Category: Religion

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.

What should I ask Edwidge Danticat?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, she is the famed Haitian author.  Here is her extensive Wikipedia page.  Or here is part of a shorter bio:

Author Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to André Danticat and Rose Danticat. In 1981, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she graduated from Clara Barton High School and received her B.A. degree in French literature from Barnard College in New York City in 1990; and her M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993.

In 1983, at age fourteen, Danticat published her first writing in English, “A Haitian-American Christmas,” in New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers. Her next publication, “A New World Full of Strangers,” was about her immigration experience and led to the writing of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. In 1997, she was named one of the country’s best young authors by the literary journal Granta. Danticat’s other works include, Everything Inside, Claire of the Sea Light, Brother, I’m Dying, Krik? Krik!, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She has worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme, on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti.

So what should I ask her?

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

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

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey travel notes

Having not visited the New Jersey shore since I was a kid (and then a very regular visitor), I realized you cannot actually swim there with any great facility.  Nor is there much to do, nor should one look forward to the food.

Nonetheless Ocean Grove is one of America’s finest collections of Victorian homes, and the town style is remarkably consistent and intact.  Most of all, it is an “only in America” kind of place:

Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 as an outgrowth of the camp meeting movement in the United States, when a group of Methodist clergymen, led by William B. Osborn and Ellwood H. Stokes, formed the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to develop and operate a summer camp meeting site on the New Jersey seashore. By the early 20th century, the popular Christian meeting ground became known as the “Queen of Religious Resorts.” The community’s land is still owned by the camp meeting association and leased to individual homeowners and businesses. Ocean Grove remains the longest-active camp meeting site in the United States.

The pipe organ in the 19th century Auditorium is still one of the world’s twenty largest.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey - Wikipedia

The Auditorium is closed at the moment, but they still sing gospel music on the boardwalk several times a night.

The police department building is merged together with a Methodist church, separate entrances but both under the same roof.

Ocean Grove remains a fully dry city, for the purpose of “keeping the riff-raff out,” as one waitress explained to me.  To walk up the Ocean Grove boardwalk into nearby Asbury Park (Cuban and Puerto Rican and Haitian in addition to American black) remains a lesson in the economics of sudden segregation, deliberate and otherwise.

Based on my experience as a kid, I recall quite distinct “personae” for the adjacent beach towns of Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, Seaside Heights, Lavalette, Belmar, Spring Lake, and Point Pleasant.  This time around I did not see much cultural convergence.  That said, Ocean Grove now seems less the province of the elderly and more of a quiet upscale haunt, including for gay couples.  As an eight-year-old, it was my least favorite beach town on the strip.  Fifty years later, it is now striking to me how much the United States is refusing to be all smoothed over and homogenized.