Category: Religion

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

A Miniature Masterpiece

Superb NYTimes disquisition on a masterpiece of Indian miniature painting. The text, formatting, visuals, all beautifully done–better than any museum exhibit I can recall.

In addition to the subject matter this piece has a lot to say about online education and how news is becoming a winner take-most market. Note what Tyler and I said on endogenous fixed costs in our piece on online education in the AER and consider how many newspapers could put together a display of this quality.

Shaked and Sutton (1987) and Sutton (1998) show that when quality is primarily vertical, meaning that there is a measure of quality such that all consumers agree that higher quality is more preferred, then increased market size does not result in reduced concentration. Instead, as market size increases, firms invest more in quality, which endogenously increases economies of scale and maintains market concentration.

Along related lines, Berry and Waldfogel (2010) show that there are many more restaurants in larger than smaller cities, but even as city size increases by a factor of 10 there is no tendency for the number of newspapers to increase. Larger cities have more restaurants than smaller cities because economies of scale are limited and quality differs “horizontally,” according to taste (thus, larger cities have more diverse restaurants). Yet larger cities are served by roughly the same number of newspapers as smaller cities because quality is more vertical, most newspaper consumers want more coverage, better writers and more features.

Addendum: Tim and Marcos remind of previous items in this series which I also loved, The Birth of the Self Portrait and A Picture of Change.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Why are atheists so unpopular?

Here is a new research paper from Tomas Ståhl:

There is a widespread cross-cultural stereotype suggesting that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass. Is there any truth to this notion? Building on theory about the cultural, (de)motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, the present research investigated whether there are reliable similarities as well as differences between believers and disbelievers in the moral values and principles they endorse. Four studies examined how religious disbelief (vs. belief) relates to endorsement of various moral values and principles in a predominately religious (vs. irreligious) country (the U.S. vs. Sweden). Two U.S. M-Turk studies (Studies 1A and 1B, N = 429) and two large cross-national studies (Studies 2-3, N = 4,193), consistently show that disbelievers (vs. believers) are less inclined to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion (the binding moral foundations) [emphasis added by TC]. By contrast, only minor differences between believers and disbelievers were found in endorsement of other moral values (individualizing moral foundations, epistemic rationality). It is also demonstrated that presumed cultural and demotivational antecedents of disbelief (limited exposure to credibility-enhancing displays, low existential threat) are associated with disbelief. Furthermore, these factors are associated with weaker endorsement of the binding moral foundations in both countries (Study 2). Most of these findings were replicated in Study 3, and results also show that disbelievers (vs. believers) have a more consequentialist view of morality in both countries. A consequentialist view of morality was also associated with another presumed antecedent of disbelief-analytic cognitive style.

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Why will the important thinkers of the future be religious ones?

Tony O’Connor requests I cover this:

A few times you have said that the important thinkers of the future will be the religious ones. It would be interesting to hear more about what led you to this conclusion.

Concretely, I wonder if this would arise because religious populations within liberal polities are expanding over time (due to higher birth rates), or because there could be a shift from the non-religious population into religion. The potential causes of the latter would be interesting to hear about, if that is your belief.

First of all, I was led to the point by example. For instance, Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel are two of the most interesting thinkers as of late and they are both religious and Christian.  I am also struck by the enduring influence of Rene Girard.  I am never quite sure “how intellectually Jewish” are our leading Jewish intellectuals, but somewhat to be sure.  Even if they are atheists, they are usually strongly influenced by Jewish intellectual and theological traditions, which indicates a certain power to those traditions.  In fiction, Orson Scott Card is one of the intellectually most influential writers in the last few decades and he is a Mormon.  Knausgaard is drenched in the tradition of the Christian confessional memoir, and Ferrante is about as Catholic a writer as you will find, again even if “the real Ferrante” is a skeptic.  Houellebecq I don’t even need to get into.

Second, I see that both secular “left progressive” and “libertarian” traditions — both highly secular in their current forms — are not so innovative right now.  I don’t intend that as criticism, as you might think they are not innovative because they are already essentially correct.  Still, there is lots of recycling going on and their most important thinkers probably lie in the past, not the future.  That opens up room for religious thinkers to have more of an impact.

