Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Colin Adams's "Zombies & Calculus"

Colin Adams is the Thomas T. Read Professor of Mathematics at Williams College. He is the author of the collection of humorous math stories Riot at the Calc Exam and other Mathematically Bent Stories, the comic book Why Knot? and a variety of textbooks and articles on knot theory, topology and calculus.

Adams applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Zombies and Calculus, and reported the following:
Zombies & Calculus is the story, as told by math professor Craig Williams, of how he used calculus to help him and his band survive the zombie hordes when they descend on Roberts College in western Massachusetts. The book opens when a late student arrives to class, hungering for something other than knowledge. From there on, things deteriorate quickly. As civilization crumbles, Craig applies calculus in various ways, including the fact that zombies always head straight for you (their tangent vector is pointed at you) and how you can use that to your advantage, the epidemiology of the zombie virus, the mechanics of the virus spread in the body and the physics of combat.

On page 99, we find Craig and a biology professor named Jessie trapped in a port-a-potty surrounded by zombies banging on the outside. Jessie is in the midst of explaining how the zombie virus might invade the brain, much as rabies, West Nile and HIV do. She explains the mechanics of the damage to the brain, which, in the case of the zombie virus, involves the liquification of those areas supporting higher functions of the brain, returning the unfortunate individual to what is really an earlier state of evolution, when all that mattered was food.
Learn more about the book and author at Colin Adams's website and the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Adrienne Mayor's "The Amazons"

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in Classics and History of Science at Stanford University; her book The Poison King, a biography of Mithradates, was National Book Award nonfiction finalist in 2009.

Mayor applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, and reported the following:
The Amazons is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in antiquity, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China. For this Encyclopedia Amazonica, I combed through classical myth, literature, art, the nomadic traditions of Eurasia, and archaeological evidence to uncover intimate details and new insights about the imagined and actual lives of the women of the steppes, known to the Greeks as "Amazons." Sifting fact from fiction, I wanted to show how real, flesh-and-blood women were mythologized as Amazons.

The Greeks first encountered the warlike barbarian women of Thrace and Scythia, the vast territory from the Black Sea to Mongolia, in the seventh century BC. As they learned more about these peoples through trade and travelers' reports, artistic depictions of Amazons' clothing, weapons, and other features took on myriad realistic details.

Page 99 falls in Chapter 6, "Skin: Tattooed Amazons," which tells how Greek travelers described the tattoo customs of many individual tribes and how Athenian vase painters lovingly detailed exuberant patterns and deer designs on fierce warrior women. This is one of the most lavishly illustrated chapters; fittingly page 99 has a picture of an exquisite vase painting of 480 BC. A red-haired Thracian woman is running with a sword and scabbard; her outstretched arms and legs are tattooed with deer, zigzags, and wavy lines, calling to mind some "tribal" tattoos popular today.

Page 99's text continues a discussion of the tattoos illustrated in Greek vase paintings:

Another fine vase of the fourth century BC "depicts a gang of ferocious barefoot and booted women dressed in Thracian-Scythian-Amazon-style patterns. Their arms and legs are completely covered with sunbursts, geometric lines, and snake and deer figures. Another elegant example of tattooed Thracian women appears on an engraved silver drinking cup discovered in 2007 in a fifth-century BC royal Thracian tomb in southeastern Bulgaria. The cup was made around the same time as the Athenian vase paintings of tattooed Thracian women."

We now know that Greek knowledge of Scythian tattoo designs was surprisingly accurate. The chapter concludes with photographs of actual tattoos engraved on the skin of Scythian women whose frozen bodies were preserved in permafrost for 2,500 years.
Learn more about The Amazons at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 19, 2014

James Grehan's "Twilight of the Saints"

