Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro on The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging

mcclearyWhich countries grow faster economically—those with strong beliefs in heaven and hell or those with weak beliefs in them? Does religious participation matter? Why do some countries experience secularization while others are religiously vibrant? In The Wealth of Religions, Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro draw on their long record of pioneering research to examine these and many other aspects of the economics of religion. Places with firm beliefs in heaven and hell measured relative to the time spent in religious activities tend to be more productive and experience faster growth. Going further, there are two directions of causation: religiosity influences economic performance and economic development affects religiosity. Dimensions of economic development—such as urbanization, education, health, and fertility—matter too, interacting differently with religiosity. State regulation and subsidization of religion also play a role. Timely and incisive, The Wealth of Religions provides fresh insights into the vital interplay between religion, markets, and economic development.

How did you come to write the book?

Robert is an economist and Rachel is a moral philosopher. In thinking about religion, we took as our starting point the work of Adam Smith, the founder of economics, who believed that moral values and organized religion were key forces in political economy and society. Nevertheless, social scientists—particularly economists and political scientists—have tended to underestimate the importance of religion, particularly the role of beliefs and values. We think that Adam Smith was right. Beliefs and religiosity are central determinants of which societies prosper and which deteriorate.

What does your book bring to the conversation on the economics of religion that hasn’t been discussed before?

Another contribution to the study of religion is bringing together the ideas of Adam Smith with those of the German sociologist Max Weber. Religious beliefs and values motivate people to behave in certain ways. This view, as we discuss in our book, is integral to forms of Protestantism with its emphasis on unmediated, individual responsibility for one’s salvation. We bring a quantitative approach to the relationship between beliefs, values, and economic behavior. In so doing, we examine the role of religious beliefs across world religions and countries. Our research has an international perspective with a focus on believing and belonging in the major religions of the world.

We focus on the role of religious beliefs and belonging to organized religions in the economic, political, and social development of nations and individuals. We are filling an important gap in the literature on religion by providing an international perspective. Much of the work in the sociology of religion is focused on local or regional patterns of religiosity. The sociology of religion has a strong focus on the United States, centering research around assumptions about religious patterns and organizations in the United States. In our research, we apply economic analysis to world religions and across countries.

How does religion fit into the story of developing nations? Does religious fervor help or hinder efforts to increase economic development?

To better understand the relationship between religion and economic growth, we need to look at a two-way causation. Religiosity has a two-way interaction with political economy. With religion viewed as the dependent variable, a central question is how economic development and political institutions affect religious participation and beliefs. There is a clear overall pattern whereby economic development associates with decreasing religiosity. However, there is no evidence that greater education diminishes religious beliefs.

Looking at the other direction of causation with religion as the independent variable, we study the effects of religion on economic, social, and political behavior. A key issue is how religiousness affects individual traits such as diligence, honesty, thrift, and integrity, thereby influencing productivity and economic performance. Another channel involves religion’s effects on literacy and education (human capital) more broadly. For example, there is evidence that Protestantism is more favorable than Catholicism as an influence on education and work ethic.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities would tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. Moreover, the costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities. In addition, time and money are expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Can religion help to explain why some nations develop faster than others?

We found evidence that economic growth was stimulated when religious beliefs were high compared to religious participation. This pattern applied, for example, to Japan and parts of Western Europe. An overall expansion of religiousness—greater beliefs accompanied by the typically associated attendance at formal religious services—was not strongly related to growth. Religiously sponsored laws and regulations hindered economic growth in some places, notably in Muslim countries, which typically did not have favorable institutions with respect to corporations, credit markets and insurance, and inheritance.

How did the conflict between Protestantism and the Catholic Church affect economic development in early modern Europe? Do we still see the impact of that today?

As Max Weber argued, the rise of Protestantism beginning with the Reformation in the 1500s enhanced work ethic and the accumulation of human capital and, thereby, contributed to the industrial revolution. We found evidence that this mechanism still operated in Western Europe in the modern era.

Competition increases the quality of services provided by different religions. The introduction of Protestantism into Western Europe challenged the monopolistic status of the Roman Catholic Church, pressuring that organization to respond in two ways. First, by lowering the nature and pricing of religious goods, the Catholic Church sought to retain believers. Second, the Catholic Church promoted those aspects of its theology that distinguished it from other religions.

