Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Fight Over the Debt Limit

"Congress resists a White House request to raise the limit on how much the U.S. can borrow. The president warns of disaster. And the fight goes down to the wire. Sounds like the current budget standoff, right? Or the famous dustup between President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1995-96? Try 1962. That’s when President John F. Kennedy pushed a conservative-leaning Congress to raise the federal debt limit by several billion dollars, implying that failure to do so could harm the military. Some Republicans later accused the administration of political 'blackmail.'"
So begins a helpful article ("Fights Over Debt Limit Have Long History") that places the current debate over the debt limit in historical perspective. Congress and Presidents have been fighting about it since when in 1953 Dwight Eisenhower asked Congress to raise the limit from $275 billion to $290 billion. Congress didn't pass an increase until a year later and only to $281 billion.

This is not suggest that the current debate isn't important. It is. It's just that it isn't new.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Norway Massacres and Religious Violence

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World OrderThe recent killing of approximately 80 Norwegians at the hands of Anders Behring Breivik (and possibly others), was by an individual who, according to early reports, is a fundamentalist Christian who harbors strong anti-Islamist views and considers European multiculturalism a bad thing ("Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.").

However, his manifesto reveals that that Breivik probably isn't a fundamentalist Christian. He probably doesn't even qualify as an evangelical Christian. In a self-interview (in his manifesto) he writes:
Q: Do I have to believe in God or Jesus in order to become a Justiciar Knight?
A: As this is a cultural war, our definition of being a Christian does not necessarily constitute that you are required to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus.
Not exactly a definition that most, if not all, fundamentalist or evangelical Christians would embrace. He goes on to say that a "Christian fundamentalist theocracy" is "everything we DO NOT want," and a "secular European society" is "what we DO want."

Nevertheless, the early misreporting of Breivik's views raised, once again, the specter of religious violence and its causes, and at first blush, they seem to lend support to Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis.  Huntington argues that the end of the Cold War led to the collapse of an geopolitical equilibrium that kept what he calls a "clash of civilizations" at bay. But since that time, "culture and cultural identities... [have been] shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world" (p. 20). According to Huntington, these cultural identities, which are primarily associated with the world's great religions, are best thought of as 'civilizations' (p. 42), and the best way to avoid conflict is to keep these civilizations apart from one another.  Thus, countries should embrace the pursuit of a "single" civilization and by promoting religious homogeneity.

There is a certain intuitiveness to Huntington's argument, but for the most part, the data don't support it.  Religious conflict tends to be lower in societies where there is more diversity, not less. There are, of course, exceptions, and this fact doesn't make what happened in Norway any more bearable. However, it does suggest that individuals, such as Breivik, who think the answer to the world's problems is less diversity, not more, are simply wrong.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Redemption of Brooks Conrad

Back in October I wrote about Brooks Conrad, the Atlanta Braves 2nd Baseman, whose errors late in game three of the Divisional playoffs cost the Braves the game a possibly the series ("On the Heartache of Brooks Conrad"). It worked out well for the Giants, who went on to win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco.  At the time there were a number of sports writers (most of whom have never had to work at their jobs with 40,000 fans screaming at them) who wrote Conrad off as past his prime or out of his league. Evidently, it never occurred to them that he simply had a bad day. It happens to everyone if you play long enough.

The good news is is that Conrad is having a great year for the Braves this year ("Braves Infielder Brooks Conrad Looks Back On the Night His Life Almost Fell Apart"). He one of the Braves top subs, he's delivered a number of clutch hits throughout the season (see e.g., "Conrad Sparks Braves Rally To Beat Rockies Thursday, 9-6"), and (most importantly) he's having fun. What a great "ending" to a story that could have turned out a lot worse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Church That Throws Birthday Parties for Prostitutes

The Kingdom of God is a Party: God's Radical Plan for His FamilyPreviously, I have written about Tony Campolo ("Tony Campolo and the Essence of the Gospel"). As I noted there Campolo is an evangelical Baptist minister with a politically liberal bent who ran for State Senator as a Democrat and served as one of President Clinton's counselors after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He tends to align himself with the "completely pro-life" crowd, which means that he opposes warfare, abortion, poverty, capital punishment and euthanasia. Needless to say such positions make it impossible to neatly fit him into the boxes we often like to place people.

In his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party (pp. 3-9), he tells the story of how once when he was in Honolulu, he ended up throwing a party at a small restaurant for a prostitute at 3:30 in the morning.  When asked why, Campolo responds
that anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with whores and with all kinds of left-out people. The publicans and "sinners" loved Him because He partied with them. The lepers of society found in Him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious could not relate to what He was about, those lonely people who usually didn't get invited to parties took to Him with excitement (p. 9).
A nice retelling of the story can be found here, "Not Your Typical Surprise Party". It's relatively short, and I think many of you will enjoy it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Should Freedom of the Press Extend to State Secrets?

Some years ago, Nat Hentoff, a former columnist for The Village Voice published a book called, "Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other." His point was that while in theory many Americans believe in the right to free speech, in practice they often only affirm it for those who happen to agree with them.

