McMindfulness is the commodified, marketised and reductionist version of mindfulness practice which consists in the construction of courses, “apps”, books, and other items for sale to the public.

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

1. The subtitle is A New Theory of Chinese History, and volume one has just been translated and published from the Chinese.

2. The author, Dingxin Zhao, now is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

3. The book has a curious 19th century air to its intellectual influences.  The main argument uses Herbert Spencer to revise Michael Mann, a 20th century British sociologist who wrote on the sources of power.  Lamarckian ideas are deployed frequently.

4. The Western model has had four independent power sources: states, churches, aristocracy, and the urban bourgeoisie.

5. Neither merchants nor religion had much of a strong, independent role in early Chinese politics.  Only the state and the aristocracy were powerful actors.

6. In the model of this book, the dual forces of competition and institutionalization drive historical change.  More than anything else, individuals maximize power.

7. The empowerment of economic power by ideology is the most fundamental feature of modernity.

8. “Three pivotal institutions of Western Zhou origin exerted an enduring impact on the history of China: the Mandate of Heaven, the kinship-based “feudal” system, and lineage law.” (p.79)

This is not an easy work to parse, but it is a book of substance and it reflects a considerable amount of careful thought.

Markets in everything

by on February 4, 2016 at 1:08 pm in Books, Religion | Permalink

From my email Inbox:

Greetings T. Cowen,

I’m L. Ron Gardner and I’ve just published a mind-blowing novel/libertarian manifesto — Kill Jesus: The Shocking Return of the Chosen One — that you might want to review at your site. It is about Jesus reincarnating and attempting to end the Fed, which his father controls. The book, which has been described as “Atlas Shrugged on ‘roids,” is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Here is the video, the podcast, and the transcript.  Kareem really opened up.  Here is the summary:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on segregation, Islam, Harlem vs. LA, Earl Manigault, jazz, fighting Bruce Lee, Kareem’s conservatism, dancing with Thelonious Monk, and why no one today can shoot a skyhook.

Maybe you think of Kareem as a basketball player, but here is my introduction:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. I would describe him as an offshoot of the Harlem Renaissance, and what he and I share in common is a fascination with the character of Mycroft Holmes, the subject of Kareem’s latest book — and that of course, is Sherlock Holmes’s brother.

Here is Kareem:

I did know Amiri [Baraka]. I think the difference is I believe in what happened in Europe during what they call the Enlightenment. That needs to happen to black Americans, absolutely a type of enlightenment where they get a grasp of what is afflicting them and what the cures are.

I think that the American model is the best in the world but in order to get everybody involved in it we have to have it open to everyone. That hasn’t always been the case.

The most under-appreciated Miles Davis album?

For me [Kareem], the most under-appreciated one is Seven Steps to Heaven. And that shows, I think, Miles’ best group. There’s a big argument, what was Miles’ best group, the one that had Cannonball Adderley, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland or Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter?…number two is Porgy and Bess.

He cites Chester Himes as the underappreciated figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  And Kareem thinks like an economist:

It [my instruction] was going well with Andrew Bynum, but Andrew finally got to sign his contract for $50 million, and then at that point Andrew thought that I didn’t know anything and that he didn’t have to listen to me, and we don’t know where Andrew is right now.

Read or hear also his very interesting remarks on Islam, and where its next Enlightenment is likely to come from, not to mention Kareem on the resource curse and of course his new book (and my Straussian read of it).  And Kareem on his favorite movies, starting with The Maltese Falcon.  Self-recommending!


Too Good to Be True

by on January 21, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

In ancient Israel a court of 23 judges called the Sanhedrin would decide matters of importance such as death penalty cases. The Talmud prescribes a surprising rule for the court. If a majority vote for death then death is imposed except, “If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted.” Why the peculiar rule?

