Sunday, 17 August 2014

Why Is There So Little Conversion away from State Religions?

The reason more Americans than Europeans attend church and claim to believe in God is in large part due to the absence of a state church in the USA. Historically this has meant that churches had no guaranteed income from the state, so their preachers would have to do a really good job in order to fill the collection plate - or starve. The same pressure was not present in Europe. Indeed, while Europeans have become less church-going since US independence, Americans, originally rather disinterested in religion, have attended the Lord's House with increasing assiduousness; church membership rates are up from 17 per cent at the time of the Revolution to over 60 per cent today.

These economic forces were noted already by Adam Smith, who wrote the following in The Wealth of Nations:
"[The preachers'] exertion, their zeal and industry, are likely to be much greater [when they depend on the voluntary contributions of their hearers] than [when their subsistence comes from legislated entitlements]. In this respect, the teachers of new religions have always had a considerable advantage in attacking those ancient and established systems of which the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of the faith and devotion in the great body of the people."

Elsewhere, Gary Anderson's article 'Mr Smith and the Preachers' (p. 1077) offers another pertinent quotation by the Great Scot:
"In the church of Rome, the industry and zeal of the inferior clergy is kept more alive by the powerful motive of self-interest, than perhaps in any established Protestant church. The parochial clergy derive, many of them, a very considerable part of their subsistence from the voluntary oblations of the people: a source of revenue which confession gives them many opportunities of improving. The mendicant orders derive their whole subsistence from such oblations."
Anderson also notes how Catholic Bishops were in a good position to grant promotions to the lower orders of clergymen; it is important to preach well, but one must also preach to the right person.
Thus, religious denominations which have to survive on their own do better than do state-supported ones. Which makes it rather puzzling that European non-state churches would have had to do just that. So why have they not thrived in Europe? One would think that assimilation of groups of different religion should open the door for natives to explore other faiths, and since they would do that in churches relying on voluntary contributions, they would be more likely to be swayed.
What could explain the absence of growth in non-state religions? Surely it would seem odd to many secular individuals to attend some new chruch, but all individuals are not the same, and to some of them it would not seem strange at all. This makes the new religion somewhat less strange and so increases its ability to attract new members. Many religions might not believe in collection plates or things producing similar results, but those that do should still have grown. Maybe many other faiths do not meet on weekends or whenever members of state churches can meet, or maybe they meet when competition from secular alternatives is otherwise very strong, but these possibilities are unlikely to fit every case. There should have been some religions meeting the criteria. Suggested explanations are most welcome.
Lastly and relatedly, Anderson's aforementioned article also notes David Hume's approval of an established religion on the grounds that it would mute the fanaticism of independent sects. I am inclined to think that the consequences of more religious belief among people are not generally as bad as that, though maybe one way of countering militant islamism is to make Islam the state religion?

Saturday, 16 August 2014


Commonsense tells me that the Earth is flat, but if I climb to the top of a really high mountain, I will notice that the horizon has a slight curvature. Without straining my legs to climb the mountain, I notice that the stars all move in predictable patterns at night, along with a bunch of "round" elements in the sky hinting that maybe the Earth has a similar shape. In Ancient Egypt, Eratosthenes found that a pole cast no shadow on midday in Syene, south of where he lived, whereas at his home in Alexandria a pole orthogonal to the ground did cast one. On a flat Earth, this could happen if the sun were very close so that its rays did not arrive parallel to one another, but the phenomenon was better explained by hypothesizing a spherical Tellus. The great Eratosthenes used his common sense to figure out that the cosmic shores on which we live are those of a round planet, and even calculated its circumference.
More commonsense makes for interesting insights, which might seem counterintuitive to those using less of it. To me, it is self-evident that logic is the relentless use of commonsense defined in its ordinary sense as the methods of reasoning available to the common man. Trust in observation that is not gainsaid by other observation is also commonsense. Put the two together and commonsense is really all that one needs to learn anything that is learnable. If two propositions appear inconsistent, commonsense suggests that either at least one of them is wrong or that appearances deceive. More commonsense can find out which, just like Eratosthenes could have used his shadow observations to question his belief (had he ever thought so, which I doubt he did) that the Earth was flat.
Then why do people expounding "counterintuitive" results always appear to do it with a great deal of pride? By my reckoning, it must be because they have not grasped that commonsense rightfully occupies the throne in the realm of epistemology. Sure, something might seem counterintuitive, but once commonsense as ordinarily defined has been applied every bit of the way in reaching that "counterintuitive" answer, it will be found that the original "counterintuitive" conclusion was actually pretty intuitive, quite within the reach of commonsense (or it will be found that it was wrong or that one should actually suspend judgement).
If something is counterintuitive, it must mean that it "counters", or somehow opposes, "intuition", but if intuition is what we can grasp by use of commonsense (like the fact that Tellus is spherical), it should be regarded a cardinal sin of epistemology to praise anything that is truly counterintuitive. If a researcher has to describe his theses or results by use of such foul words, my guess is he probably has not practised his intuition as much as he should have. But that is not to criticize, because vanishingly few people practise enough.
The late Gary Becker once told a story about how he met someone on a journey by aeroplane, with whom my hero (i.e. Professor Becker) had a talk about research, among other things. The fellow passenger told Professor Becker that he meant "no offence, but your [Becker's] ideas seem like plain commonsense". Professor Becker told the story to illustrate that he thought great ideas in Economics are in fact commonsensical, and that he of course had taken no offence at all. The important thing to remember is that the world is a place full of intricate relationships and that commonsense cannot get very far if not applied consistently to dig deeper into the complex. Commonsense does not mean that the yokelry know all that can be known, only that they are capable of it.