Third, religious thinkers arguably have more degrees of freedom.  I don’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but…how shall I put it?  The claims of the religions are not so closely tied to the experimental method and the randomized control trial.  (Narrator: “Neither are the secular claims!”)  It would be too harsh to say “they can just make stuff up,” but…arguably there are fewer constraints.  That might lead to more gross errors and fabrications in the distribution as a whole, but also more creativity in the positive direction.  And right now we seem pretty hungry for some breaks in the previous debates, even if not all of those breaks will be for the better.

Fourth, if you live amongst the intelligentsia, being religious is one active form of rebellion.  Rebelliousness is grossly correlated with intellectual innovation, again even if the variance of quality increases.

Fifth, I have the general impression that religious idea rise in importance during unstable and chaotic times.  Probably the current period is less stable than say 1980-2001 or so, and that will increase the focality of religious ideas, thereby making religious thinkers more important.

Sixth, religious and semi-religious memes are stickier than secular ones.  Maybe not on average, but the most influential religions have shown an incredible reach and endurance.

If you are reading a secular thinker, always ask yourself: “what is this person’s implicit theology?”  No matter who it is.  There are few more useful questions at your disposal.

My Conversation with Benjamin Friedman

Here is the audio, transcript, and visual. Here is part of the CWT summary:

Benjamin Friedman has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, whose accomplishments include writing 150 papers, producing more than dozen books, and teaching Tyler Cowen graduate macroeconomics at Harvard in 1985. In his latest book, Religion and the Rise of CapitalismBen argues that contrary to the popular belief that Western economic ideas are a secular product of the Enlightenment, instead they are the result of hotly debated theological questions within the English-speaking Protestant world of thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume.

Ben joined Tyler to discuss the connection between religious belief and support for markets, what drives varying cultural commitments to capitalism, why the rate of growth is key to sustaining liberal values, why Paul Volcker is underrated, how coming from Kentucky influences his thinking, why annuities don’t work better, America’s debt and fiscal sustainability, his critiques of nominal GDP targeting, why he wouldn’t change the governance of the Fed, how he maintains his motivation to keep learning, his next big project on artificial intelligence, and more.

Here is one excerpt about religion:

COWEN: If we think of the most influential advocates for capitalism in the mid–20th century, there’s Hayek, I would say Keynes at most phases of his career — maybe not all, Milton Friedman. They seem to be largely secular rather than religious. If we look at theologians — while there’s a great diversity of views, on average, they seem to be left-leaning. So why is it the religious thinkers lean towards socialism, and the economists are quite secular?

FRIEDMAN: I think there’s a part of the story that you’re missing, and that has to do with the coming together at mid–20th century in America, of religious conservatism and economic conservatism. I think the catalyst that brought them together was the existential fear of world communism. Here we are — call it 70 years later, and it’s difficult to put ourselves back in the shoes of Americans in the 1950s, but that was a real fear.

Communism, at least as advocated at that time, had a unique feature of being simultaneously the existential enemy of lots of things that we hold dear. It was the enemy of Western-style political democracy, but it was also the enemy of Western-style market capitalism, and importantly for purposes of this line of argument, it was the enemy of Western-style religion.

I think the religious conservatives and the economic conservatives realized that they had an enemy in common, and they took the threat seriously, and this led them to come together.

And about macro:

COWEN: Pandemic aside, if, on average, G is greater than R, can’t we just grow our way out of the debt? As you mentioned, now borrowing rates are negative in real terms, right? Economic growth, on average, is positive, so just keep on plowing straight ahead. Let the clock tick.

FRIEDMAN: There are two parts of the sustainability question, and you hit one of them correctly. If your economy is growing in real terms faster than the debt, then you can grow your way out of any debt. But there’s another side of it, and that’s how rapidly are you taking on new debt?

Let’s take your question seriously and say we’re going to put the pandemic aside. In the year before the pandemic — we’re talking about the government’s fiscal year 2019, so ended September 30, 2019 — none of us had talked about pandemics yet. In that year, the US government spent $4.5 trillion, and it only took in, in revenues, $3.5 trillion.

That $1 trillion deficit, even at a time of a fully employed economy and, of course, before the pandemic hit, that was nearly 5 percent of our national income — even though our economy was growing nicely, more rapidly than the rate of interest that the government was paying on the debt, we were on the other side of the equation, adding new debt so rapidly that the debt-to-income ratio was going up instead of down.

