That is the new Peter Leeson book, and it is just out.  Here is the Amazon summary:

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

Here are the book’s rather spectacular blurbs.  Here is a short Peter piece on medieval ordeals.  Here is a Reddit thread on whether medieval ordeals actually were an effective test of guilt.  And he has this piece on superstition and Friday the 13th in Newsweek.  I would like to see a media outlet excerpt his piece on the rationality of gypsy culture.

I would say that Peter has written a very effective book within the Beckerian tradition, namely trying to explain economic phenomena in terms of a neoclassical rational actor model.  Nonetheless I am much less of a Beckerian than Peter is, at least for the socially-oriented issues he is considering.  Here is a simple typology of approaches:

1. Beckerians and the rational actor model.  I slot Peter in here, along with many Chicago School economists, Marvin Harris, and much of public choice economics.  An explanation shows how a social outcome stems from the interaction of means-end maximizing individuals, translated into some aggregate result.

2. Behavioral economics.  By now this is old news, but these researchers find what I consider to be relatively small deviations from the rational actor model.  This is usually done by measurement, rather than through more complete models.

3. Cultural economics, anthropologists, and many sociologists.  Peer effects are paramount, and Frenchmen see the world differently than do Americans, not to mention Bantus or Pygmies.  This is due to a social contagion of perception that does not boil down to rationality in the sense that economists understand it (you can build a model in which social mimicry at young ages is rational, but that model won’t generate much insight into the particular phenomena we are trying to explain, nor does that model pick up the mimicry mechanism very well).  Historical study plus thick description plus economic rationality at various margins (but margins only) plus some statistics is the way to go.  Mostly we’re trying to understand how and why other groups of people see the world in fundamentally different terms.

The economists who can best grasp other points of view thus are the masters of explaining macro-phenomena (by which I mean something quite distinct from traditional macroeconomics).

I am much closer to #3 than are most economists.  Furthermore, I view economists as patting themselves excessively on the back for #2, when #3 is far more important.  Peter has written a very good book mostly in the tradition of #1, though due to his Austrian background with periodic forays into #3.  I once wrote to Peter: “Gypsy culture rational?  How about Episcopalian investment bankers in Connecticut being rational?”  Probably neither are.

Here is the transcript and podcast, here is the summary introduction:

She joins Tyler for a conversation covering the full range of her curiosity, including fear, acclimating to grossness, chatting with the dead, freezing one’s head, why bedpans can kill you, sex robots, Freud, thinking like an astronaut, the proper way to eat a fry, and why there’s a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.

Here are a few excerpts:

ROACH: It is never uncomfortable. People sometimes say, “The questions that you ask people, is it an awkward interview? When you went to Avenal State Prison for the rectum chapter of Gulp, and you, talking to this convicted murderer about using his rectum to smuggle cellphones and other things, was that not a very awkward conversation to have?”

A little bit, but then you have to keep in mind, this is somebody for whom hooping, as it’s called, is . . . everybody does it. It’s just something that you do; it’s everyday to him. Like for a sex researcher, talking about orgasm is like talking about tire rotation for a car mechanic.


COWEN: To do a whirlwind tour of some of your books, you have a book on corpses. If you could chat with the dead, what would you ask them?

ROACH: Oh, if I could chat with the dead. Are we assuming the personality or the body?

COWEN: Well, both.

ROACH: The corpse?

COWEN: The corpse.

ROACH: Oh, is this a research corpse or . . .

COWEN: It’s a research corpse.

ROACH: …So what I’d say to the cadaver is, “Is this embarrassing for you? Are you OK with this? Are they treating you respectfully? Do you wish you had some clothes on?”


COWEN: Why do only 18 percent of people who are in the position to have a life-after-death experience actually have one? What’s your view on that?

ROACH: The trouble seems to be remembering the near-death experience.


COWEN: Why are bedpans dangerous?

There is much, much more at the link.  Jonathan Swift, Elvis, Adam Smith, and Jeff Sachs all make appearances, in addition to Catholicism, bee larvae, Mozambique, whether people know what they really want in sex, and whether it should be legal to harvest fresh road kill in Oregon.

I hardly expected the movie to be so drenched in Tarkovsky (“The Zone” and Solaris, maybe a bit of The Sacrifice), and the now-famed sex scene draws from Bergman’s Persona.  Overall, the colors and palette were stunning, and the use of sound was as impressive as in any movie, do see this one in IMAX.  It hardly makes any concessions to the Hollywood vices of this millennium and indeed much of the Tysons Corner audience seemed to be baffled.

Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted and what that would have to mean for everything else.  Much of the plot is sprawling, some of the references are too heavy-handed or scattered (Moses and the Dalai Lama and Kafka and Star Wars 1-2 are thrown in for good measure, and few will grok the Galatians reference), and the whole thing could have been fifteen minutes shorter.  Still, this is a worthy sequel to one of the best movies of the 1980s or is that the 1990s?  Carla Juri steals the show, and furthermore it resolves the main plot puzzle of the original Blade Runner rather economically.