We discuss in our book how the beatification of saints is a unique mechanism of the Catholic Church. With the rise of Evangelical faiths, religious competition became particularly strong in Latin America, vernacularly referred to as “The Catholic continent,” where Catholicism had enjoyed a monopoly since the region was colonized by Spain in the 1400s. Today, in regions of the world where competition with types of Protestantism is increasing, the beatification of local saints revives religious fervor and deters adherents from converting to types of Protestantism.

Is religious fervor impacted by fluctuations in the economy? If so, how?

There is evidence that adverse economic shocks and natural disasters tend to increase the demand for religion. This pattern has been observed, for example, for earthquakes in Italy, flood-related declines in agricultural harvests in Egypt, declines in incomes during the Asian Financial crisis, and adverse effects from a poorly designed land reform in Indonesia. In the other direction, increased economic development—particularly movements away from agriculture and toward urbanization—tend to lower the demand for religion. However, it is wrong to conclude that sustained economic growth causes religion to disappear.

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

We hope our readers will appreciate the possibilities of interdisciplinary research on a variety of religion topics. The application of economic ideas to religion broadens our understanding of ways in which beliefs and practices influence individual and group behavior.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. The costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities and the time and money expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Rachel M. McCleary is lecturer in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Her books include The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of ReligionRobert J. Barro is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard. His books include Education Matters: Global Schooling Gains from the 19th to the 21st Century and Economic Growth. They both live in Massachusetts.

Daniel Kennefick on No Shadow of a Doubt

In 1919, British scientists led extraordinary expeditions to Brazil and Africa to test Albert Einstein’s revolutionary new theory of general relativity in what became the century’s most celebrated scientific experiment. The result ushered in a new era and made Einstein a global celebrity by confirming his dramatic prediction that the path of light rays would be bent by gravity. Today, Einstein’s theory is scientific fact. Yet the effort to “weigh light” by measuring the gravitational deflection of starlight during the May 29, 1919, solar eclipse has become clouded by myth and skepticism. In No Shadow of a Doubt, Daniel Kennefick provides definitive answers by offering the most comprehensive and authoritative account of how expedition scientists overcame war, bad weather, and equipment problems to make the experiment a triumphant success.

What compelled you to write this book?

The story of the 1919 eclipse is one of the most dramatic and significant in the history of science, and one that I’ve always found fascinating. What compelled me to research it closely was my puzzlement about the criticisms of Eddington which I heard repeated more and more, especially while working on volume 9 the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, which covered Einstein’s life during the year 1919. I found the complaints about Eddington’s supposed bias in favor of Einstein unconvincing, especially the claim that Eddington’s pacifism was responsible for his desire to prove Einstein right. I thought that it was time someone looked closely at the actual data analysis decisions, using original documents preserved in the archives. I decided to write the book because I found the complete story of the eclipse which I put together to be fascinating and the centenary seemed like a perfect occasion to tell that story. I also felt that there was a danger that important work on the 1919 eclipse was being overlooked. As part of my research I learned that a re-analysis of the photographic plates taken in 1919 was conducted in 1978 by English astronomers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory using modern plate-measuring equipment and computers. They completely vindicated the work of the original team, and yet their re-analysis had gone totally unrecognized and unread. It was even misrepresented in the one book which did allude to it, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. So I felt it was important to restore some balance to the story of what happened in 1919.

You say that the 1919 solar eclipse is perhaps one of the most important eclipses in history, but there are critics who contend that Arthur Eddington placed too much emphasis on the eclipse proving Einstein’s theory of relativity. Why do you think that’s a weak counter-argument?

The problem here is that the modern critics distort the story by their focus on just one participant, the famous astrophysicist Eddington. Incidentally, he was known to his family by his middle name Stanley; he never went by Arthur. Since Eddington was only involved in this one test of general relativity, it is easy to make it seem that there has been too much emphasis on the 1919 eclipse test. But Eddington himself never regarded confirmation of the theory as depending upon this one test. It’s just that modern commentary rarely talks about anything beyond Eddington’s role, which doesn’t even tell the complete story of this one test. There were two expeditions in 1919, and Eddington was only involved in one of them. The other one, organized by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich to Sobral in Brazil, obtained the most important data.

