Category: Religion

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

There is no great holy water blessing stagnation

A Roman Catholic church in rural Louisiana hoping to maximize its blessings has come up with a way to do it: filling up a crop-duster plane with holy water and letting the sanctified liquid mist an entire community.

“We can bless more area in a shorter amount of time,” Rev. Matthew Barzare of St. Anne Church in Cow Island, La., told NPR.

Following this past Saturday’s mass, parishioners from the church in southwestern Louisiana headed to an airstrip about five minutes away from the church.

Churchgoers brought with them 100 gallons of water, which was loaded into the crop duster.

“I blessed it there, and we waited for the pilot to take off,” Barzare said, noting that it was the largest amount of water he had ever turned holy.

“I’ve blessed some buckets for people and such, but never that much water,” he said.

The pilot had instructions to drizzle certain parts of the community, including churches, schools, grocery stores and other community gathering places.

Word of it raining blessings spread fast in Cow Island, which Barzare points out is not really an island. But when hurricanes strike, he said, the community is typically surrounded by water, hence the name.

Here is the full NPR story, via T. Greer.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.


COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

More Pregnancy, Less Crime

When it comes to crime, economists focus on deterrence. Deterrence works but it’s not the only thing that works. Simple things like better street lighting can reduce crime as can high-quality early education or psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The sociological literature has emphasized that crime is about preferences as well as constraints. Life-events or turning points such as marriage and childbirth, for example, can greatly change crime preferences. The sociological literature is mostly from case studies but in an excellent new paper, Family Formation and Crime, Maxim Massenkoff and Evan Rose (both on the job market from Berkeley) demonstrate these insights in a huge dataset.

A big part of what makes their paper compelling is that almost all of the results are blindingly clear in the raw data or using simple analysis. Here, for example, is the crime rate for women (drug, DUI, economic, or property destruction crimes) in the years before pregnancy, during pregnancy (between the red dotted lines) and after birth. Crime rates fall dramatically with pregnancy and in the three years after birth they are 50% lower on average than in the years before pregnancy.

Pregnancy imposes some physical limits on women but the effects are also very large for men whose crime rates fall by 25-30% during pregnancy of their partner and continue at that lower rate for years afterwards. Keep in mind that in our paper on three strikes, Helland and I found that the prospect of an additional twenty years to life (!) reduce criminal recidivism by just ~17%, so the effect of pregnancy is astoundingly large.

It’s not obvious what the policy implications are. Have children at a younger age doesn’t sound quite right, although in an analysis on teen births Massenkoff and Rose do indeed show that whatever the costs of teen pregnancy there are some offsetting benefits in reduced crime of the parents. More generally, however, there are policy implication if we think beyond the immediate results. First, these results show that crime isn’t simply a product of family background, poverty and neglect. Crime is a choice.

In Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Edin and Nelson relay the following anecdote (quoted in Massenkoff and Rose):

Upon hearing the news that the woman they are “with” is expecting, men such as Byron are suddenly transformed. This part-time cab driver and sometime weed dealer almost immediately secured a city job in the sanitation department (p. 36).

Byron chose to change and he did so based on the rational expectation of a future event. Massnekoff’s and Rose show that these choices are common.

Instead of thinking of these results as being about pregnancy and marriage we should ask what is it about pregnancy and marriage that makes people reduce crime? Love, responsibility and long-run thinking are all at play. In economic terms, pregnancy reduces discount rates and gives men and women a reason to invest in human capital and work for the future. Children and marriage play a large role in socializing and “civilizing” both men and women but they surely can’t be the only such factors. Indeed, although men and women on average reduce their crime rates dramatically on pregnancy this is mostly coming from men and women who had high rates to begin with–there are plenty of men and women who don’t much reduce their crime rates on pregnancy because they were already low–in a way, these men and women were pre-socialized so how do we extend the benefits of pregnancy to the expectation of pregnancy or how can we widen the effect to other factors that can also civilize?

Did the medieval church make us WEIRD?

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology.

That is a new piece in Science by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrani-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joe Henrich, try this link tooThis one works for sure.  Here is Harvard magazine coverage of the piece.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread.

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of mine at GMU economics, so I am especially excited this work is seeing the light of day in such a good venue.

*In the Closet of the Vatican*

That is the highly controversial book by Frederick Martel, subtitled Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.  For some time I had been resisting reading the book, as usually I find tales of corruption and scandal boring.  But I misunderstood the fundamental nature of the account.  It is not quite a homage, but Martel seems to admire the evolved culture of homosexuality (not my preferred word, but appropriate in this context) in the Vatican.  See this review: “The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses.”

If anything, the study reminds me of Diego Gambetta’s work on the Mafia, at least in terms of some of its methods.