James Grehan is Associate Professor of History at Portland State University. He received his doctoral degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine, and reported the following:
If you open my book to page 99, you will stumble across peasants in Ottoman Palestine who are invoking "Abraham's Law"--i.e., their own customary law, which was the true law of the land throughout the countryside--or meeting at saint's tombs to settle disputes or swear oaths. Readers in our time will have certainly heard a lot about Islamic law and its Christian and Jewish counterparts. When they think of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, they will reflexively place them--very neatly and separately--in mosques, churches, and synagogues. So what were these peasants doing at tombs? And why did they bother with "Abraham's Law" instead of using their own religious law? These scenes, among many others in my book, draw our attention to religion as it was actually practiced in the not-so-distant past, not as we would like to imagine it today. My book takes us back to the Middle East before the onset of modern mentalities, exploring religious habits and customs from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Readers will find themselves in cultural territory which is exotic, unfamiliar, and largely forgotten today. They will step back into a society where few people could read or write, and most communities had no official house of worship or trained religious experts to guide them. As a consequence, institutional religion tended to give way to more folkloric forms of belief and observance. My book opens the door onto this older religious culture, which, until its final disappearance in the twentieth century, transcended the formal doctrinal divisions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. If you would like to go beyond standards accounts of religion in the Middle East--which really tell us more about our own obsessions and expectations than about people who lived several generations ago--you might very well enjoy taking a look at my book.
Learn more about Twilight of the Saints at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Joseph E. Uscinski & Joseph M. Parent's "American Conspiracy Theories"

Joseph E. Uscinski is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. Joseph M. Parent is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, American Conspiracy Theories, and reported the following:
As political scientists, we'd be a lot more comfortable with people getting a more representative impression of our work – say a larger or truly random sample – but as over-scheduled regular people like everyone else, page 99 is probably fair enough. On that page, we're addressing the most incendiary issue of the work: how conspiracy theorists view violence. One of the major reasons we went into the topic was out of concern with the damage that conspiracy theorists do, and there's no doubt that proponents of conspiracy theories have killed millions (e.g. Hitler, Stalin).

Yet we hope one of the major qualities of the work is that it's careful social science. It's easy to tar people with the Hitler brush but much harder to determine whether conspiracy theories are a cause of behavior or a cover story to justify what violent people would do anyway. To try to shed some light on the issue, we surveyed Americans for their thoughts on gun control, using violence against the government, and using violence to stop politically extreme groups. On p. 99, we report the findings and try to put them in context. The bottom line is that people most prone to believing in conspiracy theories, which may or may not turn out to be true (we take no position in the book), are significantly more inclined toward violence. Yet almost none of them act on it, and conspiracy theories may only be a weak predictor, sort of like depression, for those who later act violently.

From page 99:
The good news is that massive majorities object to violence, and the kind of violence we are concerned with here, politically motivated violence, is a miniscule fraction of all violence.

Still, those with stronger conspiratorial predispositions are more likely to be inclined toward violent action. Sixteen percent of those high on the conspiracy dimension agree with the statement: “violence is sometimes an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government.” This is in contrast to 11 percent and 6 percent of lows and mediums, respectively (see Figure 4.20). Eighty percent of those low on the conspiracy dimension disagree with the statement than violence is sometimes an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government while only 59 percent of those high on the conspiracy dimension do.

The same pattern holds when respondents are asked to express agreement with the use of “violence as an acceptable way to stop politically extreme groups in our country from doing harm.” Twenty-one percent of the highly predisposed agree compared to 15 percent of the medium and low. And 56 percent of those low on the conspiracy dimension disagree with the statement while 42 percent of those high on the conspiracy dimension disagree. But it is the extremists we should be most worried about. To inspect them more closely, we isolated the fifty people at the top and fifty people at the bottom of the conspiracy dimension.

Almost 20 percent of the high group says violence is an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government. This is more than double the less than 8 percent of the low group that does. Only 53 percent of the high group disagrees with the use of violence for this reason while 82 percent of the low group does.

It might sound reassuring that not even 20 percent of the fifty most predisposed respondents say violence is an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government. But regard these results warily; there are a number of limitations to the data. Surveys are suggestive, and they cannot reveal who will actually resort to violence. The most eager to utilize force are the least likely to submit to a survey or answer honestly on this score. There are so few people who view violence as acceptable in our sample that we cannot glean much about them as a group. The survey is designed to measure preferences, not preference intensity, and intensity is important when talking about violent proclivities. So is the permissiveness of the domestic context. If only one percent of the population agreed with the statement strongly enough to take forceful action, there would be blood in the street daily.
Learn more about American Conspiracy Theories at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stefan K. Stantchev's "Spiritual Rationality"

Stefan Stantchev earned his Ph.D. in history at The University of Michigan in 2009 and joined the faculty of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University shortly thereafter. Previously, he had completed an MA in Medieval Studies from the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, and an MA in History from the University of Sofia, Bulgaria.

