Category: Religion

What should I ask Russ Roberts?

I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel.  Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter.  We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.

So what should I ask him?  Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…

How to Increase Effective Altruism

Caviola, Schubert and Greene have a good review of the reasons why effective and ineffective altruism attract donations. First, they note the large gains from making altruism more effective.

A US$100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness [1]. By contrast, it costs US$50 000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world. This large difference in impact per dollar is not unusual. According to expert estimates, the most effective charities are often 100 times more effective than typical charities [2].

…Most research on charitable giving focuses on the amounts that donors give [4]. However, if the societal goal of charitable giving is to improve human (or animal) well-being, it is probably more important to focus on the effectiveness of giving….you can double your impact by doubling the amount that you give to typical charities, but you can multiply your impact by a factor of ten, 100, or even 1000 by choosing to support more effective charities [2].

The authors then consider a number of cognitive factors or biases that allow or encourage ineffective altruism. For example, people tend to give to charities that they are emotionally connected with regardless of effectiveness and they also like to split donations across multiple charities in part because they have scope neglect (“a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” to quote Stalin who correctly identified the principle even though he was more concerned about how to get away with killing millions than saving millions).

One particular feature of the paper that I like is that instead of simply advocating overcoming these biases they think about ways to use them. For example, you can’t stop people giving to ineffective but emotionally attractive charities but because people like to split and don’t pay attention to scope you can get them to split their donation with an effective charity.

…people tend to support charities that are emotionally appealing, paying little attention to effectiveness. However, there is evidence that many people do care about effectiveness and that information about effectiveness can make giving more effective [2,21]. Combining these insights suggests a new strategy to increase the effectiveness of charitable giving: many donors may be amenable to splitting their donations between an emotionally appealing charity and a highly effective charity, especially if provided with effectiveness information.

This strategy can work especially well if you combine it with matching funds or funds to “cover overhead” which are given by a relatively small number of rich people who can be swayed by philosophical arguments in favor of effective altruism.

Hat tip: Steve Stewart-Williams.

The religious polity that is Iceland

A proposal to ban clergy from charging or accepting fees for funerals, weddings and baptisms has prompted threats of industrial action by the clergy union of the Church of Iceland (Þjóðkirkjan).

The Church of Iceland is the established Lutheran church of the island nation, and its clergy are paid by the state. Clerical salaries and parochial responsibilities are laid out in a contract negotiated by the Association of Icelandic Clergy and the state. Funerals, baptisms, weddings and confirmations are considered extra work and are governed by a set fee schedule.

On 19 Oct 2022 the Kirkjuráð, the Church of Iceland’s executive council, proposed ending the practice of charging fees. An announcement from the Kirkjuráð said the church would ban priests from charging fees. It believed clergy were sufficiently remunerated for their work, and further stated they believed the ministrations of the church should be available to all, and no one by dint of lack of funds should be denied services. “It is outdated and alienating for the services of the church that priests, who are serving people in moments of joy and sorrow, later send these people a bill for the services. This greatly undermines the credibility of the services of the church,” the Kirkjuráð wrote.

The president of the clergy union, Ninna Sif Svavarsdóttir, issued a statement decrying the proposal and took issue with the tone of Kirkjuráð’s announcement. “It is highly distasteful and indecent for a church council to warn pastors about a lack of Christian love when they exercise their clear fundamental right to collect fees for extra work.”

Ms.Svavarsdóttir stated a collective bargaining agreement had been reached in July 2021, and if the church hierarchy was going to abrogate the contract, the clergy might be compelled to exercise their rights under law and strike.

Here is the full story, via Evan.

Hunting the Satanists

Michael Flynn, the former Trump National Security Advisor and QAnon promoter, is now being accused by QAnon of being a Satanist.

…Flynn’s trouble started on Sept. 17, when he led a congregation at Nebraska pastor Hank Kunneman’s Lord of Hosts Church in prayer. Flynn’s prayer included invocations to “sevenfold rays” and “legions,” two phrases that struck some of Flynn’s followers as strange.

