Category: Religion

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 scholar.google.com.

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.

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Why are North and South India so different on gender?

From Alice Evans:

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

It does not seem to be a function of wealth, nor was colonialism a major factor.  And cousin marriage, which is more prevalent in the south?  Alice notes:

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

Islam, however, is one factor:

In sum, gender segregation became more widespread under Islamic rule. Men continue [to] dominate public life, while women are more rooted in their families, seldom gathering to resist structural inequalities.

But perhaps most significantly:

Female labour force participation is higher in states with traditions of labour-intensive cultivation…

Wheat has been grown for centuries on the fertile, alluvial Indo-Gangetic plain. Cultivation is not terribly labour-intensive, though cereals must still be processed, shelled and ground. This lowers demand for female labour in the field, and heightens its importance at home.

Rice-cultivation is much more labour intensive. It requires the construction of tanks and irrigation channels, planting, transplanting, and harvesting. Women are needed in the fields. Rice is the staple crop in the South.

And this:

Pastoralism may have also influenced India’s caste-system. Brahmins dominate business, public service, politics, the judiciary, and universities. Upper caste purity and prestige has been preserved through female seclusion, prohibiting polluting sexual access. These patriarchal norms may be rooted in ancient livelihoods. Brahmins share genetic data with ancient Iranians and steppe pastoralists. Brahmins also comprise a larger share of the population in North India and only 3% in Tamil Nadu.

Over the centuries, male superiority may have become entrenched.

Finally:

Northern parents increasingly support their daughters’ education, but this is primarily to improve their marriage prospects, not work outside the home.

There is much, much more at the link, including some excellent maps, visuals, and photos.

Those new service sector jobs, coffin whisperer edition

Also known as markets in everything:

Bill Edgar has, in his own words, “no respect for the living”. Instead, his loyalty is to the newly departed clients who hire Mr Edgar — known as “the coffin confessor” — to carry out their wishes from beyond the grave.

Mr Edgar runs a business in which, for $10,000, he is engaged by people “knocking on death’s door” to go to their funerals or gravesides and reveal the secrets they want their loved ones to know.

“They’ve got to have a voice and I lend my voice for them,” Mr Edgar said.

Mr Edgar, a Gold Coast private investigator, said the idea for his graveside hustle came when he was working for a terminally ill man.

“We got on to the topic of dying and death and he said he’d like to do something,” Mr Edgar said.

“I said, ‘Well, I could always crash your funeral for you’,” and a few weeks later the man called and took Mr Edgar up on his offer and a business was born.

In almost two years he has “crashed” 22 funerals and graveside events, spilling the tightly-held secrets of his clients who pay a flat fee of $10,000 for his service.

And:

In the case of his very first client Mr Edgar said he was instructed to interrupt the man’s best friend when he was delivering the eulogy.

“I was to tell the best mate to sit down and shut up,” he said.

“I also had to ask three mourners to stand up and to please leave the service and if they didn’t I was to escort them out.

“My client didn’t want them at his funeral and, like he said, it is his funeral and he wants to leave how he wanted to leave, not on somebody else’s terms.”

Despite the confronting nature of his job, Mr Edgar said “once you get the crowd on your side, you’re pretty right” because mourners were keen to know what was left unsaid.

You might think “that’s it,” but no the article is interesting throughout.  For the pointer I thank Daniel Dummer.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Bringing religion back into business

Evan Sharp, the co-founder of Pinterest, hired Sacred Design Lab to categorize all major religious practices and think of ways to apply them to the office. They made him a spreadsheet.

“We pulled together hundreds of practices from all these different religions and cultural practices and put them in a spreadsheet and just tried to categorize them by emotional state: which ones are relevant when you’re happy, which are relevant when you’re angry, and a couple other pieces of metadata,” Mr. Sharp said.

When he had the data, he said, he took a few days and read it all. “This sounds embarrassingly basic,” he said, “but it really reframed parts of religion for me.”

It made him realize how many useful tools existed inside something as old-fashioned as his childhood church. “Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility,” he said. And Mr. Sharp saw that it was good.

And:

Rev. Phillips, the minister, had a few other ideas. She suggested using a repetitive meeting structure, which can be calming for participants. This might take the form of starting each team meeting with the same words, a sort of corporate incantation.

Others suggested workers each light a candle at the start of a meeting, or pick up a common object that everyone is likely to have in their homes.

“How about trying actual religion?” I hear Ross Douthat saying… Here is the full Nellie Bowles NYT article, after a slow start interesting throughout, though no real discussion of Wokeness, which of course is what the tech companies actually are doing.

From Christianity to liberalism

Daniel Klein sets the record straight:

Olsson: But was it Christianity in particular, or monotheism more generally, that opened up the road to liberalism? Don’t other religious traditions and civilizations also have ideas on individuals, moral agency, and the conscience?

Klein: Monotheism is necessary but not sufficient. Other monotheistic religions didn’t have moral agency, moral equality, and the conscience in quite the same way. Siedentop says that Christianity was quite exceptional in the dignity it accorded the individual. That individual was a votary of the Christ with responsibility to figure out how to advance the well-being of the widest whole of humankind.

Siedentop speaks a lot about moral equality, and I think that one aspect of what he means is that everyone, no matter how depraved or religiously misguided, even an enemy, has the potential for upward vitality, and everyone, no matter how saintly and accomplished up to the present moment, has the potential for downward moral movement. Each of us faces a same sort of moral challenge all the time. Siedentop would associate this image of the individual with Augustine. The implication is that everyone is with or potentially with God, and as an individual. It isn’t about abiding by a set of ritualistic practices. It is a very individual affair.

Siedentop argues that liberalism emerged from, and best prevails today, in what was once thought of as Christendom. If you look at a map of economic freedom today, you will see that the “most free” countries generally correlate to Christendom circa 1300, plus areas (North America, Australia and New Zealand, arguably Japan) that have since been developed by or influenced by the Christian West. In a sense his book is a theory of that correlation, an explanation. Christianity made liberalism possible—which is not say that, within a country, Christianity is sufficient for, or will necessarily produce, liberalism.

Here is the full interview, recommended.  And here is a related tweet.