In an excellent new paper, Too Good to Be True, Lachlan J. Gunn et al. show that more evidence can reduce confidence. The basic idea is simple. We expect that in most processes there will normally be some noise so absence of noise suggests a kind of systemic failure. The police are familiar with one type of example. When the eyewitnesses to a crime all report exactly the same story that reduces confidence that the story is true. Eyewitness stories that match too closely suggests not truth but a kind a systemic failure, namely the witnesses have collaborated on telling a lie.

police lineupWhat Gunn et al. show is that the accumulation of consistent (non-noisy) evidence can reverse one’s confidence surprisingly quickly. Consider a police lineup but now consider a more likely cause of systemic failure than witness conspiracy. Suppose that there is a small probability, say 1%, that the police arrange the lineup, either on purpose or by accident, so that the “suspect” is the only one who is close to matching the description of the criminal. Now consider what happens to our rational (Bayesian) probability that the suspect is guilwitnessty as the number of eyewitnesses saying “that’s the guy” increases. The first eyewitness to identify the suspect increases our confidence that the suspect is guilty and our confidence increases when the second and third eyewitness corroborate but when a fourth eyewitness points to the same man our rational confidence should actually

Even though the systemic failure rate is only 1%, that small probability starts to weigh more heavily the more consistent (less noisy) the evidence becomes. The red line in the graph at right shows–using a 1% systemic failure rate and realistic probabilities of eyewitness identification–that after 3 witnesses more evidence decreases our confidence and when more than 10 witnesses identify the same suspect we should be less certain of guilt than when one witness identifies the suspect! The yellow line shows how certainty increases when there is no possibility of systemic failure which is what most people imagine is the case. Notice from the green line that even when the probability of systemic failure is tiny (.01%) it begins to dominate the results quite early.

What matters is not that the probability of systemic failure is tiny but how it compares to the probability of consistency which, with any reasonable estimate of noise, is itself getting tinier and tinier as evidence accumulates. In another application, the authors show how even the miniscule probability of a stray cosmic ray flipping a bit in machine code can materially reduce our confidence in common cryptographic procedures.

In summary, the peculiar rule of the Talmud receives support from Bayesian analysis–too much consistency is suspect of failure.

From Jessica Shiwen Cheng and Fernando Lozano:

What is the role of religious institutions and religious workers in the racial earnings gap in the United States? In this paper we explore the relationship between childhood exposure to religious density, as measured with the number of religious workers at the state level, and the labor market outcomes of the worker thirty years later. We use data that spans over fifty years to identify changes in earnings due to early exposure to religion: our first source of identification uses changes in these two variables within states, and our second source of identification uses states’ differences by following workers who moved to a different state. Our results suggest that living in a state with a an extra clergy member for each 1,000 habitants increases the earnings of black workers by 1.7 to 3.6 percentage points relative to white workers.. In addition we show that this relationship is robust to different measures of exposure to religious density, and that these estimates increase to 7.6 percentage points when the change on religious density is defined exclusively increasing an extra black religious workers for each 1,000 habitants. Finally, we estimate a series of robustness tests that suggest that these results are not due to spatial sorting across states, nor to secular time trends associated with changes in labor market outcomes for black American workers.

You can find a copy of the paper if you dig through this link to the AEA program, look under Jan 03, 2016 12:30 pm, Hilton Union Square, Powell A & B, National Economic Association/American Society of Hispanic Economist.  The title of the paper is”Racial/Ethnic Differences in Self-Identification and Income Inequality,” but do any of you know a better, more direct link?

As I see things, to overgeneralize perhaps rather grossly, Democratic economists are more concerned with social and intellectual status, often in good ways, than are many conservatives.  The former group therefore is led to violate strictures of science through the omission of inconvenient truths, rather than through outright denialism or simply “making things up.”  The benefits of religion, including sometimes extreme religion, are one example of that.  On the Left, redistribution is a popular remedy for poverty, religion much less so.

Stephen Smith, a well-known urban blogger, writes in the comments to Interfluidity:

Finally, I think you’re not giving us enough credit for thinking through the political challenges to urban land use deregulation. I’m well aware of the entrenched interests opposing it, and the most promising solution I’ve seen is to shift the level of governance upwards. Washington and Oregon have much stronger state-level planning laws than California, and permit about twice as much housing as a result, with much lower urban housing prices. Ontario also has strong provincial planning, and Toronto has a torrential housing stock growth rate and very low housing prices compared to similar US cities. And in Japan, the central government has a huge hand in land use regulation and localities are relatively powerless, and Japan is literally the market urbanist promised land, which a mind-blowing housing stock growth rate in Tokyo, to the point where their private railroads are profitable and one is able to undertake an incredible capital expansion project, practically without subsidies.