…As video of the prayer circulated in online conspiracy theorist groups, the references to “legions” and “rays” soon sparked speculation among Flynn’s right-wing supporters that their hero had been lured to the dark side. Always on the lookout for the Satanic influence they imagine lurks at the heart of the world, they claimed that Flynn had secretly been worshiping the devil. Worse, since the congregation was repeating the prayer after Flynn, the rumor went, he had duped hundreds of Christians into joining the ritual.

…Flynn isn’t the first right-wing figure tied to QAnon to see its acolytes turn on him. Oklahoma Senate candidate Jackson Lahmeyer, whose challenge to Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) has been endorsed by Flynn, appeared at an April pro-QAnon conference with Flynn in Tulsa.

A few months later, however, Lahmeyer posted a seemingly innocent picture of his daughter wearing red shoes—apparently unaware that QAnon followers consider red shoes to be yet another sign of their imagined Satanic sex-trafficking cabal. Lahmeyer was soon caught up in a QAnon controversy of his own.

“Unfortunately, I have to say it because people are asking me,” Lahmeyer wrote in a Facebook post. “I’m in no way involved in Child Sex Trafficking, pedophilia or devil worship.”

Now, here’s another story–this one about an email sent by a Yale law student from the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA) to fellow classmates. The email in question reads:

SUP NALSA,

Hope you’re all still feeling social! This Friday at 7:30 we will be christening our very own (soon to be) world=renowned NALSA Trap House….by throwing a Constitution Day Bash in collaboration with FedSoc. Planned abstractions include Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.), a cocktail station, assorted hard and soft beverages, and (most importantly) the opportunity to attend the NALSA Trap House’s inaugural mixer!

Hope to see you all there!

The email seems to me like a light-hearted invitation to a party but, of course, not being one-of-the-elect I can’t read the secret, esoteric meaning. According to Yale’s Diversity office the email was actually a coded message to celebrate white supremacy with a blackface party.

Just 12 hours after the email went out, the student was summoned to the law school’s Office of Student Affairs, which administrators said had received nine discrimination and harassment complaints about his message.

At a Sept. 16 meeting, which the student recorded and shared with the Washington Free Beacon, associate dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik told the student that the word “trap” connotes crack use, hip hop, and blackface. Those “triggering associations,” Eldik said, were “compounded by the fried chicken reference,” which “is often used to undermine arguments that structural and systemic racism has contributed to racial health disparities in the U.S.”

Eldik, a former Obama White House official, went on to say that the student’s membership in the Federalist Society had “triggered” his peers.

…Throughout the Sept. 16 meeting and a subsequent conversation the next day, Eldik and Cosgrove hinted repeatedly that the student might face consequences if he didn’t apologize—including trouble with the bar exam’s “character and fitness” investigations, which Cosgrove could weigh in on as associate dean.

…When the student hadn’t apologized by the evening of Sept. 16, Eldik and Cosgrove emailed the entire second-year class about the incident. “[A]n invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language,” the email read. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms” and “are working on addressing this.”

The two cases illustrate that the worldview of QAnon and Yale’s diversity office are surprisingly similar. Both see a world in which Satan, literal or metaphorical, is an active force in the world corrupting individuals and institutions. Satan is powerful but hidden. He only reveals his influence when the corrupted slip-up and by the incorrect use of a word, phrase, or gesture reveal their true natures.

Since Satan is powerful and hidden the good people must constantly monitor everyone. The moment a slip-up is spotted, no matter how small, the corrupted must be denounced because anyone who even unwittingly associates with the corrupted will themselves become corrupted. “Legions”and “rays”? Satanist! “Trap House.” Satanist! “Red shoes.” Sex-trafficker! “Federalist Society.” Satanist society! Repeating the prayer? Duping hundreds of Christians into joining the ritual! Attending a party? We condemn this in the strongest possible terms! Condemn the non-believers to HELL! It’s all the same.

The other similarity, of course, is that both views are disturbingly common and completely bonkers.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

16th and 17th century Protestantism (that was then, this is now)

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant culture is, despite both popular and popular scholarly persuasion, diametrically opposed to each one of the cardinal positions of the liberal tradition listed above.  Those central features of early modern evangelical culture might be quickly and crudely summarized thus: enslavement of the will, with total repudiation of works as currency in the economy of salvation, and the permanent shadow of despair; a sense of self subject to an impossibly high bar of authenticity, and forever vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy; a fear of dramatic performativity, now described as seductive, irrational, and lethal magic; repudiation of visual images, both material and psychic, as the destructive allurements of idolatry; obsessive focus on the literalist written as the source of salvation; and non-toleration for freedom of religious conscience.