This pattern extends beyond free speech to things such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press. For example, in their recent book, "The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century" Brian Grim and Roger Finke note that people often support religious freedom for themselves but not for others. According to a 2006 Pew Forum Survey of 10 countries (India, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, South Korea, United States, Brazil, Guatemala, and Chile), the average gap between people affirming religious freedom for themselves but not for others was 14%, with India having the largest gap (30%) and Chile having the smallest (3%). The US gap was 6% (see page 44).

Freedom of the press is another contentious issue. In fact, its limits were recently debated on Intelligence Squared US: "Freedom of the Press Does Not Extend to State Secrets." Here's a description of the debate from the Intelligence Squared US website:
The First Amendment protects freedom of the press, but how do we reconcile the conflict between national security and accountability? Do we err on the side of secrecy or transparency? From the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks, join the debate between the need for government secrecy and the public’s right to know.
Arguing on behalf of the motion are Michael Chertoff and Gabriel Schoenfeld. Arguing against it are Alan Dershowitz and David Sanger. Their biographies appear below (from the Intelligence Squared US website):

Michael Chertoff served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. He is currently Senior of Counsel at Covington & Burling LLP and a member of the White Collar Defense and Investigations practice group. Before heading up the Department of Homeland Security, he served as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and as a federal prosecutor for more than a decade.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and Resident Scholar at the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author, most recently, of "Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law," which questions whether the press should be prosecuted for revealing information that might endanger national defense. His essays on national security and modern history have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Commentary, where he was Senior Editor from 1994-2008.

Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer.” He recently joined the legal defense team for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Dershowitz is the author of 27 non-fiction and fiction works including "Finding, Framing, and Hanging Jefferson: A Lost Letter, a Remarkable Discovery, and Freedom of Speech in an Age of Terrorism."

David Sanger is Chief Washington Correspondent of The New York Times and a part of the team of reporters and editors in The Times’ WikiLeaks coverage. Sanger recently wrote "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power," an examination of the challenges facing the United States at a time of global and economic turmoil. In a 27-year career at the paper, Sanger has reported from New York, Tokyo and Washington, covering issues surrounding foreign policy, globalization, nuclear proliferation and Asian affairs.

If you recall, those attending an Intelligence Squared US debate vote prior to and after the debate, and the winning debate team is decided by how many minds were changed and in what direction. As always not only can you listen to the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("Freedom of the Press Does Not Extend to State Secrets"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well. The debates can also be downloaded from iTunes.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Scientific Literacy and Global Warming

It's the scientifically illiterate who don't believe in global warming, right? Wrong. A recent study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, shows that people who are more science- and math-literate tend to be more skeptical about the consequences of climate change ("Scientific Literacy Does Not Increase Concern Over Climate Change"). They're also more associated with the culture wars. Here's the abstract:
"The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication."
Here's a link to the paper: "The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bible Reading and Social Justice

It is almost an axiomatic belief among some that individuals who read the Bible regularly are more likely to embrace socially conservative views. To a certain extent this is true. Frequent Bible readers are more likely to oppose legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

However, they are also more likely to oppose the death penalty, harsher punishment of criminals, and expanding the government’s authority to fight terrorism. In addition,
  • The likelihood of Christians saying it is important to actively seek social and economic justice to be a good person increased 39 percent with each jump up the ladder of the frequency of reading Scripture, from reading the Bible less than once a year to no more than once a month to about weekly to several times a week or more. 
  • Christian respondents overall were 27 percent more likely to say it is important to consume or use fewer goods to be a good person as they became more frequent Bible readers. 
  • Reading the Bible more often also was linked to improved attitudes toward science. Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading. 
You can read more about the study at the Association of Religion Data Archives' "Ahead of the Curve" column ("Give Us Our Daily Passage: Reading Bible Tied to Social Justice Issues").

So much for stereotypes.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect

In his book, "The Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899), the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption, by which he meant the lavish spending of people on goods and services in order to show off (i.e., signal) their wealth. That is, they buy expensive items not because they can but because they want others to know that they can. A recent example of this is reflected in the popularity of Hummers a few years ago. While some who bought them probably did need them, it's likely that many who did, did so merely to show others that they could. No doubt, many of these folks rationalized their purchases away, convincing themselves that it was a rational thing to do and that they weren't engaging in conspicuous consumption, but that's a topic for another day.

A variation on this phenomenon is what Alison and Steve Sexton (twins, not spouses), two Ph.D. candidates in economics, refer to as conspicuous conservation. While conspicuous consumption signals how much green you have, conspicuous conservation signals how green you are. It occurs when people spend their money on "green" items, not because by doing so they help the environment (although they might), but because by doing so they show off their "greenness," what the Sextons refer to as "environmental bona fides." Examples include prominently carrying “I’m not a plastic bag” bags so that others can see, placing tiny windmills on your roof even though they generate virtually no electricity (like British Prime Minister David Cameron did), or installing solar panels on the side of your house facing the street even if it doesn't get the most sun (it's hard to believe, but people actually do that).