The pointer is from Reihan.  And here is a story from my own northern Virginia: “The century-old congregation decided to sell its building, parking lot and grounds to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which will tear down the stone structure and replace it with 173 affordable apartments.”  Bravo.

For best non-fiction book of the year, a late entry swoops in to take first place!  That’s right, I am going to select The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert, by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh.

This is an unusual book.  It is only 85 pp. of text and about half of it is aerial photos and maps.  It covers the history of the Negev desert, the Bedouin, Israeli policy toward the Bedouin, ecology, seed botany, and the roles of water policy and climate change, all in remarkably interesting and information-rich fashion, with a dose of Braudel and also Sebald in terms of method.

For one thing, it caused me to rethink what books as a whole should be.  This is one cool book.

To make it stranger yet, this book is Weizman’s response to Sheikh’s The Erasure Trilogy, which is structured as a tour of the ruins of the 1948 conflict.  That book is I believe from a Palestinian point of view, and described as a “visual poem.”  I just ordered it; note that Sheikh is the photographer for The Conflict Shoreline and thus listed as a co-author.

Some will read The Conflict Shoreline as “anti-Israeli” in parts, but that is not the main point of the book or my endorsement of it.  The book however does point out that Israeli policies toward the Bedouin often were prompted by a desire to remove large numbers of them from their previous Negev land and move them into the West Bank and Egypt.  I had not known “The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 70 times in the ongoing “Battle over the Negev””.  The book ends with a two-page evidentiary aerial photo of that village, taken during 1945; other photos of it date as far back as 1918.  This is all part of Weizman’s project of “reverse surveillance.”

It is a hard book to summarize, in part because it is so visual and so integrative, but here is one excerpt:

The Negev Desert is the largest and busiest training area for the Israeli Air Force and has one of the most cluttered airspaces in the world.  The airspace is partitioned into a complex stratigraphy of layers, airboxes, and corridors dedicated to different military platforms: from bomber jets through helicopters to drones.  This complex volume is an integral part of the architecture of the Negev.

And then it will move to a discussion of seed technology, or how Bedouin economic strategies have changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these various topics fit together.  Think of it also as a contribution to location theory and economic geography, but adding vertical space, manipulated topography, rainfall, and temperature to the relevant dimensions of the problem.

Too bad it costs $40.00.  Recommended, nonetheless.  Here is one review, here is another, the latter having especially good photos of the book’s photos.

Here is a good interview with Weizman, who among other things outlines his concept of Forensic Architecture.

Here is my earlier post on the best non-fiction books of 2015.  And here is an earlier post the best books under one hundred pages.


Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2015 at 12:34 am in Current Affairs, History, Religion | Permalink


The attached article is here, and here is more information.

Mr. Obama also said, “It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.” But negative searches about Syrian refugees rose 60 percent. Searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35 percent. The president asked us to “not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.” But searches for “kill Muslims” tripled during his speech.

There was one line, however, that did trigger the type of response Mr. Obama might have wanted. He said, “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes and yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defense of our country.”

After this line, for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after “Muslim” was not “terrorists,” “extremists” or “refugees.” It was “athletes,” followed by “soldiers.” And, in fact, “athletes” kept the top spot for a full day afterward.

That is from a fascinating new piece by Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

Icelanders opposed to the state funding of religion have flocked to register as Zuists, a movement that worships ancient Sumerian gods and – perhaps more importantly – promises its followers a tax rebate.

More than 3,100 people – almost 1% of Iceland’s population – have joined the Zuist movement in the past two weeks in protest at paying part of their taxes to the state church and other religious bodies. Followers of Zuism will be refunded the tax element earmarked for religion.

Icelanders are required to register their religion with the state, with almost three-quarters of the population affiliated to the established Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. There are more than 40 other registered religious bodies that qualify for “parish fees” paid through the taxation system. The amount set in next year’s budget is the equivalent of about $80 (£53) per taxpayer over a year.

“There is no opt-out. Those who are unaffiliated or belong to unregistered religions effectively just pay higher taxes,” said Sveinn Thorhallsson, a Zuist spokesperson. An opinion poll published in September showed 55% of respondents want an end to the system.