Have you ever thought “there should be more books about how things actually work!?” — well, this is one of them.  Here is one excerpt:

‘Being of the parish’ could even be this book’s subtitle.  The expression is an old one in both French and Italian: I have found it in the homosexual slang of the 1950s and 1960s.  It may pre-date those years, so similar it is to a phrase in Marcel Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah and Jean Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs — even though I don’t think it appears in either of those books.  Was it more of a vernacular phrase, from the gay bars of the 1920s and 30s?  Not impossible.  In any case, it heroically combines the ecclesiastical universe with the homosexual world.

‘You know I like you,’ La Paiva announces suddenly.  ‘But I’m cross with you for not telling me if you prefer men or women.  Why won’t you tell me?  Are you at least a sympathizer?’

I’m fascinated by La Paiva’s indiscretion.

And another bit:

It took me several months of careful observation and meetings to understand the subtle nocturnal geography of the boys of Roma Termini.  Each group of prostitutes has its patch, its marked territory.  It’s a division that reflects racial hierarchies and a wide range of prices.  So the Africans are usually sitting on the guardrail by the south-western entrance to the station; the Maghrebis, sometimes the Egyptians, tend to stay around Via Giovanni Giolitti, at the crossing with the Rue Manin or under the arcades on Piazza dei Cinquecento; the Romanians are close to Piazzadella Repubblica, beside the naked sea-nymphs of the Naiad Fountain or around the Dogali Obelisk; the ‘Latinos’ last of all, cluster more towards the north of the square, on Viale Enrico de Nicola or Via Marsala.  Sometimes there are territorial wars between groups, and fists fly.

You can buy the book here.  I would add this: I do not have much knowledge in this area, but Martel seems to go out of his way to avoid making speculative accusations.  But if you would like to read a negative Catholic review of the book, here it is.

Claims about religious women

By contrast, liberal women — defined in my research as those in traditions like Episcopalianism and (most) Lutheranism that officially affirmed female leadership — fought for denominational policies that gave them standing in the pulpit. And yet there are few progressive female celebrities. Ordained progressive women secure a measure of institutional sway, but they lack the cultural capital of their conservative counterparts. My research shows that conservative women gain considerable influence without institutional power, and liberal women gain institutional power without considerable influence.

That is from Kate Bowler, interesting throughout.  Via Greg R.

Michael Kremer, Nobel laureate

To Alex’s excellent treatment I will add a short discussion of Kremer’s work on deworming (with co-authors, most of all Edward Miguel), here is one summary treatment:

Intestinal helminths—including hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, and schistosomiasis—infect more than one-quarter of the world’s population. Studies in which medical treatment is randomized at the individual level potentially doubly underestimate the benefits of treatment, missing externality benefits to the comparison group from reduced disease transmission, and therefore also underestimating benefits for the treatment group. We evaluate a Kenyan project in which school-based mass treatment with deworming drugs was randomly phased into schools, rather than to individuals, allowing estimation of overall program effects. The program reduced school absenteeism in treatment schools by one-quarter, and was far cheaper than alternative ways of boosting school participation. Deworming substantially improved health and school participation among untreated children in both treatment schools and neighboring schools, and these externalities are large enough to justify fully subsidizing treatment. Yet we do not find evidence that deworming improved academic test scores.

If you do not today have a worm, there is some chance you have Michael Kremer to thank!

With Blanchard, Kremer also has an excellent and these days somewhat neglected piece on central planning and complexity:

Under central planning, many firms relied on a single supplier for critical inputs. Transition has led to decentralized bargaining between suppliers and buyers. Under incomplete contracts or asymmetric information, bargaining may inefficiently break down, and if chains of production link many specialized producers, output will decline sharply. Mechanisms that mitigate these problems in the West, such as reputation, can only play a limited role in transition. The empirical evidence suggests that output has fallen farthest for the goods with the most complex production process, and that disorganization has been more important in the former Soviet Union than in Central Europe.

Kremer with co-authors also did excellent work on the benefits of school vouchers in Colombia.  And here is Kremer’s work on teacher incentives — incentives matter!  His early piece on wage inequality with Maskin, from 1996, was way ahead of its time.  And don’t forget his piece on peer effects and alcohol use: many college students think the others are drinking more than in fact they are, and publicizing the lower actual level of drinking can diminish alcohol abuse problems.  The Hajj has an impact on the views of its participants, and “… these results suggest that students become more empathetic with the social groups to which their roommates belong,.” link here.

And don’t forget his famous paper titled “Elephants.”  Under some assumptions, the government should buy up a large stock of ivory tusks, and dump them on the market strategically, to ruin the returns of elephant speculators at just the right time.  No one has ever worked through the issue before of how to stop speculation in such forbidden and undesirable commodities.

Michael Kremer has produced a truly amazing set of papers.

My forthcoming debate with Slavoj Žižek

We are excited to announce the program for the Dec. 7 Holberg Debate! Slavoj Žižek will give the keynote “Why I Am Still A Communist” and then be interviewed by @tylercowen

We invite everyone to watch the livestream and tweet Qs for Žižek. Use #qholberg.

