hot” and “shot” proved that. Language, which had before seemed arbitrary, suddenly held within it an infinity of keys and locks. By using language in the right way, by fitting the right key to the right lock, a door could be opened that had never been opened before. One could enter a room that was being created as one entered it, like a room in a novel.

I started reading the books I found on the shelves, inclined towards the slimmest ones because they were certain to be poetry collections. I loved a short book of short poems by Merwin, Finding the Islands. And I loved also those New Directions volumes that Rexroth put together, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. To read a poem was as much a visual experience as it was a mental one: the preponderance of white space compared to the black text, the cleanliness (usually) of the left margin versus the surflike shape of the right.

And I kept writing. Kent Johnson published my first poems in the literary journal he edited, The Prairie Wind. When Margaret Gibson came, I shared some poems with her. I remember how we stood in one corner of the living room, in lamplight. She must have thought, “What a strange, precocious boy.” I don’t know what I was asking for. Certainly not feedback on the poems themselves. Some kind of permission, perhaps. I wanted to know, as I still do, whether I’m allowed to live this life, which seems, despite its obvious financial difficulties, the only life I could ever have led: a life of books, friends, travel, meals in cities I would have no reason to visit were I not there for a reading, gossip, but mostly solitude, trying a thousand keys in the lock.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New YorkerPoetryPloughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Opportunity costs: can carbon taxing become a positive-sum game?

Climate change, caused by human activity, is arguably the biggest single problem facing the world today, and it is deeply entangled with the question of how to lift billions of people out of poverty without destroying the global environment in the process. But climate change also represents a crisis for economists (I am one). Decades ago, economists developed solutions – or variants on the same solution – to the problem of pollution, the key being the imposition of a price on the generation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The idea was to make visible, and accountable, the true environmental costs of any production process. 

Carbon pricing could stabilise the global climate, and cap unwanted warming, at a fraction of the cost that we are likely to end up paying in other ways. And as emissions were rapidly reduced, we could save enough to compensate most of the ‘losers’, such as displaced coal miners; a positive-sum solution. Yet, carbon pricing has been mostly spurned in favour of regulatory solutions that are significantly more costly. Why?

Environmental pollution is one of the most pervasive and intractable failures of market systems (and Soviet-style central planning). Almost every kind of economic activity produces harmful byproducts, which are costly to dispose of safely. The cheapest thing to do is to dump the wastes into waterways or the atmosphere. Under pure free-market conditions, that’s precisely what happens. Polluters pay nothing for dumping waste while society bears the cost.

Since most energy in modern societies comes from burning carbon-based fuels, solving this problem, whether through new technology or altered consumption patterns, will require changes in a vast range of economic activities. If these changes are to be achieved without reducing standards of living, or obstructing the efforts of less developed countries to lift themselves out of poverty, it is important to find a path to emissions reduction that minimises costs.

But since pollution costs aren’t properly represented in market prices, there’s little use in looking at the accounting costs that appear in corporate balance sheets, or the market-based costs that go into national accounting measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For economists, the right way to think is in terms of ‘opportunity cost’, which can be defined as follows: The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it. So how should we think about the opportunity cost of CO2 emissions?

We could start with the costs imposed on the world’s population as a whole from climate change, and measure how this changes with additional emissions. But this is an impossibly difficult task. All we know about the costs of climate change is that they will be large, and possibly catastrophic. It’s better to think about carbon budgets. We have a good idea how much more CO2 the world can afford to emit while keeping the probability of dangerous climate change reasonably low. A typical estimate is 2,900 billion tonnes – of which 1,900 billion tonnes have already been emitted.

Within any given carbon budget, an additional tonne of CO2 emitted from one source requires a reduction of one tonne somewhere else. So, it is the cost of this offsetting reduction that determines the opportunity cost of the additional emission. The problem is that, as long as the CO2 generated ‘disappears’ into the atmosphere (and, eventually, the oceans), corporations and households do not bear the opportunity cost of the CO2 they emit.

In a properly working market economy, prices reflect opportunity costs (and vice versa). A price for CO2 emissions high enough to keep total emissions within the carbon budget would ensure that the opportunity cost of increasing emissions would be equal to the price. But how can this be brought about?