So simply pointing to the so-called R-minus-G factor, I think, is a very incomplete way to look at the question of sustainability.

Recommended, and here is Ben’s new and very interesting book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

Are disenchanted Iranians turning to other faiths?

The spiritual gap between Iran’s Shia ayatollahs and the people they rule is widening. The strictures of the theocracy and the doctrine of Shia supremacy alienate many. So growing numbers of Iranians seem to be leaving religion or experimenting with alternatives to Shiism. Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais all report soaring interest. Leaders of other forms of Islam speak of popular revivals. “There’s a loyalty change,” says Yaser Mirdamadi, a Shia cleric in exile. “Iranians are turning to other religions because they no longer find satisfaction in the official faith.”

…The repression isn’t working. The state says over 99.5% of Iran’s 82m people are Muslim. But its numbers are not reliable. A poll of more than 50,000 Iranians (about 90% of whom live in Iran) conducted online by Gamaan, a Dutch research group, found a country in religious flux. About half of the respondents said they had lost or changed their religion. Less than a third identified as Shia. If these numbers are even close to correct, Iran is much more diverse than its official census shows.

Here is more from The Economist.  Speculative, but interesting.

What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. He served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2003 and 2009. Gioia has published five books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. In December 2015 he became the California State Poet Laureate.

He is also well-known as a composer of opera libretti, and more recently as a spokesperson for the importance of Catholicism for culture.  And he is brother of TedGioia, former CWT guest.  And here is Dana’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with him — so what should I ask?

Who Runs the AEA?

That is a new paper by Kevin D. Hoover and Andrej Svorenčík:

The leadership structure of the American Economics Association is documented using a biographical database covering every officer and losing candidate for AEA offices from 1950 to 2019. The analysis focuses on institutional affiliations by education and employment. The structure is strongly hierarchical. A few institutions dominate the leadership, and their dominance has become markedly stronger over time. Broadly two types of explanations are explored: that institutional dominance is based on academic merit or that it based on self-perpetuating privilege. Network effects that might explain the dynamic of increasing concentration are also investigated.

I wonder how the AEA budget will hold up now that interviews can be done by Zoom and meeting attendance is not required.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Stargate Project

The Stargate Project was a long-running program, funded under various names, by the CIA, Army, and Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate and use psychic powers to defeat enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic. The program can be dated back to the end of World War II but it picked up in the 1970s with rumors that the Russians had a lead in ESP and with the popularity of the “psychic” Uri Geller.

Geller in fact consulted for the program and his powers were investigated under a DIA grant by the Stanford Research Institute. SRI concluded that Geller had “demonstrated his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”  The CIA agreed concluding in 1975 that:

“A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon….the work at SRI, using gifted individuals, has achieved some convincing and striking demonstrations of the existence of paranormal perception, and has demonstrated perhaps less convincingly the possible existence of psychokinetic influences upon sophisticated physical instrumentation.

In fact, as late as 2017 the physicist running the SRI program thinks Geller was “clearly gifted when it came to doing certain psychic tasks.”

Need I tell you that Johnny Carson did a much better job than the DIA of showing Geller was a fraud or that a later investigation suggested that “Geller was allowed to peek through a hole in the laboratory wall separating him from the drawings he was being invited to reproduce.”

Nevertheless, the Stargate Project continued for decades and not just investigations. So-called “remote viewers” were recruited and paid to try to locate hostages, missiles and other locations of military and domestic intelligence secrets:

As he later told the Washington Post, McMoneagle was involved in some 450 missions between 1978 to 1984, including helping the Army locate hostages in Iran and pointing CIA agents to the shortwave radio concealed in the pocket calculator of a suspected KGB agent captured in South Africa.

Another remote viewer, Angela Dellafiora Ford, was asked in 1989 to help track down a former customs agent who had gone on the run, she recounted recently on the CBS News program 48 Hours. She was able to pinpoint the man’s location as “Lowell, Wyoming,” even as U.S. Customs was apprehending him 100 miles west of a Wyoming town called Lovell.

Publicly, the Pentagon continued to deny it was spending money on any kind of psychic research, even as reports leaked out in the 1980s of the details of the government’s experiments. Finally, in 1995, the CIA released a report conducted by the independent American Institutes for Research, which acknowledged the U.S. government’s long-rumored work with remote viewing for military and intelligence purposes.

In other words, don’t believe in star gates.