Having said all that, there is a sense in which the 1919 test was of very special importance. There were only three tests of Einstein’s new theory of gravity that were possible to do a century ago. One of these—the explanation of the perihelion shift of Mercury—was impressive, but since Einstein knew the result his theory had to “predict” it didn’t count as a prediction in the usual sense. The other test was the solar redshift measurements, but this confirms only the principle of equivalence and is not strictly speaking a test of general relativity as such. The prediction that light is deflected when it passes through the gravitational field of the Sun was a test of the complete theory that Einstein could not know the answer to beforehand. The 1919 expeditions were the first time that this observation had ever been successfully made. The agreement achieved was very dramatic and the fact that the experiment could not be repeated until the next suitable eclipse, in 1922, added even more drama to the occasion. So the truth is that the 1919 expedition was a special occasion in the history of science.

Can you talk a bit about the circumstances surrounding the Principe and Brazil expeditions that made this experiment so significant?

There were three circumstances that made this eclipse extraordinary. The first is that the eclipse took place on a day, May 29th, when the Sun is in the star field of the Hyades cluster. This is the closest star cluster to the Earth and there is no other place on the ecliptic (the Sun’s path through the sky) with so many bright stars so close together. Thus, an eclipse taking place on that day is perfectly suited to performing this experiment. Such an eclipse will next occur in 2310, so the expedition planners realized that it was especially important to try the experiment in 1919. Unfortunately, as late as November 1918, it looked unlikely that ships could be found to carry the teams to their preferred stations on the island of Principe and in northeastern Brazil. The reason for the suspension of shipping was World War I which fortunately ended abruptly later that same month. Had the war lasted any longer, it is unlikely that the expeditions could have departed. Even as it was a civil war broke out in Portugal, a key stop on their route, before their departure, and Eddington had no idea which ship would take him to Principe when he left England in March 1919.

This second circumstance, that of a war torn world, very nearly scuppered the planning for the expeditions, but undoubtedly helped make the team so famous when they returned successfully. The triumph of science over the tribulations of history really caught the public imagination. Certainly an aspect of this public response was that the expedition was mounted from England in order to test, and confirm, the theory of a German scientist, Albert Einstein, so it had an additional aura of reconciliation about it, at a time when postwar feelings were very bitter.

A third favorable circumstance was the relevant expertise of the expeditions’ personnel, especially the director of the Greenwich Observatory, Frank Watson Dyson. Einstein’s prediction was that the presence of the Sun near stars would cause tiny shifts in their positions, because the Sun’s gravity would deflect the starlight on its way to the Earth. Dyson and Eddington, but especially Dyson, were experts in this kind of differential astrometry, the measurement of small shifts in star positions. They had spent years (decades, in Dyson’s case) measuring the proper motion and the parallax of stars, which depends on the measurement of similar small star shifts. Thus by good fortune this special opportunity to test Einstein’s opportunity was undertaken by the ideal team who were able to overcome all obstacles, including bad weather and difficulties with instrumentation.

Will we ever see a solar eclipse quite like this in our lifetime?

No, we won’t. Obviously an eclipse with this special star field won’t occur again for nearly two centuries. But in addition, the advance of technology means that there are few important scientific tasks which require an eclipse. Radio telescopes do not require a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s light deflection prediction. These instruments can do the test far more accurately than can be done with optical telescopes at an eclipse. But in another sense, replicating the drama of 1919 is open to anyone. Experiments at the recent 2017 eclipse have shown that a modern amateur astronomer can do the experiment alone to an accuracy better than what was achievable in 1919. Another total solar eclipse will cross America in 2024 and we can hope that other enthusiasts will study the eclipse then. If enough people do the experiment and are able to pool their data, they could achieve a result far more accurate than any ever achieved by professional astronomers at an eclipse. We are living at a moment in history in which the means to do this experiment are within the reach of many people.

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

What first made me skeptical of Eddington’s modern critics was their claim that the expedition’s work was influenced by Eddington’s bias in favor of General Relativity as well as his militant pacifism. I found these arguments unpersuasive because I knew that Eddington’s views were highly unusual. Other astronomers of the period were highly skeptical of, or even hostile towards, general relativity. War resisters like Eddington (and Einstein) were a despised minority during World War I. It didn’t make sense that this man could have single-handedly persuaded everyone involved to share his peculiar biases. Sure enough, careful reading of the documents in the archives, including letters and data analysis notes, made it clear that the decisions which were being criticized today weren’t even taken by Eddington but by others in the expedition, especially Dyson. Both Eddington and Dyson made it clear in their letters that Dyson was skeptical of Einstein’s theory to begin with. As I puzzled through Dyson’s notes, I began to unravel the reasoning behind his decision, and I found that it made a lot more sense than did the arguments of some of the modern critics. Furthermore, his reasoning is completely vindicated by the results of the 1978 re-analysis. But I also came to realize that Dyson’s decision depended heavily on input from his assistant, Charles Davidson, and that the success of the expedition was made possible by the multinational Astrographic project, which Dyson worked on and which two of the telescope lenses they used were constructed for. I realized I needed to learn about the man who made those lenses, a fellow Irishman called Howard Grubb, and about the institutional framework which was used to organize the expeditions at a very difficult time. The minutes of the meetings of that Joint Permanent Eclipse Committee and the letters written home to his mother and sister by Eddington made the expeditions come alive for me, and I wanted to share that with other readers. I hope they come away, as I did, with a conviction that the history of science cannot be told fully without understanding the role of all the scientists involved, rather than just one or two famous names. Part of the charm of the story is the different characters who contributed to doing something extraordinarily challenging under impossibly difficult circumstances.