According to the article, some of the participants are starting to show interest in the religion.  Hmm…

This is in the comments section at MR, in my view an authorial response to a negative review should not be buried, so here it is:

Dear Tyler,

Thank you for taking the time to read our book and blog about it. We take your review and critique seriously, and understand that our title – which generalizes beyond France to “Christian-heritage societies” – might appear to some as a bit of a reach.

Nonetheless, we have two responses to your review. First, any frank discussion of external validity should, in our mind, address the reasons why the scope might be limited. As we explain in Parts I and II of our book, our challenge was to identify whether we could say anything at all about Muslim integration. Our belief is that work to date cannot, because it confounds discrimination due to religion with discrimination due to region-of-origin. Our book’s primary contribution is to isolate the religious factor. To do so, we had to study a specific group of immigrants who hail from the same country, who migrated at the same time and in the same way, and who differ only in their religious membership. None of the examples you cite – Pakistanis or Bosnians in America – offer such a counterfactual. We therefore cannot evaluate how well those groups have integrated due to, or in spite of, their religious membership.

Second, your critique of our efforts at generalizability ignores our analysis of the European Social Survey, a representative sample of respondents in 17 Western European countries; this analysis corroborates our claim that there is a Muslim disadvantage to integration in Christian-heritage societies. Finally, your focus on a single indicator in the Detroit Arab-American Study – “Proud to be an American” – ignores the relevant point we have tried to make, which is that on a number of different measures and in a number of different contexts, the pattern consistently points toward the same direction: that Muslim immigrants, relative to comparable Christian immigrants, integrate less, and that this situation does not improve over time. It is this pattern, not any single difference on any single indicator, that we find disconcerting.

Thank you, again, for your thoughts and consideration. Best, Claire Adida, David Laitin and Marie-Anne Valfort

My initial review of their book on Muslim integration in Christian heritage societies was here.

Enter the Harvard economist Michael Jensen. Dr. Jensen, who is famous in financial circles for championing the concepts of shareholder value and executive stock options, had taken a Landmark course in Boston at the suggestion of his daughter, who mended a rocky relationship with Dr. Jensen after taking the course herself.

“I became convinced we should work to get this kind of transformational material into the academies,” he said, adding that he considers Mr. Erhard “one of the great intellectuals of the century.”

In 2004, with the help of a Landmark official, Dr. Jensen developed an experiential course on integrity in leadership at the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester. The class was offered there for five years, with Mr. Erhard signing on as an instructor during its third year. It has since been taught at several universities around the world as well as at the United States Air Force Academy.

As far as its philosophical underpinnings go, Mr. Erhard struggled a bit to describe the course without resorting to its Delphic phraseology (“ontological pedagogy,” “action as a correlate of the occurring”).

Sitting in front of a bank of computers in his hotel room, he read excerpts from the 1,000-page textbook he is working on, such as: “As linguistic abstractions, leader and leadership create leader and leadership as realms of possibility in which, when you are being a leader, all possible ways of being are available to you.”

The full NYT story, mostly about Erhard, with bits on Heidegger too, is here.  Here is more on Jensen and Erhard.

Following up on my earlier post on Syria, Alexander Burns sends me this very interesting email:

Dear Professor Cowen,

Thanks for your reply tweet regarding your Marginal Revolution post on modelling Syria / Islamic State. I enjoy your books and blog.

I’m writing a thesis at Australia’s Monash University that synthesises Jack Snyder’s work on strategic culture / strategic subcultures with Martha Crenshaw and Jacob Shapiro’s work on terrorist organisations. Two recent presentations:

1.       Mid-Candidature Review Panel slides:

2.       Monash SPS Symposium Presentation on Islamic State:

Several weeks ago I discussed Islamic State with my Mid-Candidature Review panel whilst also reading Gary Antonacci’s Dual Momentum Investing and the Dan Zanger interview in Mark Minervini’s Momentum Masters interviews book. It struck me that Islamic State were like momentum traders for several reasons:

(1) Islamic State have grown rapidly in foreign mujahideen; control of parts of northern Iraq and Syria; and have grown in power projection capabilities. This dynamic is very much like successful momentum traders have worked in a financial markets context using Jesse Livermore’s trend-following approach, William O’Neil’s CANSLIM system, or Paul Tudor Jones II’s speculative activity in Eurodollar and foreign exchange markets.