Bergen, Norway — I’ll be there!

From the comments, on the Coase theorem

#1 on prefiguring of the so-called Coase theorem, consider also p. 396-7 of W.H. Hutt, “Co-ordination and the Size of the Firm,” South African Journal of Economics 2(4), December 1934:

“Now, under one ownership, their relations would, given competitive institutions, be exactly the same, provided that both methods were equally efficient from the social standpoint. There is no reason why the spreading of the lines of responsibility back to several sources should lead to less effective planning than subordinacy to an authority emanating from one source, given the equal availability of relevant knowledge to the managers who devise the plans…The most important significant difference between the two cases is that, in practice, in the one case there may not be the availability of relevant knowledge that there is in the other.”

That is from Daniel B. Klein.  And:

For a still earlier ‘discovery’ with transaction costs and all see my former colleague Yehoshua Liebermann’s “The Coase Theorem in Jewish Law,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jun., 1981), pp. 293-303

That is from Moshe Syrquin, link for both here.

The new Catholic illiberals

A few of you have asked me what I think of this movement, surveyed here (possibly gated for you), or try this coverage.  If you would like the whole thing in one tweet, maybe try this one from Sohrab Ahmari:

What I’d say to liberal friends who are men and women of goodwill: “Persuade your comrades to ease up and back off while there’s yet time. You don’t want to pit your ideology against forces much older and more potent than liberalism, which is thin civilizational gruel, indeed.”

Other than disagreeing with this group, here is my general impression.  They have not managed to produce a deep, compelling illiberal book comparable say to the works by James Fitzjames Stephens, Carl Schmitt, Burke (not actually an illiberal in my view, but the comparison remains relevant), Jean Bodin, or others from that tradition.  I’m not sure they could beat the arguments of Thomas Mann’s liberal caricature Settembrini in The Magic Mountain.

They have not attached themselves to any great social movement or revolution, either as leaders or followers, unless you count the Church itself, but that is hardly new news.

They do not have a signature policy proposal (at the end of the article behind the first link, the big policy proposal unveiled at the end is “restrictions on share buybacks” — Cliff Asness, telephone!  Are they kidding?)

Do they have a T.S. Eliot or an Emil Nolde or for that matter a J.S. Bach, who probably was not a Millian liberal?

So I believe they are part of the same “thin civilizational gruel” as the rest of us.  They are too embedded in liberalism and its presuppositions to get very far with their own programme.  That said, I am fine with them coexisting within the froth of a liberal order, insisting correctly that the heritage of “the Church” is essential to western civilization, in the meantime allowing their intuitions to be muddled by a confusion of rates of changes and levels when it comes to liberalism in the West today.

A few comments to close, returning to the tweet presented above:

1. Is all gruel thin?

2. Would thick gruel be better or worse?

3. Is Karachi haleem a form of thick gruel?

4. Isn’t the key word here “civilizational”?  It is liberalism that produced, nourished, and sustained the world’s first truly admirable societies.  There is nothing in the arguments of these new illiberals which seriously contradicts that.

5. Many people have longed for gruel, which I take to be underrated.

Do they object to dividends as well?

Lebanese/Gaza marriage markets in everything

Political parties sponsor weddings for young members to reinforce their loyalty, and gratitude. Religious and ethnic minorities — which means everyone in splintered Lebanon — consider marriage and procreation essential to their long-term survival. And armed groups encourage their fighters to marry so that their children can become the fighters of the future.

A few weeks before the Maronite nuptials, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, oversaw a similar enormous wedding for 31 couples. That was tiny compared with a mass wedding in Lebanon earlier this year that brought together 196 couples and was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But the nearby Gaza Strip — where an Egyptian-Israeli blockade keeps people poor and locked in — beats them all, often because of competition between foreign sponsors eager to win friends by expediting marriages.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates sponsored a mass wedding there for 200 couples. Two months later, Turkey seriously upped the ante, bankrolling a ceremony for 2,000 couples that was attended by officials from Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory…

Fadi Gerges, an official with the league, said it was natural for minorities to encourage their youths to procreate in a country where demographics affect power.

Here is the rest of the Ben Hubbard NYT story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries*

That is the new and excellent book out by David Sorkin.  I feel I have read many good books on Jewish history, and I don’t always see the marginal value of adding to that pile, but this one really delivered.  Plenty more detail without losing any conceptual overview.  Ever wonder what exactly happened to Jewish emancipation, and why, as the Napoleonic conquest of Europe was reversed?  This is the place to go.  By the way, in the middle of the eighteenth century there were more Jews in Curacao, Suriname and Jamaica than in all of the North American colonies combined.

You can order it here, worthy of my year-end “best non-fiction of the year” list.