Daniel Kennefick is associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is the author of Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves and a coauthor of An Einstein Encyclopedia (both Princeton).

James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr

John Quiggin on Economics in Two Lessons

Quiggin_Economics in Two Lessons_S19Since 1946, Henry Hazlitt’s bestselling Economics in One Lesson has popularized the belief that economics can be boiled down to one simple lesson: market prices represent the true cost of everything. But one-lesson economics tells only half the story. It can explain why markets often work so well, but it can’t explain why they often fail so badly—or what we should do when they stumble. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Samuelson quipped, “When someone preaches ‘Economics in one lesson,’ I advise: Go back for the second lesson.” In Economics in Two Lessons, John Quiggin teaches both lessons, offering a masterful introduction to the key ideas behind the successes—and failures—of free markets. Here, he explains why two-lesson economics means giving up the dogmatism of laissez-faire as well as the reflexive assumption that any economic problem can be solved by government action.

How did you come to write this book?

The idea was to offer a progressive response to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a free-market tract that remains in print seventy years after its initial publication. I originally intended it to focus on microeconomic ‘market failures’ like monopoly and air pollution. However, perhaps because the title claimed so much, the project grew to encompass the whole of economics, including macroeconomic issues such as unemployment and the business cycle, and the fundamental question: Who gets what?

What  is the core idea of the book ?

The core idea of the book is the concept of opportunity cost, which I define as follows:

The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it.

Opportunity cost applies at the social level as well.

The social opportunity cost of anything of value is what you and others must give up so that you can have it.

Sometimes but not always, individual and social opportunity cost align as a result of what Adam Smith called the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The core of economic policy is to determine when social and private opportunity costs differ, and what can be done about it. At least in a qualitative sense, most of the issues in economic policy can be understood with anapplication of opportunity cost reasoning. The technical analysis that forms the basis of most economics courses is only needed if you want to obtain quantitative estimates.

What is the ‘first lesson’ ?

Hazlitt doesn’t spell out his ‘one lesson’ properly, saying only that it is necessary to trace all the economic effects of any act of policy all the way to their conclusions, rather than relying on immediate benefits and surface appearances. This is a restatement of the title of Hazlitt’s main inspiration, Bastiat’s classic nineteenth-century work ‘That which is seen, and unseen’. Hazlitt implicitly assumes that once all the consequences of any act or policy are taken into account, the opportunity costs of government action to change economic outcomes always exceed the benefits.

The central idea underlying the claim made by Bastiat and Hazlitt is that market prices tell us everything we need to know about opportunity costs. This isn’t always true, but the kernel of truth is embodied in Lesson One, as I call it.

Lesson One: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.

The first part of the book shows why Lesson One is so important, and gives applications to a wide range of issues.

So what is Lesson Two ?

Economists have long known that, under conditions of ‘market failure’, market prices may not reflect opportunity costs, and that in these circumstances there is a case for government action to yield improved outcomes. The classic examples include air pollution and other ‘externalities’, monopoly and the exercise of market power, information problems and public goods such as scientific research. This leads directly to my Lesson Two.

Lesson Two: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

I originally planned a book in which Lesson Two would have been all about market failure; that book would have been finished much sooner. As I worked on the book, though, I felt dissatisfied. I started to think more about the problems of unemployment and growing inequality, and realised that these were both examples of Lesson Two.

In a recession or depression, markets, and particularly labor markets, don’t properly match supply and demand. This means that prices, and particularly wages reflect or determine opportunity costs.  Looking hard at the data, I concluded that a market economy is in recession, in this sense, as often as not.