(This post is an expansion upon my comment on a recent EconLog blog post.)

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 2: Family Life

One of the things that strike the observer of Donald Duck and the other famous inhabitants of Duckburg is their unusual family structure. The Ducklings live with their uncle Donald and their parents are never seen. Of course, Donald also has absent parents and hearing any of the main characters even say "mum" or "dad" is very rare while the comics are replete with uncles. In their highly tendentious book How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, Professor of Literature Ariel Dorfman and sociologist Armand Mattelart argue that the absence of parents removes solidarity and leaves the door open for wealth to establish society's hierarchy.
Indeed, save for the Beagle Boys' granddad, nobody I can think of in the Barksian universe has a parent or grandparent who plays a significant role in the comics. But this hardly proves Dorfman and Mattelart's point for several reasons. Firstly, the main characters are not too many, so it is believable that they are exceptions in Duckburg whose seemingly deviant family structures only require a small number of explanations. Scrooge's celibacy is part of his image as somewhat of a Byronic Hero, Donald and Gladstone Gander are his two closest nephews (along with Fethry Duck, though he is not part of the Barksian universe), but they are rivals for Daisy Duck. The Ducklings are too young to be interested in girls and Gyro Gearloose lives purely for his inventions. If the characters are not in stable relationships to begin with, why would they be parents?

Secondly, there are indeed many parents for "extras", passing characters merely used as necessary background. These characters are plainly not as important as are the main ones, but if a background recurs it indicates the presence of a norm. While one may have to look a bit closer to see them, there are indeed many parents in Duckburg. For instance, in 'The Half-baked Baker' (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 210), the Ducklings talk about how some of their friends' parents are great successes and lament what a failure their uncle Donald is. Gyro Gearloose actually has a grandfather who is seen in Uncle $crooge Goes to Disneyland 1 (1957), though I suspect some translations will refer to him by the familiar Gyro even though given that the story relates events that took place long ago it is obvious that it cannot be he.

Thirdly, the only characters of suitable age and significant enough to warrant parents are the Ducklings, Donald, and maybe Gladstone and Daisy, but parents for any of these characters would make for less enjoyable comics. If Donald were the Ducklings' father rather than uncle, at least I could not see him being so wonderfully furious with them as frequently as he is. Avuncular traits have a greater domain than do parental ones. The same is true for Donald's relationship with Scrooge (there is the term "Dutch uncle" which fits their case). Gladstone and Daisy are borderline for warranting parents, but their knowing Scrooge in some sense obviates what little need they have for interaction with other elders. Parents are not going to be useful, so why introduce characters just to have them?

I mentioned how avuncular traits can vary more greatly than can acceptable parental qualities. This is because uncles lack the same incentives as parents have for raising nephews and nieces. Due to the biology of reproduction, an uncle expects to share one quarter of his genes with his nephew or niece, instead of the fifty per cent shared by parent and child. Still, one quarter is about twenty-five times as much as the one per cent of their genes which random strangers expect to share, so uncles can be expected to show some support for their siblings' offspring. All of this follows from selfish-gene-type thinking.

Literary critics have also wondered why only ducks of the same sex live together, but this observation also suffers from a small sample (Donald and Huey, Duey and Louie; Daisy and April, May and June), as well as from the inconvenient fact that Grandma Duck shares a roof with Gus Goose.

In conclusion, the preponderance of uncles and nephews rather than parents and children in the familial relationships between the main characters is explained by the fact that it permits greater variety in how they deal with one another.