SCOTUS, houses of worship, and the pandemic

The Supreme Court has sided with religious institutions (NYT) against some of the pandemic restrictions of state and local governments:

The opinion said the state had treated secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship.

“The list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities,” the opinion said.

Here is also WaPo coverage.  And:

“We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Things never go well when we do.”

While I am not myself religious, I regard religious services as essential parts of our society and also in the longer run for our economy (birth rates, if nothing else).  More generally, I am struck by how many intelligent people no longer seem to attach much weight to religious liberty, by no means starting with the various anti-Church moves during the Obama administration, but certainly emphasized there.  (Even centrist Democrats are often clueless about the traumatic effects here, one of the biggest gaps in their understanding of American politics.)  So I am happy to see push back in the opposite direction, siding with the rights of religious institutions.  On top of all other considerations, those institutions are also (usually) bastions of non-Woke sentiments, which makes protecting them all the more important.

You will note that the decision does not strike down all restrictions on church services, but rather rejects a particular set of restrictions, leaving many broader issues open (to varying degrees for the different justices, if I understand correctly).

You might think “this decision is killing people,” but I wonder if that is true on net.  If you do believe various pandemic restrictions are the way forward at this point (only modestly in my view), you will want to restrict more than just churches.  If religious people see that the rights of churches will be protected to some reasonable degree, they might be more willing to support other restrictions.  So even if you are very pro-restriction, I hardly view this decision as an obvious consequentialist disaster.  We are not banning Thanksgiving travel either, right?

And if we do not turn government and also federal funds and tax exemptions into a battering ram against religious autonomy, we will reap a lot of other practical, life and death benefits from that decision over time, including a healthier American discourse.

That all said, if I were running a church likely I would cancel all in-person services beyond very limited numbers.

Addendum: If in 2016 you vowed to “respect Trump voters,” supporting this decision would be one good place to start.  It might do a good deal to limit polarization and improve the other decisions we make.

What should I ask Benjamin M. Friedman?

As noted, Ben has a new and very interesting book coming out Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  He is also the author of the superb The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and the earlier Day of Reckoning, about the economic policies of the Reagan administration.  Ben has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, and he taught me Ph.D. macro at Harvard in 1984, one of my favorite professors I might add.  Here is Ben on

So what should I ask him?

Secularization and the Tribulations of the American Working-Class

That is a work in progress by Brian Wheaton, job market candidate from Harvard University.  Here is the abstract:

Over the past several decades, working-class America has been plagued by multiple adverse trends: a sharp increase in social isolation, an even sharper increase in single parenthood, a decline in male labor force participation rates, and a decline in generational economic mobility – amongst other things.  Material economic factors have been unable to fully explain these phenomena, often yielding mixed results or – in some cases, such as that of single parenthood – lacking explanatory power altogether.  I study the decline in religiosity and, using a shift-share instrument leveraging the fact that different religious denominations are declining at different rates, I find that religious decline has a strong adverse effect on the aforementioned variables.  The effects are not weakened by including other potential explanatory factors (such as China trade shocks and variation in public assistance).  I present evidence that, to the extent reverse causality exists, it creates bias in the opposite direction of my estimates.  These findings are also robust to several alternative instruments, including the repeal of the state blue laws banning retail activity on Sundays and the Catholic church scandals of the 2000s.  Two instruments – the blue laws and the state anti-evolution laws mandating teaching of creationism in school – allow me to ascertain whether the effect proceeds through religious attendance or beliefs.  I find that, for most outcomes, the bulk of the effect is driven by religious attendance.

To be clear, that is not Brian’s job market paper, which covers “Laws, Beliefs, and Backlash.” Or you might wish to try these results on corporal punishment in schools (with Maria Petrova and Gautam Rao):

We find that the presence of corporal punishment in schools increases educational attainment, increases later-life social trust and trust in institutions, and leads to less authoritarian attitudes toward child-rearing, and greater tolerance of free speech. Additionally, exposure to corporal punishment in school decreases later-life crime. We find no effects on mental or physical health.

Here is his paper about flat tax reform in Eastern Europe:

Using static and dynamic difference-in-differences approaches, I find that the flat tax reforms increase annual GDP growth by 1.36 percentage points for a transitionary period of approximately one decade.

I praise the scholarship and courage of Brian N. Wheaton.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.