Stantchev applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Spiritual Rationality: Papal Embargo as Cultural Practice, and reported the following:
Spiritual Rationality: Papal Embargo as Cultural Practice offers the first book-length study of embargo in a pre-modern period and provides a unique exploration into the domestic implications of this tool of foreign policy. Perhaps surprisingly, the primary employer of embargoes was not a commercial powerhouse or a kingdom on the rise, but rather the papacy. On a basic level, there were multiple trade bans that pursued clearly identifiable goals: to facilitate papally endorsed warfare against external enemies (Muslims, “pagans,” “schismatics”) and to discipline internal ones (“heretics,” disobedient Christian communities, and individual Jews). All the various trade bans were originally promulgated as individual responses to perceived dangers to the decorum of the faith and/or to Christendom. They were shaped by the premise of papal intervention into the lives of the laity by reason of sin and by the text-based approach of popes and canonists. Papal embargo was thus not only a policy tool, but also a legal and moral discourse. Operative upon the Christians themselves, it classified exchanges into legitimate and illegitimate ones, compelled merchants to distinguish clearly between themselves as (Roman) Christians and a multitude of others as non-Christians, and helped order symbolically both the relationships between the two groups and those between church and laity.

Page 99 is part of Chapter 3. While Chapter 2 offers an in-depth analysis of the most notable papal embargo, that against Muslims, Chapter 3 adds breadth by briefly outlining the multiple targets of trade restrictions. The first of two paragraphs found on page 99, which concludes a brief section on embargoes aimed at Christian cities, relates directly to some of the book’s central themes:
Embargoes against interdicted Christian cities may have been primarily an Italian phenomenon. They all have their own immediate contexts, which relate, one way or another, to perceived injuries to the church (sheltering the robbers of a legate, taxing clergymen, and so on). We will see in Chapter 4 that it was in the context of defending the papal state that fourteenth-century ecclesiastical documents clearly articulated the kind of reflections of political economy with which we are familiar from the work of Marin Sanudo. Richard Trexler, however, has already exposed the mechanics of an embargo deployed as one part of an interdict. A meaningful statistical study that would help us determine an approximate “success rate” of early papal embargoes requires types and quantities of evidence that are not available. What matters here, then, is that sanctions, whether total or “smart,” became a systematically deployed papal response to broadly similar situations within Christendom, and that this development was contemporaneous with the emergence of embargo as a policy tool aimed at supporting crusades against “Saracens.”
This paragraph acknowledges the “real” premises of papal embargoes while directing the attention to the contemporaneity of the initial applications of the various restrictions and questioning our ability to analyze them statistically. It thus helps build the case for re-focusing from political and economic matters to cultural ones. The subsequent paragraph, with which a section on heretics begins, alludes to the centralization of the Roman Church in the High Middle Ages--the key background to the emergence of embargo as a papal policy and a moral discourse alike.
We can now turn to “heretics,” an early target of papal embargo. One of the main areas of intervention of the reform papacy from the mid-twelfth century had to do with the two-edged process of the homogenization of correct belief (orthodoxy) and the corresponding definition and eradication of belief considered to be erroneous (heresy). By heretics the Decretum understood people who held “perverted dogma”; heretics followed “new or false” beliefs, and obstinately defended them. In his influential work on penance, as in the Liber extra he edited, Raymond of PeƱafort reminds us that who is doubtful in the faith is an infidel. While a list of heresies figures prominently in the Decretum, Gratian had relatively little to say on measures against heretics. These could not testify against Christians, or pronounce excommunication; clerics were not to enter their company. Just as it did not restrict trade with Muslims, so the Decretum featured no bans on trade with heretics.
Even the footnotes found on page 99 are fairly representative of the book as a whole. While they do not showcase the full spectrum of sources employed, they point out the use of canon law and of the full text of papal letters (as opposed to their published summaries). Note 41 well-represents the book’s approach to scholarship: Spiritual Rationality finds useful, at least in part, a variety of methodological approaches to the study of the past:
C24.q3.c26, 28, 31 (CIC, I, 997–8). On heresy, see both Malcom Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Malden, MA, 2002 [1992]) and Mark Pegg, The Corruption of Angels, The Great Inquisition of 1245–1246 (Princeton, 2001). Whether one agrees with the “persecution thesis” itself or not, Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Malden, MA, 2007 [1987]) is especially valuable for exposing the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate developments.
Learn more about Spiritual Rationality at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jack Kelly's "Band of Giants"