In the 1920s, the English economist Arthur Pigou suggested imposing taxes on firms generating pollution. This would make the (tax-inclusive) prices paid by those firms reflect social cost. An alternative approach, developed by the Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, stresses the role of property rights. Rather than setting a price for pollution, society decides how much pollution can be tolerated, and creates property rights (emissions permits) reflecting that decision. Companies that want to burn carbon must acquire emissions permits for the CO2 they produce. Whereas the carbon-tax approach determines a price and lets markets determine the volume of polluting activity, the property-rights approach sets the volume and lets the market determine the price.

There is no necessary link between imposing a carbon tax and distributing the resulting payments. However, natural intuitions of justice suggest that the revenue from carbon pricing should go to those adversely effected. At a national level, the proceeds could be used to offset the costs borne by low-income households. More ambitiously, a truly just system of global property rights would give everyone equal rights, and require those who want to burn more than their share of carbon (mostly, the global rich) to buy rights from those who burn less.

This raises the question of whether emissions rights should be equalised going forward, or whether historical emissions should be taken into account, allowing poorer nations to ‘catch up’. This debate has been rendered largely irrelevant by dramatic drops in the price of renewable energy that have sidelined development strategies based on fossil fuels. The best solution seems to be ‘contract and converge’. That is, all nations should converge as fast as possible to an emissions level far below that of currently developed countries, then phase out emissions entirely.

Carbon taxes have already been introduced in various places, and proposed in many more, but have met with vigorous resistance nearly everywhere. Emissions-permit schemes have been somewhat more successful, notably in the European Union, but have not taken off in the way envisaged when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. This disappointing outcome requires explanation.

The ideas of Pigou and Coase provide a theoretically neat answer to the market-failure problem. Unfortunately, they run into the more fundamental problem of income distribution and property rights. If governments create emissions rights and auction them, they create public property out of a resource (the atmosphere) that was previously available for use (and misuse) free of charge. The same is true when a carbon tax is proposed.

Whether property rights are created explicitly, as in the Coase approach, or implicitly, through the carbon taxes advocated by Pigou, there will be losers as well as gainers from the resulting change in the distribution of property rights and, therefore, market income. Not surprisingly, those potential losers have resisted market-based policies of pollution control.

The strongest resistance arises when businesses that have previously dumped their waste into airways and waterways free of charge are forced to bear the opportunity costs of their actions by paying taxes or purchasing emissions rights. Such businesses can call on an array of lobbyists, think tanks and friendly politicians to defend their interests.

Faced with these difficulties, governments have often fallen back on simpler options such as regulations and ad hoc interventions, such as feed-in tariffs and renewable-energy targets. These solutions are more costly and frequently more regressive, not least as the size of the cost burden and the way it is distributed is obscure and hard to understand. Yet the likely costs of climate change are so great that even second-best solutions such as direct regulation are preferable to doing nothing; and the delays caused by resistance from business, and from the ideologically driven science deniers in their pay, have been such that, in the short run, emergency interventions will be required.

Still, the need to respond to climate change is not going away any time soon, and the costs of regulatory solutions will continue to mount. If we are to stabilise the global climate without hampering efforts to end the scourge of global poverty, some form of carbon pricing is essential.

Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly by John Quiggin is forthcoming via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Quiggin is the President’s Senior Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His previous book, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (Princeton), has been translated into eight languages. He has written for the New York Times and the Economist, among other publications, and is a frequent blogger for Crooked Timber and on his own website: www.johnquiggin.com. Twitter @JohnQuiggin

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

Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

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

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Walter Mattli on Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

MattliCapital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and “dark” markets, some of which are deliberately designed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, Darkness by Design challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

How did you come to write this book?

Right after the 2007-2008 financial crisis I became interested in questions regarding the regulation of big banks in order to prevent abuse, market distortions, and further scandals and crises. I wanted to look at the ways in which the very same contributors to the financial crisis benefited from it, but I discovered that a number of financial experts were already examining the topic and producing very insightful research. I thus decided to shift my attention to an important related area that many knew little about: the structure and governance of capital markets. After talking to several dozen market actors and doing some preliminary research, what struck me as particularly interesting was the puzzling transformation of equity market structure: the move from centralized to fragmented markets in the early 2000s. I wasn’t convinced by the conventional view of this transformation; I therefore began to investigate the question of market structure and governance more carefully. In the process, I made interesting discoveries that I felt should be explored more fully and presented to a broad audience.