As regards the distribution of income and wealth, the market outcome depends on the system of property rights from which it is derived.  The choices that determine property rights are subject to the logic of opportunity costs just as much as the choices made within a market setting by firms and households. Over recent decades, changes to property rights of all kinds have consistently driven society in the direction of greater inequality.

So, we need Economics in Two Lessons.

Are there really only two lessons, or are there many?

The ‘two lessons’ set out the principles for reasoning about prices and opportunity cost. Any number of implications can be drawn about specific economic issues. Among the lessons drawn in the book are:

* There is such a thing as a free lunch.
* If you want to help poor people, give them money.
* There is no ‘silver lining’ to the destruction caused by war and natural disasters.
* Advertising generally makes us worse off.
* A carbon price would be the best response to climate change (but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon).

There’s plenty more in the book, and plenty more yet to be written.

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

 

 

Dana Johnson on Will This Be on the Test?

Getting into college takes plenty of hard work, but knowing what your professors expect of you once you get there can be even more challenging. Will This Be on the Test? is the essential survival guide for high-school students making the transition to college academics. In this entertaining and informative book, Dana Johnson shares wisdom and wit gleaned from her decades of experience as an award-winning teacher in the freshman classroom—lessons that will continue to serve you long after college graduation.

What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve taught college freshmen for decades and have seen the trouble they have because they don’t realize how high school and college are different. Some don’t figure out how to be successful in their coursework and end up doing poorly or even dropping out. This book is my best advice to students based on my experiences and other professors I’ve known and worked with. I’ve wanted to write the book for many years, but finally made time to do it because I realized how much it could help.

How have students changed since you started teaching?

Students are less self-reliant and have more expectations of reminders, extensions, re-do’s on assignments, and extra credit. They want to be told information, rather than take charge of their own learning. They are more likely to blame someone or something else than take responsibility. With the advent of email, students prefer to send electronic messages rather than call or come to the offices of their professors, which means they have less of an academic relationship. Students seem less likely to meet many of their classmates as they are primarily connected via their phones and social media to friends they know through other contexts.

When should students (and parents) read this book?

Students should read it before going to college and again at the end of the first semester or two. The re-reading will help them pick up some tips that are more meaningful after they have experienced some college courses. Parents should read the book before their students are in high school so they understand what high school and the family should be preparing them for.

High school teachers and counselors could benefit from reading it too, so they’re aware of habits, skills, and a mindset that will help students make the transition successfully from high school to college.

What is the biggest mistake students make in college academics?

I’ll give you two:

  1. Skipping class. Since no one is calling their parents when they don’t go to class, it seems easy to sleep in or give preference to other activities.
  2. Procrastinating. There are fewer intermediate deadlines, reminders, reviews, prompts, and safety nets in college than in high school. At first, the assignment deadlines and exams seem so far away, and students wait too long before starting the work or studying.

An example of the comics found in Will This Be on the Test?. Art by Jeremy Tamburello.

Are the cartoons featured throughout the book based on real events?

The ideas all originated in something I experienced or was told to me. Every professor tells stories about bizarre, rude, amusing, or naïve behavior on the part of students, and students have told me their stories also. Some of them seem a little unbelievable – but they are all based on true stories!

What should students know about professors that they generally don’t?

Professors are experts in a special slice of their fields. They love their content, and they love their work. This is not just a job for them, it is their intellectual life. You can learn a lot by talking with them outside of class. Professors enjoy having their students visit office hours, and they want to pass on what they know. Students can think of this as a form of networking, which is a skill that will pay off after college too.

 

Dana Johnson taught for many years at the College of William and Mary, where she twice won the Simon Prize for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, and has three decades of experience teaching college freshmen. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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,

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.

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.

Caitlyn Collins on Making Motherhood Work

Collins Making Motherhood Work coverThe work-family conflict that mothers experience today is a national crisis. Women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant. Social policies don’t help. Of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies: No federal paid parental leave. The highest gender wage gap. No minimum standard for vacation and sick days. The highest maternal and child poverty rates. Can American women look to European policies for solutions? Making Motherhood Work draws on interviews that sociologist Caitlyn Collins conducted over five years with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. She explores how women navigate work and family given the different policy supports available in each country.

Tons of academics and journalists have written about motherhood and work-family conflict. What’s different about your book?

 Making Motherhood Work pushes the conversation about work-family conflict beyond national borders. There’s clear consensus: the United States’ free market approach to social provisioning is failing families. Working mothers’ struggles are only intensifying. We need structural change. Many of these writers point to European-style policies as promising models.