The author, James Simpson, later lists some traits of this earlier [sic] ideology:

  • posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other…
  • produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancient regime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity…
  • generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion,
  • targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies…
  • actively developed surveillance systems;
  • legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time…
  • promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead…
  • legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue…In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached…The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.

That is all from the excellent book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, Belknap Press 2019, again by James Simpson.

In case you don’t know when the Reformation was, it was a long time ago.

I also loved the author’s take on how Shakespeare was in fact, for his time, a deliberate answer to the (what we now would call) Wokeism surrounding him.  Here is one of the best sentences I have read this year:

By the seventeenth century, Shakespeare began to educate audiences out of the revolutionary discipline of sincerity, by inventing partial escape routes from the schismatic and intolerable logic of early modernizing authentic, singular selfhood.

CS should like that sentence!  It is followed by a very good analysis of Measure for Measure and Winter’s Tale.

And I thank GC for carrying this book to me.

A simple, reductive account of my visit to the National Gallery, London

From the 15th through the 17th centuries, the most skilled physical producers in the West were also the best applied chemists and they had ample financial support and they were working out all visual permutations of expressing the best idea the West ever has taken up.

Pretty amazing when you think of it in those terms.

Is “wrestled” the right word here?

The advisers also wrestled with the practicalities of endorsing a booster shot for only Pfizer-BioNTech recipients, when close to half of vaccinated Americans have received Moderna or J. & J. vaccines.

“I just don’t understand how, later this afternoon, we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe disease and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,’” said Dr. Sarah Long, a pediatrician and infectious diseases expert at Drexel University College of Medicine in Pennsylvania.

I feel I do understand how, though of course I do not approve.  Here is more from the NYT.  And for a further multi-cocktail blitz of what I can only call immoral insanity:

Committee members also expressed concern on Thursday that some recommendations — particularly that certain younger Americans be allowed booster shots after an assessment of individual risks — would mean that only the wealthy and educated would gain access to additional shots.

Better that no one get such doses?  Maybe so, just read further:

Some experts seemed to suggest on Wednesday that it might be better to hold off on recommending any booster shots until recipients of all three vaccines could qualify for them.

Still a train wreck, the whole thing.  At least the CDC head has had the guts to override the vaccine panel.  Of course there is no single way to get it right with a few rules, so how about injecting a greater dose of individual choice?  Or do they need to make a special rule letting people in vaccine-shy Kentucky get boosters too?

Learning to live with Woke

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, or maybe try this link, note it is 3x the usual length and not easily excerpted.  Nonetheless here is one bit:

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.

And:

It drives conservatives and libertarians crazy that woke ideas often have more purchase in the private sector than in the public sector. Private universities, for example, seem “more woke” than public universities.

Still, you read it here first (or maybe not): The halls of power in Washington just aren’t that woke! They are nothing like Twitter or Google or Yale University.

Yes, many woke opponents cite the role of government and the fear of lawsuits as forces driving woke behavior and corporate attachment to wokeism. And surely they have a point. Yet in much of the corporate and nonprofit world, wokeism is not merely a reflexive defense against lawsuits. It is embraced with enthusiasm.

Wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.

And in sum:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

Covid markets in everything

A pastor is encouraging people to donate to his Tulsa church so they can become an online member and get his signature on a religious exemption from coronavirus vaccine mandates. The pastor, Jackson Lahmeyer, is a 29-year-old small-business owner running in the Republican primary challenge to Sen. James Lankford in 2022.

Lahmeyer, who leads Sheridan Church with his wife, Kendra, said Tuesday that in the past two days, about 30,000 people have downloaded the religious exemption form he created.

And:

Some institutions request a signature from a religious authority, but Charles Haynes, senior fellow for religious freedom at the Freedom Forum in Washington, said that those institutions could be on a shaky ground constitutionally. Haynes said that if a person states a sincere religious belief that they want to opt out of vaccination, that should be enough.