Jack Kelly is a journalist, historian and author of five acclaimed novels. Critics praised his history, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics as “evocative, brilliantly succinct and excruciatingly powerful.” He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, not far from the scene of much of the Revolutionary War action.

Kelly applied the “Page 99 Test” to his book Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, and reported the following:
The American Revolutionary War was no costume drama, and the men who fought it were among the most diverse and interesting characters of an era crowded with historical giants.

Page 99 very much illustrates what I was trying to achieve in Band of Giants: to turn the conflict into a gripping tale of suspense, and to give each of the American war leaders a human dimension.

The situation is desperate: Washington’s Continental Army has been defeated by a superior British force at Long Island, pushed out of New York City, and roughed up at White Plains. They’ve just lost Fort Washington, their last toehold on Manhattan.

Now the enemy threaten Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. In the midst of the crisis, personalities make the situation even more complicated. Washington faces a challenge to his command at one of the most perilous moments in the war. Here’s the story as related on page 99:
Fort Lee, more of an armed camp than a fortification, was doomed. All Greene could do was to order an instant retreat. The British marched into the fort to find fires burning, cooking pots bubbling. They found hundreds of tents, cases of entrenching tools, and scores of cannon. When a German officer recommended a spirited attack against the fleeing Americans, Cornwallis replied, “Let them go.” The beaten, disintegrating army of rebels was not even worth pursuing.
#
Now came the great retreat that Washington had feared. First to Newark. Then to Brunswick, near the southern tip of Staten Island. Then across the narrow waist of New Jersey toward Trenton. Washington's iron determination became the army's backbone. “A deportment so firm, so dignified, but yet so modest and composed,” wrote eighteen-year-old James Monroe, “I have never seen in any other person.”

Cornwallis, under orders from Howe, followed Washington across the state without trying to crush his force. Washington called upon General Lee, still camped near White Plains, to bring his troops and help defend Philadelphia. Lee, who claimed, “I foresaw, predicted, all that has happened,” failed to respond. In the midst of the army's worst catastrophe, Washington now faced a crisis of leadership. His second in command, who led more troops than Washington himself, was heeding his own notions about the proper way to execute the war.

Lee's resistance to Washington was based on more than mere vanity. He was concerned about his troops, many of whom lacked shoes. Politically more radical than most of the other military leaders, Lee believed in a war fought by militia drawn from an “active vigorous yeomanry.” He was sure that “a plan of Defense, harrassing and impeding can alone Succeed.” The army, he thought, should keep a presence in New Jersey to rally local militia and reinforce their efforts. If Washington abandoned the state, loyalists would reign.

Others were hinting that Lee, not Washington, should be in charge. On November 21, Washington's secretary and aide Joseph Reed wrote to Lee, “I do not mean to flatter nor praise you at the Expense of any other, but I confess I do think that it is entirely owing to you that this Army & the Liberties of America . . . are not totally cut off. You have Decision, a Quality often wanting in Minds otherwise valuable.”
Learn more about the book and author at Jack Kelly's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk's "Can’t Catch a Break"

Susan Starr Sered is Professor of Sociology and Senior Researcher at the Center for Women's Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University in Boston. She is the author of Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity.