Can you explain the title? What exactly is being hidden?

A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of a mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price?

The title, Darkness By Design, refers to almost invisible exploitative trading schemes or arrangements in today’s capital markets that are deliberately designed and governed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful.  

To understand the mechanism of such exploitation, it is important to go beyond conventional accounts of how markets work and acknowledge the extent to which markets are political organizations. What the many conventional accounts of the function of markets overlook is the extent to which markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where what is being hidden is the extent to which power politics shapes markets. Contending groups intensely battle to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense of general power politics arguments about who wins or loses, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

What are the origins of the market fragmentation that we’re seeing today? 

It’s worth recalling that for over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading “pool” seemed natural and inevitable, because the greater the number of users of an exchange the more attractive that exchange is to new or potential users, since new buyers and sellers are more likely to find a counter-party in a large market than in a small one. That is to say, a central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradeable securities). In other words, it has the highest liquidity, and liquidity begets liquidity: the bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull.

My book questions the conventional view of the move from centralization to fragmentation that says that centralized markets were monopolistic and inefficient and that this led to the fragmentation of the market. In this narrative, investors are the principal beneficiaries owing to narrower trading spreads and lower commissions, but this deeply entrenched conventional view is flawed. A key finding of my book is that power politics caused the market fragmentation—it was a plot by a coterie of powerful insiders who had grown weary of the traditional way of organizing trading, viewed the old model increasingly as contrary to their economic interests, and quietly pushed for a different market structure more aligned with those interests.

How is market fragmentation hurting us now?

In today’s fragmented markets characterized by many “shallow” pools of liquidity—a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places—costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors. Specifically, information asymmetries and secrecy—often deliberate governance-design strategies—have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest, often in undisclosed or hidden ways, at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that “modern” markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good; its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. The rise of fragmentation, or market transformation more generally, matters because it shapes the incentives of market actors to invest in either good or bad governance.

Good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society whereas bad governance milks the conflicts of interest for the benefit of the few on the backs of the many. Over the past decade and a half, fragmentation has given rise to bad governance. Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, and enforcement is rendered ineffective.

It is important to note that market fragmentation is by no means limited to the US equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization has been replaced by varying levels of fragmentation.

Is this story all doom and gloom? Are there any positives? What would have to happen to address the issues related to market fragmentation?

Darkness by design is not inevitable—the mantle of darkness can be lifted through a combination of steps based on several fundamental principles, including market transparency based on stringent disclosure rules and robust market intelligence, a level playing field for market participants, proper accountability for market disruption and bad governance, and, crucially, market consolidation or centralization. The reason is that dominant exchanges in such market systems have particularly strong reputational concerns and the requisite financial resources to invest in good governance. Dominance means high public visibility, which brings with it great reputational vulnerabilities.

In highly fragmented market systems, the many market organizations have an incentive to cut corners. Why focus on delivering high quality public goods, such as price discovery, if competitors can simply free ride, and, in addition, good money can be made by milking conflicts of interest? Once such behavior becomes permissive and the unspoken norm, no significant reputational costs result from engaging in, abetting, or condoning bad market behavior.

Regulatory intervention in capital markets by governments plays a role in lifting the mantle of darkness. However, it is rarely the only answer and not necessarily the most effective one. It is bound to face considerable practical and especially political challenges, not least from powerful defenders of the status quo who will fight change tooth and nail. There is another answer: market solutions to market failures, sometimes nudged or facilitated by regulators. Specifically, greater consolidation and market centralization are possible—not through regulatory intervention but perhaps through market processes.

Consolidation of markets at the national or transnational level, with one or more dominant exchanges, is likely to generate a fairer, simpler, more transparent, and more efficient marketplace than the one created by a fragmented system and characterized by shallow liquidity scattered across a wide range of exchanges, dark pools, and internalizers. 