“He’s not really selling a religious exemption,” said Haynes, who compared Lahmeyer’s exemption offer to televangelists who sell things like prayer cloths. “He’s selling a bogus idea that you need one.”

Here is the full story, via Brett D.

*Beautiful World, Where Are You?* — the new Sally Rooney novel

It is really good, and more subtle than one might have expected.  Imagine Ireland’s #1 left-wing writer imbibing the brew of Ross Douthat over the last few years and putting it all into fictional form, and convincingly at that.  I don’t just mean the Mass scene and the pornography discussion, it is the consistent theme running throughout the book.

The tale ends up as a true case for cultural optimism, albeit with some reasonable qualifications.

Here is a good New Yorker review by Lauren Michele Jackson.  The title of the book is excellent as well.

My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

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

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Why has the Indian diaspora been so successful?

Dwarkesh writes to me:

Why do you think the Indian diaspora has been so successful? Just selection of the best immigrants from a large pool of candidates or something else too?

Yes, there are plenty of Indians, and surely that matters, but I see several others factors at work:

1. The Indian diaspora itself is large, estimated at 18 million and the single largest diaspora in the world.

2. A significant portion of the better-educated Indians are hooked into English-language networks early on, including through the internet.  The value of this connection has been rising due to the rising value of the internet itself.  That is a big reason to be bullish on the Indian diaspora.

3. India has been growing rapidly enough so that people understand the nature and value of progress, yet the country remains poor enough that further progress seems urgent.

4. Many Indian parents seem intent on expecting a great deal from their children.  The value of this cannot be overemphasized.  This effect seems to be stronger in India than in say Indonesia.

5. There is especially positive selection for Indians coming to America.  You can’t just run across a border, instead many of the ways of getting here involve some specialization in education and also technical abilities.  Virtually all migrated in legal manners, and here is some interesting data on how the various cohorts of Indians arriving in America differed by wave.

6. More speculatively, I see a kind of conceptual emphasis and also a mental flexibility resulting from India’s past as a mixing ground for many cultures.  Perhaps some of this comes from the nature of Hinduism as well, even for non-Hindu Indians (just as American Jews are somewhat “Protestant”).  Indians who move into leadership roles in U.S. companies seem to do quite well making a very significant cultural leap.  I cannot think of any other emerging economy where the same is true to a comparable extent.  In any case, the intellectual capital embedded in Indian culture is immense.

7. Those Indians who leave seem to retain strong ties to the home country, which in turn helps others with their subsequent upward mobility, whether in India or abroad.  In contrast, Russians who leave Russia seem to cut their ties to a higher degree.

8. I feel one of the hypotheses should involve caste, but I don’t have a ready claim at hand.

Here is the take of Stephen Manallack.  Here is Times of India.  (And by the way, here is Shruti’s piece on India’s 1991 reforms, not irrelevant to the diaspora.)

What else?

North vs. South India?

The data set used by Paul and Sridhar starts with the year 1960, when per capita income in Tamil Nadu was 51 per cent higher than UP’s. In the early 1980s, this difference had narrowed to 39 per cent. However, over the following decades the gap began to rapidly grow, and in 2005 an average resident of Tamil Nadu earned 128 per cent more than an average resident of Uttar Pradesh. (Statistics available online suggest that by 2021 the gap has increased to almost 300 per cent.)

Taking the South as a whole and the North as a whole, the book found that while the two regions differed only by 39 per cent in terms of per capita income in 1960-61, forty years later the gap had widened to 101 per cent. Now, in 2021, the gap has widened much further. Currently, the average annual per capita income of the four northern states profiled by Paul and Sridhar is about US $4,000, and of the four southern states, in excess of US $10,000, or roughly 250 per cent higher.

The data analysed by Paul and Sridhar show that there are two areas in which the South has done much better than the North. First, with regard to human development indicators such as female literacy rate, infant mortality and life expectancy. Second, in areas critical to economic development such as technical education, electricity generation, and quality and extent of roads. The first set of factors prepares healthier and better educated citizens to participate in the modern economy, while the second set enables much higher rates of productivity and efficiency in manufacturing and services.

Paul and Sridhar also found that the South fares substantially better than the North on governance indicators.

Here is the full piece by Ramachandra Guha, interesting throughout, with a pointer to Alice Evans, via Paul Novosad.