Maureen Norton-Hawk is Professor of Sociology and Codirector of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy Research at Suffolk University in Boston. She has published widely in the field of women and prostitution.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, and reported the following:
Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility documents five years of fieldwork with forty-seven women who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Like for most criminalized women throughout the country, prison was one station on an institutional circuit made up of juvenile treatment and correctional programs, battered women’s and homeless shelters, rehabilitation and mental health facilities, and hospitals and clinics of various sorts. The women we came to know tended to be locked up for violating the conditions of parole or probation, possession of small amounts of controlled substances, sex work, shoplifting or public intoxication. None of the women see themselves as “criminals.” Rather, they see themselves as unfortunates who suffered sexual and other abuses, turned to drugs to “self-medicate,” and were drawn into lives of escalating misery.

Page 99 is located smack in the middle chapter of the book: “’It’s All in My Head’: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic.” That chapter introduces readers to Gloria (not her real name), an African American woman in her early fifties. Gloria came of age during the years in which economic recession, decline in the manufacturing sector, job flight from urban neighborhoods, sky-rocketing rental prices, the rapid introduction of low-cost crack-cocaine, and “tough on crime” policies set the stage for a generation of young African Americans who found it increasingly difficult to work towards lives of stable employment and housing.

Abused and homeless throughout most of her adult life, Gloria typically attributes her suffering to a repertoire of personal flaws including “my PTSD,” “paranoia,” “crazy thoughts,” “bad memory”, “making bad choices in men,” and her foolish failure to stop using crack. These are not ideas that she came up with on her own. Rather, like most of the women, Gloria echoes the messages she has been taught in countless twelve step, correctional, psychotherapeutic and rehabilitative programs. That message goes something like this: Your problems lie within you, blaming the outside world for your misery is “denial,” all you can change is your own perspective, and you need to lose the “victim mentality”.

On page 99 we wrote: “In an odd sleight of hand, psychotherapeutic diagnoses both take away certain aspects of individual experience and individualize the collective suffering of racism, sexism, and poverty. … The focus is now the diagnostic category rather than the unique individual or the social reality.”

Over the past year or so the wheel finally seems to be turning away from ideologies and policies of mass incarceration in the United States. Unfortunately, however, the discourse and the funding that are emerging seem to substitute “disease” for “criminal” and “treatment” for “punishment.” While “treatment” certainly sounds more benevolent than punishment, both serve to obscure the structural conditions of economic, gender and racial inequality that create(d) what has essentially become a new American caste of the poor, ill and hopeless. (See “Incarceration by Any Other Name?: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest.”)
Learn more about Can't Catch a Break at the University of California Press website, and read more about the women in Can't Catch a Break and Susan Sered's research on her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Philip Freeman's "The World of Saint Patrick"

Philip Freeman is Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and a former professor of classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned the first joint Ph.D. in classics and Celtic studies from Harvard University, and has been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, the American Academy in Rome, and the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. His books include St. Patrick of Ireland, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The World of Saint Patrick, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The World of Saint Patrick begins the prologue of The Life of Saint Brigid by the Irish churchman Cogitosus. My little book, The World of Saint Patrick, is a collection and translation of the best writings of early Irish Christianity—and The Life of Saint Brigid is certainly one of my favorite texts in the anthology. It's the earliest story we have of an Irish saint, male or female, apart from the two letters of Saint Patrick himself. Brigid was a remarkable woman who founded a monastery in the generation after Patrick at Kildare to the west of Dublin. She was a historical figure, but her Life is a wonderful mixture of stories inspired by the gospels and legends from pre-Christian Celtic mythology. She heals the sick, turns water into beer, and always has a special interest in the lives of oppressed women.

Brigid’s stories are very different from the legends that grew up around Patrick. The patron saint of Ireland is presented in tales written two centuries after his death like an Old Testament prophet or Moses taking on the evil forces of the pagan world and slaying those who dare to stand against his God. Brigid is much more subtle. When a young nun who has fallen from the path of chastity comes to her and confesses she is pregnant, Brigid doesn’t cast her out, but instead prays with her and causes the pregnancy to vanish as if it had never happened. When a beautiful girl pleads with her to help her escape the clutches of a lecherous man who would turn her into his private sex slave, Brigid exposes the man as a liar and fraud to liberate the young woman from his service.