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

A key contribution of this book is the empirical analysis into historical patterns of market structure and governance. The book shows the market transformation that took place over time. Central to the analysis is the role of power politics in shaping market structure and governance: changes in the distribution of power in capital markets alter market actors’ relative influence in pushing for or opposing change. Specifically, over the last decade and a half, transformations have taken place which have resulted in fragmentation and badly governed markets, thereby adversely affecting aspects of quality and fairness in these markets. I hope the book will encourage readers to become more cautious and will equip them to ask tough questions of their brokers in order to better protect their interests when investing in capital markets.

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John’s College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy and The Politics of Global Regulation. He lives in Oxford, England.

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Anna Frebel on women in science who paved the way

As a young girl growing up in Germany, I always felt drawn to the idea of discovery. Noticing my expanding interest in science, my mother cultivated my curiosity about the world and our place in the universe. She repeatedly gifted me biographies of women scientists who defied the odds to pioneer discoveries in their respective fields. Indeed, these stories of accomplishment and determination greatly fueled my desire to become an astronomer.

As I spent countless hours reading and exploring on my own, I would find myself alone but never lonely in my educational pursuits. Little did I know, this form of self-reliance would serve me well as I completed my advanced degrees and research into finding ancient stars to learn about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements — published in my book Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.

These days, I fly to Chile to use large telescopes once or twice per year. This work means long hours spent in solitude carrying out our observations. It is usually then that I most strongly feel it again: a sense of fulfillment and pride in this discovery work which I was lucky to gain a long time ago by reading the life stories of women in science.

I fondly remember learning about the thrill of traveling across continents with inspiring naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) as she was researching and illustrating caterpillars and insects and their various life stages in the most detailed of ways. I met fierce and gifted mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) who was the first woman in math to obtain a PhD (coincidentally from the university in my hometown) and who later became the first woman math professor in Sweden. One of the most profound role models remains two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie (1867-1934), a remarkably persistent physicist and chemist who discovered radioactivity and new chemical elements. Reading about her years of long work in the lab to eventually isolate 1/10th of a gram of radium, I too could imagine becoming a scientists. Curie’s immense dedication to science and humanity encapsulated everything I wanted to do with my life. Finally, atomic physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) showed me how groundbreaking discoveries can be made when daring to invoke unconventional ideas to explain experimental results. She realized that atoms cannot be arbitrarily large. If too heavy, they fission, break apart, and thus produce various heavy elements from the bottom half of the periodic table.

Throughout the years, these stories have stayed with me. Their impact and insight gave me comfort and guidance during the many phases of my academic and professional life. It was more than a question of gender. It was the confidence in knowing the women who came before me had created a path for the next generation to travel, myself included.

Some of these books have traveled with me as I moved from Germany to Australia to the US for my career and my path to professorship. In many ways, I’ve incorporated central aspects from the lives and research of these giants in science into my own work. Hence, these women remain in my heart and soul – and by knowing their stories, I never feel alone. From my perspective, reading biographies thus remains one of the most important forms of personal and professional mentorship and growth.

Recently, through a collaboration with STEM on Stage, I became a science adviser to the living history film “Humanity Needs Dreamers: A Visit With Marie Curie”. I also rekindled my love for these ladies and their stories by crafting a short play in which I portray Lise Meitner as she recalls her discovery of nuclear fission in 1938/39. The play “Pursuit of Discovery” is followed by a slide presentation about my research and how Meitner’s work provided the theoretical framework for my current studies into the formation of the heaviest elements in the periodic table.

I’m often asked about the challenges facing women in science. Although we have made significant progress, one of the main challenges is providing mentorship and role models. In astronomy, the number of senior level women remains small compared to our male counterparts. To help change this ratio, I’ve devoted time to help mentor undergraduate and graduate women in physics and astronomy.

Whether reading biographies of women in science, mentoring, or becoming Meitner on stage, it is important to give credit to those who paved the way for the next generation, and to highlight the amazing and inspiring accomplishments of women in science. As I write in my book, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” And by knowing their stories, we can better know ourselves.

Anna Frebel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.