The previous instalment of this series of blog posts is found here. The next instalment will deal with the geopolitics of the Barksian universe.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Incentives to Differentiate by Name

Reading the amazing The American Language by Henry Louis Mencken is a fantastic treat. On discussing American proper names, he references an article in American Speech by Ms. Miriam M. Sizer talking about how given names become all the more important - so that even the priest is known by his first name - in areas of "excessive inbreeding" (p. 523 of The American Language). The legendary Mencken continues:
"Many of the usual American given-names are in use, but sometimes the supply that is locally familiar seems to run out. Miss Sizer's novelties include Nias, Bloomer, Tera, Malen, Lony, Guerdon, Brasby, Ather, Delmer, Rector, Doley, Elzie, Ivason and Elmer Catholic. 'A man who was a great admirer of the James brothers," she says, 'named his boy Jesse-James-and-Frank. Another ... named his boy Christopher-Columbus-Who-Discovered-America.'"
Simple but incredibly intuitive. One surname can easily come to dominate a small region in ways in which given-names are very unlikely to. Rather than cause confusion in the listener, the talker simplifies by using given-names rather than family names. But even this can be tricky when there are only so many familiar first names sharing a few surnames, so rather than change heritage-carrying surnames, children are named in novel ways.
Names are a growing area of economic research. Steven Tadelis of Berkeley-Haas has analysed firms' names as tradable carriers of reputation and Steve Levitt and Roland Fryer have researched the causes of distinctively-black names. Alas, I do not see anything as important in the snippet from Mencken, but it is nice and logical and very much worth sharing.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 1: Scrooge McDuck and His Money

Yes, I do read Donald Duck, but I am still an adult with fully-functioning mental faculties. The lovable Duck turned eighty earlier this summer, so it is perhaps fitting that he and his relatives and fellow Duckburgers get a few blog posts, of which this is the first instalment. When I read Donald Duck, my favourite author is the late Carl Barks, whose universe, centred at Duckburg with fairly consistent relations among the ducks, is generally considered the best depiction of the amusing ducks (the popular cartoon series DuckTales is largely based upon Carl Barks' stories, though several characters, such as Launchpad McQuack, Fenton Crackshell and Bubba, are specific to the TV show). Barks' stories were my favourites as a child, but I find they work on many different levels, and the detailed boxes contain visual jokes one may not notice until the nth reading.

Thus, I feel myself in a good position to describe the political economy of Duckburg according to Duckman Carl Barks. This first instalment of the series is a blog post about some standard themes of price theory and economic organization, as illustrated primarily by the dealings of one Scrooge McDuck, often characterized as a ruthless monopolist who goes to any length to save a farthing. While he certainly has a penchant for the penny, the following will illustrate the superiority of a more nuanced perspective.

For instance, in 'The Money Champ' (Uncle $crooge 27), we initially follow Scrooge strolling down the street casually chatting and joking with people he passes by. The citizens take the liberty of joking with him ("Wanna borrow a buck, Mr McDuck?") and seem very pleased indeed to see and interact with the world's richest duck. These facts indicate to me that, if Scrooge is a monopolist, he is a Schumpeterian monopolist who reaches his enviable position though skilful entrepreneurship and by offering the people what they want at prices low enough to discourage competitors from entry. Time after time, the comics emphasize that Scrooge reached this position by being "tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies" (e.g., in the Classic 'Only a Poor Old Man', Uncle $crooge Four Color 386), and of course Schumpeter ably argued that monopolists must have these traits or they won't succeed. And their success is for the benefit of society, which can enjoy their innovations.

Indeed, Duckburg turns out to be rather a prosperous society. There is a fairly large upper class, and the small underclass consists, essentially, of Donald Duck, the people of Shacktown (as seen in the Christmas story in Donald Duck Four Color 367), Grandma Duck's farmhand Gus Goose, and Goofy, though the latter is not a figure of the Barksian universe. Virtually everyone else is middle class. Even Donald and Gus lead fairly comfortable lives whose every misfortune is due, respectively, to gross incompetence and pathological lethargy.

Scrooge's love for money is often believed to be a twisted perversion, but given his nephew Donald's general ineptitude, Scrooge is very generous to pay him a few nickels an hour (the exact rate varies in my sources) for sinecures such as making plaintive cries so Scrooge won't have to do it on his own time (e.g., in the wonderful 'Terror of the Beagle Boys, Donald Duck Four Color 356, and in 'All at Sea', Uncle $crooge 31). By my reading, Scrooge sees Donald as someone requiring a bit of tough love, and no-one is better at providing it than Scrooge.