In their paper, “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides,” the Sextons focus on the Prius. Why? Because unlike most hybrids, it is obviously one:
The Honda Civic hybrid looks like a regular Honda Civic. The Ford Escape hybrid looks like a Ford Escape. And so, our hypothesis is that if the Prius looked like a Toyota Camry or a Toyota Corolla that it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. And so what we set out to do in this paper is to test that empirically ("Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?").
They were curious as to how much value that people who "lean green" place on being seen "leaning green?" They found that the Prius’s “green halo” effect was quite large. More specifically, the discovered that some people buy a Prius rather than another hybrid, not because it gets better performance (its performance is virtually identical to that of the Civic), but because when you buy one, everyone knows (because of its unique design) that you've bought a hybrid (and thus know that you're environmentally conscious). That's not the case when you by a Honda Civic hybrid; because it looks just like a regular Honda civic, unless you tell your neighbors that it's a hybrid, they may never know.

The Prius effect is even more pronounced in green neighborhoods (i.e., environmentally conscious communities). In other words, people are more likely to buy a Prius (as opposed to a Civic) when they live in neighborhoods where doing so is likely to garner their neighbor's approval (e.g., Berkeley, CA) than when they live in neighborhoods where doing so is not (e.g. Crawford, TX).

The Sextons weren't the first to figure this out. South Park made fun of the "Prius Effect" in 2006 with its "Smug Alert" episode.

To be clear, the Sextons are not claiming that everybody buys "green" simply to show off how green they are. But, if everyone was only buying because they are green rather than showing others how green they are, then it is unlikely that there would be such a disparity between the purchase of Prius's and other hybrids. Nor would people be putting useless windmills on their roofs or installing solar panels on the shady sides of their houses that happen to face the street.

All of this is nicely summarized in a recent Freakonomics podcast. You can listen to it at the Freakonomics blog ("Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?"), download it from iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Are MLB Umpires Racially Biased?

Do major league umpires discriminate? Evidently, they do. Probably not intentionally, but the data suggest that they do. In a just published article in the American Economic Review ("Strike Three: Discrimination, Incentives, and Evaluation"), Christopher A. Parsons, Johan Sulaeman, Michael C. Yates, and Daniel S. Hamermesh, using data from the cameras the Major League Baseball installed in ballparks to track the location of every pitch (see my earlier post, "Are Baseball Umpires Biased"), found that umpires are more likely to call "strikes" "balls" if their ethnicity differs from the pitcher. They also found, however, that pitchers often pick up on this and adjust their pitching accordingly. Here's the abstract from the paper:
Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate pitchers. Strikes are called less often if the umpire and pitcher do not match race/ethnicity, but mainly where there is little scrutiny of umpires. Pitchers understand the incentives and throw pitches that allow umpires less subjective judgment (e.g., fastballs over home plate) when they anticipate bias. These direct and indirect effects bias performance measures of minorities downward. The results suggest how discrimination alters discriminated groups’ behavior generally. They imply that biases in measured productivity must be accounted for in generating measures of wage discrimination.
No need to review the entire paper here. A short summary of it can be found at the Freakanomics blog ("Strike Three: Do MLB Umpires Express Racial Bias in Calling Balls and Strikes?"), while the actual paper can be found here: Strike Three: Discrimination, Incentives, and Evaluation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

When Little League's No Longer a Game

All of us have probably heard stories of parents and coaches taking sports, in particular their kid's sports, too seriously. Here's another one. Kevin Waters, the President of West Ward Little League in New Jersey, was recently beaten by a former coach (with help of a local gang) whom Waters had fired because he repeatedly swore around the kids. Luckily, Waters is OK and the perpetrator is in custody. No need to go into details about it; you can read the details here ("Beloved Newark Little League coach seeks justice after being brutally beaten by group").

Suffice it is to say that sometimes we take ourselves far too seriously. I see this not only in sports, but in the church and academia as well. I know academics and theologians who loathe one another simply because they hold diametrically opposed views about some phenomenon that most of us could care less about. I can't help but think that the world would be a better place if we could put such petty disagreements aside (because, most of the time, they are petty) and take the young Ebenezer Scrooge's advice (at least the one in the George C. Scott version of "A Christmas Carol") and try to go through life with a smile on our face.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Talking to the Enemy: Terrorists and Scott Atran

Some of you may be aware of Krista Tippett's American Public Radio program, "On Being" (it used to be called, "Speaking of Faith"). She has interviewed a number of different people on issues related to faith and spirituality, such as Civil Rights leader Vincent Harding ("Civility, History and Hope"), physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinhorne ("Quarks and Creation"), Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain ("The Dignity of Difference"), and the Dalai Lama ("Pursuing Happiness").

Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of TerroristsRecently, I listened to an interview of Scott Atran ("Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams"), who is the Research Director in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France as well as a visiting Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and Residential Scholar in Sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also the author of the new book, "Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists." Over the last decade Atran has talked with hundreds of terrorists and has valuable insights into what makes terrorists "tick." I think many of you will find it interesting.