Also on the plus side, Adam Driver does not appear in this movie.

One of the most blatant violations of the rules against touching saliva among other taboos is described by Dubois…in his [1906] account of one of the “disgusting religious orgies” he so meticulously depicts.  In these orgies, not only do men and women eat meat and drink alcoholic beverages, but they transgress the normal saliva prohibition.  I cannot possibly improve upon Dubois’ vivid word picture: “In this orgy called sakti-puja, the pujari, or sacrificer who is generally a Brahman, first of all tastes the various kinds of meats and liquors himself, then gives the others permission to devour the rest.  Men and women thereupon begin to eat greedily, the same piece of meat passing from mouth to mouth, each person taking a bite until it is finished.  Then they start afresh on another joint, which they gnaw in the same manner, tearing the meat out of each other’s mouths.  When all the meat has been consumed, intoxicating liquors are passed around, every one drinking without repugnance out of the same cup.

That is from the quite interesting Two Tales of Crow and Sparrow: A Freudian Folkloristic Essay on Caste and Untouchability, by Alan Dundes.

She is the author of the new and superb Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.  I will be interviewing her later in the month, with a podcast and transcript forthcoming, no public event.  Here is her Macmillan bio:

Sujatha Gidla was born an untouchable in Andhra Pradesh, India. She studied physics at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal. The author of Ants Among the Elephants, her writing has appeared in The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing. She lives in New York and works as a conductor on the subway.

Here is BBC coverage of her work.  Here is the NYT review of her book.  Here are further links about herThe Economist wrote: “Ants Among Elephants is an arresting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and heralds the arrival of a formidable new writer.”

So what should I ask her?

A City on the Hill

by on September 17, 2017 at 7:43 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

The Redeemed Christian Church of Nigeria has built its own private city.

A 25-megawatt power plant with gas piped in from the Nigerian capital serves the 5,000 private homes on site, 500 of them built by the church’s construction company. New housing estates are springing up every few months where thick palm forests grew just a few years ago. Education is provided, from creche to university level. The Redemption Camp health centre has an emergency unit and a maternity ward.

On Holiness Avenue, a branch of Tantaliser’s fast food chain does a brisk trade. There is an on-site post office, a supermarket, a dozen banks, furniture makers and mechanics’ workshops. An aerodrome and a polytechnic are in the works.

…“If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,” says Olubiyi. So the camp relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems. And being well out of Lagos, like the other megachurches’ camps, means that it has little to do with municipal authorities. Government officials can check that the church is complying with regulations, but they are expected to report to the camp’s relevant office. Sometimes, according to the head of the power plant, the government sends the technicians running its own stations to learn from them.

There is a police station on site, which occasionally deals with a death or the disappearance of a child, but the camp’s security is mostly provided by its small army of private guards in blue uniforms. They direct traffic, deal with crowd control, and stop children who haven’t paid for the wristband from going into Emmanuel Park – home to the aforementioned ferris wheel.

As in Gurgaon, India, where the government fails opportunities are opened for entrepreneurs who think big.

Another common narrative about trends in American religious belief says that spirituality has replaced religion. …That might have been true at one time, but no longer.  iGen’ers are actually less spiritual as well as being less religious.  iGen’ers and late Millennials ages 18 to 24 are the least likely of all age/generation groups to say they are a “spiritual person,” showing a pronounced break even with older Millennials in their late twenties and early thirties…

Of course, these differences could be due to age instead of generation; perhaps younger people have always been less spiritual.  However, slightly fewer 18- to 24-year-olds in 2014-2016 (48%) described themselves as a moderately or very spiritual person than in 2006-2008 (56%).

That is from the new and excellent Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

So many religious facts have a very long half-life for their relevance.  Say you learn about how the four Gospels differ — that’s still relevant for understanding Christian divisions or Christian theology today.  Reading about the Reformation?  The chance of that still being relevant is much higher than if you were reading about purely secular divisions in internal German or Swiss politics in those same centuries.

Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or Muslims?  Facts from many centuries ago still might matter.  And the odds are that people a few centuries from now still ought to read about the origins of Mormonism.

In few other areas do past facts stand such a high chance of remaining relevant for so long.

As an empirical matter, “rationalists” tend not to read so much about religion, but that is precisely the unreasonable thing to do.

If you’d like to see a potential counter, here is some poll evidence that many people don’t care so much about the divisions of the Reformation any more.  It still matters a great deal whether you are in Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or “mixed” Europe.

I am indebted to a conversation with Bryan Caplan for the main point, though he is not liable for my formulation.

Indian caste system bleg

by on August 26, 2017 at 7:19 pm in Books, History, Religion | Permalink

What should I read to better understand the Indian caste system?  I thank you all in advance for your assistance.

Although all church fees were wrong, argued Francis Sadler in a much-reprinted 1738 tract, “selling” one part of the churchyard for three times the price of another “to keep Rich and Poor asunder as if there were a difference in their dust” was especially ridiculous.