Since Donald Duck is what Tyler Cowen might call a Zero Marginal Product worker, Scrooge's paying him a positive wage is an act of generosity rather than callous exploitation. Indeed, keeping a bin full of money is an even greater, unrecognized, act of generosity, since by taking such copious amounts of cash out of circulation, he raises the purchasing power of the money that remains in circulation by the quantity equation (MV=PT, so when Scrooge halts velocity, money-denominated prices must fall). Such "wastefulness" forces Scrooge to be even more innovative and offer even better products than do his rivals, such as Flintheart Glomgold and John D. Rockerduck.

In conclusion, Scrooge is a widely misunderstood character. An immensely successful Schumpeterian entrepreneur rather than an unscrupulous monopolist who keeps Duckburgers on their knees, his favourite hobby (swimming in his money) requires that he raise the purchasing power of circulating money and on top of that he gives Donald more money than his services are worth. No wonder Scrooge is off to Tralla La (Uncle $crooge 6) when begging letters and charities still won't leave him alone.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Another Take on Endogeneous Sexism

Bryan Caplan of EconLog had a nice piece of economic thinking recently in which he asked how sexism - in the sense of people's by and large deeming members of the opposite sex as less "good", all things considered, than are members of one's own sex - can arise endogenously. His answer: people discriminately choose their (mostly opposite-sex) spouse and their (mostly same-sex) friends. This means that spouse and friends are "good" by the individual's estimation. But the individual usually spends a lot more time with the spouse's friends than with friends of friends, and the former are much more second-hand friends than the latter are apt to be (this need not necessarily be the case, due to the rise of consumption-complementarities in marriages, but there should be a lingering tendency). Since second-hand friends are not subject to the individual's screening, they tend to be thought of as of lower quality, all things considered, than are first-hand friends. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.
I posted an alternative answer in the comments to the original question, and now it occurs to me that it might fit on this blog, too. Essentially, it goes like this: men and women both tend to view themselves as better than the average of their sex and better than their spouse, even when they are not (in Lake Wobegon, all the children are famously "above average" and it is a common finding that people consider themselves better drivers, etc., than average - a tendency known as the 'Lake Wobegon Effect'). If I am the best man in the world, it would make sense that I should marry the best woman in the world. Since I am better than her, it makes sense that men are better than women. My wife will reason similarly.

More generally, all that is required is that one believes oneself to be better than average, better than one's spouse, and one's spouse to be of a similar rank among thon's (i.e. his or her) sex. Endogenous sexism disappears in this framework in case one puts one's spouse on a pedestal, though I am doubtful that is a frequent occurrence. While I think my version requires only fairly innocuous assumptions and works rather well, I have to say I like Professor Caplan's version better. Nevertheless, here is mine with the hope that it, too, might amuse.

Friday, 8 August 2014

On Disagreeable Disagreement

Boston University's 2012 presidential hopeful and Economics Professor Larry Kotlikoff recently pleaded with Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman to stop being so rude to his intellectual opponents. If Professor Krugman's point with his abrasive debating style is to better advocate his opinions (and I don't know if it is, it just seems like one candidate to explain why he writes his popular column and blog for the New York Times), it strikes me that his rudeness may score points with some subset of like-minded folks who, for one reason or another, have no problem with abrasive commentary, but otherwise fail to advance Krugman's views.
The reason is that advocacy is futile, but the point of this blog post is not to talk about Professor Krugman's advocacy or his disagreeable debating style in particular, but rather about disagreeable disagreement in general. If somebody were to tell an adherent of Ideology A that he likes Ideology B, the result may be a fierce and infected dispute. The thing is that this makes about as much sense as scolding a driver of an SUV - or whatever those large cars are called - because he contributes to global warming. It makes about as much sense because the impact on policy and the impact on global warming are both less than a drop in the bucket from an individual's liking some ideology or an individual's driving a car which consumes a great deal of petrol. Your having views different from mine will not affect the world I live in, so why should I display anger about it?
Of course, the disputants may succeed in changing one another's opinions, but that success is worth very little in combating the disliked ideology or global warming. More to the point, what reason is there to expect hostile argument to be more successful than a pleasant dialectic? I would think that the psychology of the situation suggests that pleasantness encourages further interaction and thereby increases the odds of conversion, since pleasantness makes it more difficult for one of the disputants to throw up his hands and leave. It is hard to be rude to nice folks.

Maybe the reason for disagreeable disagreements is that in small, hunter-gatherer societies, intimidation, while just as epistemically worthless as it always has been and always will be, could win the "policy" debate. Because humans evolved under such conditions, hostile argument has survived. Such a pity.

HT: Greg Mankiw