The story of Brigid shows a different vision for the early Irish church, one in which men and women, young and old rich and poor are equals in the eyes of God and each other.
Learn more about the book and author at Philip Freeman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Alexander the Great.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jeff Wilson's "Mindful America"

Jeff Wilson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo). He is the author of Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (2009) and Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (2012).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, and reported the following:
Mindfulness is everywhere in America these days: from yoga studios to couple counseling to the military. When I set out to examine this enormous, multi-faceted phenomenon (and industry), I intended to look at various case studies, such as mindful eating, mindful parenting, and mindful work. But as I explored further, I found that certain patterns in the American transformation of Buddhist meditation were of greatest interest to me.

One of the most important of those is the medicalization of mindfulness, whereby this practice is extracted from its original ascetic, monastic, religious context and re-conceptualized in a therapeutic, scientific, and practical mode. So it’s fitting that page 99 of Mindful America falls squarely in the midst of my discussion of this redefinition. On this page I’m walking the reader through several of the important outgrowths of mindfulness, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and I’m noting the input from both Asian monastic teachers and medical researchers of mindfulness.

Much of the page is taken by a quote from a book that advocates mindfulness practice for therapists so that they will be more effective in their responses with their clients. As I sum up the matter:
What we see here is that the therapist has become so mindful that she is in complete synch with the client. These seemingly Buddha-like powers of mindfulness enable her to discern the inner reaches of the body and mind via total attention, greatly assisting the process of healing sought through therapy.
I should hasten to add that I’m not actually confirming the assertion that mindfulness really does enhance the therapist’s effectiveness-- I’m just describing my subject’s viewpoint. This chapter is important, but it doesn’t necessarily contain the most interesting aspects of my project. There’s arguably more spark to chapter five, which talks about mindful sex, or chapter five, which delves into the marketing of mindfulness, for instance.
Learn more about Mindful America at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Dixie Dharma.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 8, 2014

John D. Turner's "Banking in Crisis"

John Turner has been a Professor of Finance and Financial History at Queen's University Belfast since 2005. At the time of his appointment to his chair, he was one of the youngest full professors in Queen's University. He is the founder and director of the Queen's University Centre for Economic History. Turner has held several distinguished visiting positions during his career – he has been a Houblon–Norman Fellow at the Bank of England and an Alfred D. Chandler Fellow at Harvard Business School.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Banking in Crisis: The Rise and Fall of British Banking Stability, 1800 to the Present, and reported the following:
Can the lessons of the past help us to prevent another banking collapse in the future? Banking in Crisis is the first book to tell the story of the rise and fall of British banking stability in the past two centuries, and it sheds new light on why banking systems crash and the factors underpinning banking stability. On page 99 of Banking in Crisis, the reasons behind the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS (Halifax-Bank of Scotland) during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis are discussed. These banks were bailed out by the British taxpayer and they rank as the two largest British bank failures ever. The proximate cause for their failure was their reckless lending to the residential and commercial real-estate sectors in the UK. But the aim of Banking in Crisis is to get at the ultimate reason for their demise.

Until 2008, the UK had not experienced a major banking crisis since 1825. Why was the British banking system so stable for such a long period? From 1825 until around World War II, shareholders of British banks faced calls on their personal wealth because UK banks were not pure limited liability banks – they had unlimited liability until the 1880s and extended liability thereafter. This meant that whenever banks made lending decisions, they had ‘skin in the game’, which curtailed them from taking excessive risk. From the beginning of World War II through to the early 1980s, British banks faced stringent government controls which gave them little room for manoeuvre and prevented them from making reckless loans. Starting in the 1970s, these controls were removed, but bank shareholders no longer had ‘skin in the game’ as banks had become pure limited liability and they had relatively little capital relative to their assets. This deregulation was a recipe for disaster. Over time, banks starting increasing their lending, particularly to the risky real-estate sector, which resulted in a property bubble. The collapse of this bubble resulted in huge losses for British banks, particularly those mentioned on page 99.

How can banking become stable again? The lessons of the past suggest that banking can only be stable if bank shareholders have ‘skin in the game’ or if banks face stringent government controls on their assets and lending.
Learn more about Banking in Crisis at the Cambridge University Press website.

Follow John Turner on Twitter and visit his "Finance: Past, Present and Future" blog.

--Marshal Zeringue