Within the courtyard, “the chancel was a better address than the center aisle, which was, in turn, preferred to the side aisles.”  And lead coffins cost ten times more than coffins of wood.

That is from the excellent The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas Laqueur.  Here is a truly splendid Marina Warner review of the book.

Markets in everything?

by on August 18, 2017 at 7:10 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

I cannot tell whether this tale should count as confirmed:

As awful as that may sound, a number of religious scholars are offering themselves up for one-night stands with divorced Muslim women trying to save their marriages under a disputable Islamic law, an India Today investigation has found.

They charge anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh to participate in nikah halala, a controversial practice that requires a woman to marry someone else, sleep with him and get a divorce again in order to be able to remarry her first husband under personal laws, the probe discovered.

India Today’s investigative team has blown the lid off the taboo tradition that has remained largely unnoticed amid intense debates over triple talaq on the media and in the country’s top court.

The probe found many Islamic scholars putting themselves up on sale for women desperate to restore their broken marriages.

Here is the full article, via Raj.  I am surprised that the equilibrium price is that high.

Not from The Onion

by on August 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm in Economics, Religion | Permalink

‘BitCoen’ to become first electronic currency specifically for Jews

And this:

While anyone can purchase tokens, the company will be managed by a ‘Council of Six’ made up solely of Jewish representatives. The representatives will likely be prominent leaders in both public and private sectors, though there is no word yet as to the planned demography of the leaders.

As the currency is aimed specifically at Jewish communities, there will be an automation option so that trading operations may take place on Shabbat, when the handling of money is prohibited by Jewish law.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that all or even most of these new coins are viable entities…

Hat tip goes to Irrelevant Investor.

Theme-based restaurants and parks are passé. A theme-based crematorium is the latest talk of the hour, both online and offline. Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat, the first of its kind in India, puts the departing souls of the dead cremated here on international flights to the heaven for ultimate salvation or moksha: freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Located in Gujarat’s Bardoli on the banks of Mindhola River, the crematorium is modeled on an airport and equipped with two giant replicas of aircraft. The airplane replicas at Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat are named Moksha (salvation) airlines and Swarga (heaven) airlines which seem to transport the souls from the earth to the heaven on cremation of dead bodies here.

What’s the most interesting about Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat is the airport-like announcement which is made to guide funeral parties on entry into the crematorium and instruct them where to keep the body, how to proceed for cremation, etc. There is very little difference between the announcement made at the crematorium and that at airports as well as in planes.

What makes the crematorium more like an airport is the typical noise that an aircraft makes while taking off. A similar noise is created when dead bodies are placed in furnace at Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat. The atmosphere of the airport-themed crematorium is intended to soothe the mourning family members under the impression that the dead depart for salvation in the heaven.

Here is more, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Adam Ozimek asks me:

How should we think about this in a meta-rational sense?

…What should we make of it?

To be clear, I have never had interaction with Elon Musk, so I intend these as general possibilities, rather than as commentary on his individual personality:

1. There are some people who on Twitter will just “fuck with us.”  Precisely because they have done a lot in the so-called “real world,” they just don’t take Twitter that seriously.

2. Some very successful people are programmed to rhetorically overreach.  This makes them the center of attention and furthermore keeps them motivated.  They don’t apply the same kind of “reality filter” to their rhetoric that a scientist might.

3. Sometimes exaggeration is used to distract from pending failures, a’la Trump, and this process may include self-distraction.  (Tesla?)

4. Exaggeration is a way to keep the hyperloop on the agenda and in the mindset of the nerdy public.  Eventually that will help make the hyperloop possible.  Speakers with this motive often think of themselves as bootstrapping the reality, rather than “making stuff up.”

Most of talk isn’t about reporting the truth! In this sense the tweet isn’t surprising at all.

And what the heck is “verbal government approval” in a world with federalism, multiple layers of environmental review, NIMBY homeowners, and courts of varying jurisdictions? I like to think the tweet might be an act of sarcastic protest, or Straussian meta-commentary born out of frustration, but somehow I suspect neither of those is the case.

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman:

The Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517, was both a shock to the market for religion and a first-order economic shock. We study its impact on the allocation of resources between the religious and secular sectors in Germany, collecting data on the allocation of human and physical capital. While Protestant reformers aimed to elevate the role of religion, we find that the Reformation produced rapid economic secularization. The interaction between religious competition and political economy explains the shift in investments in human and fixed capital away from the religious sector. Large numbers of monasteries were expropriated during the Reformation, particularly in Protestant regions. This transfer of resources shifted the demand for labor between religious and secular sectors: graduates from Protestant universities increasingly entered secular occupations. Consistent with forward-looking behavior, students at Protestant universities shifted from the study of theology toward secular degrees. The appropriation of resources by secular rulers is also reflected in construction: during the Reformation, religious construction declined, particularly in Protestant regions, while secular construction increased,especially for administrative purposes. Reallocation was not driven by pre-existing economic or cultural differences.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.