(2) Islamic State have to-date survived aerial bombardments and have exploited a range of weaknesses in their enemies (e.g. jihadist beheading videos as psychological warfare against the Iraqi Army; Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria; and alliance manoeuvers around the Assad regime and the Syrian civil war).

(3) Events like the capture of Mosul, Iraq; combat experience in the Syrian civil war; involvement in oil black markets; and the proclamation on 29th June 2014 of a worldwide caliphate have momentum-like qualities, particularly in terms of creating the psychological climate for nation-building.

(4) Islamic State has outperformed their peer jihadist groups in their growth and ideological impact.

(5) Islamic State’s use of social media to amplify ideological propaganda is more hypermodern and sophisticated than other terrorist groups.

(6) Their rapid growth has led to spillover effects such as the refugee crisis in Europe.

(7) The Western media’s concerns about Islamic State — and their cultural impact — feel like the 1998-2000 part of the 1995-2000 dotcom speculative bubble, albeit in a counterterrorism context.

(8) Your perspective on Islamic State as hypermodern may also be relevant to the proto-Marxist work on accelerationism and postcapitalism (Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future; Steven Shaviro’s No Speed Limit; and Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities): contemporary terrorist groups operate in a different political / technological / ‘average is over’ context.

With his permission I reproduced the email as is, though added in a few extra paragraph breaks for ease of reading.

My thoughts on this topic are extremely tentative, hypothetical I would say, but I’ve seen so much other bad commentary I thought I would lay out a possible “model” for what is going on.  I offer this with what I consider to be more than just caveats and qualifications, if you wish simply consider this an exercise in constructing some possibilities to think through.  These are “in my opinion the most likely to be true, compared to alternatives,” but still quite low in terms of their absolute chance of being true.  Here goes:

1. I don’t view Islam as essential to the conflict, though it helps explain some of the second-order causes and effects.

2. I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities.  Building a successful nation state seems to be a “win big, fail big” proposition, and both Yugoslavia and Syria failed.  The West also had its failures leading up to and during the two World Wars, though with a happyish ending.

3. Syria also has become a playground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others).  Being a playground for a proxy war is a bad place to be, just ask Vietnam, El Salvador, or Nicaragua.  The mix of #2 and #3 accounts for many of the key features of the crisis, plus as conflict proceeds trust frays and human beings are brutalized, worsening the dynamic.

3b. The proxy war heated up due to a rising Iran, a falling Saudi Arabia, and the collapse of creative ambiguity over roles and responsibilities in what were previously buffer zones.

4. It is very hard to model ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, whatever you wish to call it (the most thoughtful approach I have seen is from Shadi Hamid).  Maybe the group is one fraction crazies, one fraction semi-rational power brokers, and one fraction “momentum traders” who wanted higher status for their local terrorizing and never expected it to get this far and simply could not climb off and stop.  It is hard for groups to back out of strategies which have delivered consistent institutional growth.  In any case, I don’t think of the group as having transitive preferences, even in the intra-profile sense, much less the Arrovian inter-profile sense.

5. I view ISIS as “modern,” or even “hypermodern,” rather than a “return to barbarism.”  The medieval Arabic world was more advanced than Europe in most ways, yet still Islamic ideologically.

6. Islam has the important secondary effect of tying Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts to disaffected (Muslim) groups living in Western Europe, most of all France and Belgium.  Labor market deregulation, people!

7. Islam has another significant effect.  By melding the political and the theological, it renders the conflict more complex and harder to resolve, and that effect is fundamental to the ideological structure of Islam.  It also helps motivate the proxy war sides taken by Iran (Shii’te) and the Saudis (Sunni).  But note this: when the political order is not up for grabs, Islam does not have the same destabilizing effects.  The merging of the legal and the theological therefore may create greater stability in some equilibria (e.g.,much of Ottoman history, the Gulf monarchies), while less stability in others.

8. The Laffer curve, resource extraction path of ISIS will weaken with time, causing a fiscal starvation and thus a further move toward mean-reducing, variance-increasing strategies.

9. This won’t end well.  Now go read a book on the Taiping rebellion.

Your thoughts are welcome, please try to stick with the analytical and avoid posturing.  And what Russia is up to in Syria is another mystery, best considered another time.