This book is the first to compare work-family policies cross-nationally from the perspective of mothers themselves. I begin—rather than end—with the question of policy. What’s life like under these different policy models? Making Motherhood Work complements accounts of U.S. women’s experiences with stories from European women. I engage them in a virtual transatlantic conversation to consider a wide range of possibilities to better support mothers and families. Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for (or against), and enact work-family policy as a force for social change.

How did you approach the research for the book?

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working moms in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States over the course of five years. I spent time with women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and with their children, partners, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. We can think of these women as a conservative test of how employed moms think and feel about work-family conflict. As sociologist Pamela Stone writes, if middle- and upper-class working mothers struggle to manage work and family, these difficulties are akin to “the miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss.” Things are much, much harder for mothers who are low-income, have little formal education, unrewarding jobs, unreliable or no transportation, and for people without legal residency or citizenship. Studies with these women are vital. I hope this book inspires more research on disadvantaged mothers across national contexts.

Where do mothers have it “best”? Can we import their policies to the U.S.?

The most satisfied women live in Sweden. I left Stockholm feeling optimistic about prospects for working moms. Cultural attitudes and work-family policies can play in reducing gender inequality. I show that Swedish social policies are part of a larger cultural discourse about parenting, work, and gender equality. Their social democratic policies operate in the context of societal beliefs that child-rearing is a collective responsibility, that both men and women can and should work for pay and care for their families, and that workplaces recognize and support employees’ nonwork responsibilities and interests. These cultural beliefs are incompatible with the neoliberal ideology ascendant in the US. In other words, work-family policies are symptomatic of larger ethical and cultural understandings of what is and isn’t appropriate for mothers. As such, they play a role in reproducing the existing social order.

The larger point is this: context matters. We can’t roll out a Swedish or German or Italian policy in the U.S. and expect it to have similar consequences. Instead, with any policy, we need to examine its assumptions, content, and practical implications in relation to the wider political, economic, and social context. We need to evaluate policy reforms in light of prevailing cultural ideals to understand their effects on mothers. They’re likely to differ in important ways for different groups of women.

What about dads? They struggle to manage work and family life, too.

Absolutely they do. I focus on mothers because in all industrialized countries, they’ve historically been the targets of work-family policy. Women are still responsible for most housework and childcare. They report greater work-family conflict than men. And they use work-family policies more often than men. The conversation needs to be about dads as much as about moms.

These policies are necessary but insufficient if they’re offered to and used mostly by women and not men. In other words, work-family policies should be enacted in a cultural environment supportive of gender equality. Policies can be pro-mother without being pro-equality. To be clear, ridding a society of sexism isn’t a necessary precondition for implementing work-family justice oriented policies. But we need a renewed conversation about gender equality policy and policy instruments aimed at changing men’s behavior alongside work-family policy debates to improve the social and economic climate for all working parents.

What’s the one takeaway you want readers to remember?

Work-family conflict is not an unfortunate but inexorable part of life as a working mom today. This book shows that mothers’ stress is not of their own making, and it can’t be of their own fixing. Work-family conflict is a phenomenon that societies have created. This means that societies can change it, too. U.S. Americans can enact policies to remedy the unequal social conditions that fuel mothers’ stress and undue burden for caregiving. What we’re missing is the political and social will to do so.

You argue we should abandon the goal of “work-family balance.” Instead you advocate a social movement for work-family justice. What does that mean?

Framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is too individualistic. The U.S. is a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. Suggesting mothers seek “balance” doesn’t take into account how institutions contribute to this stress. We need a social movement centered on work-family justice. I define this in the book as a system in which each member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care. The rhetoric of justice highlights the reality that this conflict isn’t the outcome of individual women’s shortcomings or mismanaged commitments. Instead, it’s the result of cultural attitudes and policies embedded in workplaces and systems of welfare provisioning. In Erik Olin Wright’s words, as with all social problems, work-family conflict doesn’t reflect some fixed law of nature. It reflects the current social organization of power. Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice.

What’s the one social policy you would implement if you could wave a magic wand to help U.S. moms?

High-quality, affordable childcare. My next project is an ethnographic study of the U.S. childcare system, an extractive market we don’t tend to talk about in these terms. Without a robust public option, consequences are dire for kids, parents, businesses, and our economy. Like work-family conflict, the crisis of care is not inevitable. But it’s central to reproductive justice. We can do more, and better, for U.S. families.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @caitymcollins and read more here: caitlyncollins.com.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

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

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

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

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.