Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Branding of Christianity

Here's a brief summary of an interesting study of the web sites of the 20 largest religious groups in the U.S ("Images of Christianity: How America’s Top 20 Churches “Brand” Their Message"):
I thought it would be insightful to see just how the top 20 churches in America... go about visually communicating their messages on their respective official church websites... 
I found that of the top 20 Christian churches, only 3 actively use images of Jesus Christ on their site. Most churches don’t visually emphasize church doctrine or principles, but rather emphasize recent news in the church or upcoming conventions, concerts, and speaking series. Most of the churches choose to advertise programs or other websites and they promote their bookstores and other products for purchase. Some churches emphasize healthy living, taking care of the poor, and providing relief during disasters. Some have a really strong emphasis on the leadership of their church, directing readers to church hierarchy and important people.
In addition to these summary remarks, the author presents and comments on visual images of each of the sites. One of the more interesting findings is the difference between whether the websites are *.com or *.org sites:
One thing you’ll want to notice from each church is whether or not they are incorporated. You’ll find an interesting connection between the churches that have a “.com” website address and their visual emphasis on money-making conventions. The .org sites tend to be focused more on doctrinal and faith-based issues (but not all).
Finally, note what groups appear on the list. The largest group in the US, is the Roman Catholic Church, followed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), and the Church of God in Christ. Of the remaining fifteen, there is a good representation of mainline denominations (e.g., Presbyterian, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptists) but the list is dominated by evangelical and black churches. Interestingly, one Greek Orthodox church is on the list: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (#17).

Note: I became aware of this article when reading economist Michael McBride's excellent blog, "The Religious Marketplace."

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Filibuster: Not How it Used to Be

In the United States the term, filibuster, typically refers to any delaying tactic used by a Senator to prevent a measure from being brought to a vote in the U.S. Senate. The most common form of filibustering is when a senator attempts to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a bill by extending the debate on the measure. Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless three-fifths of the Senators (usually 60 out of 100 senators) brings debate to a close.

The image that comes to mind for many of us when we think of filibusters is Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in the movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is the image of the lone senator, rising to his feet to protest a piece of legislation that he finds morally bankrupt, and not sitting back down until he has literally talked the bill to death:

This image probably holds even for those of us who haven't seen the movie, so influential and compelling Stewart's performance has been, which is why so many Americans (and US Senators) are loath to get rid of it.

There's a problem with this image, however. It isn't how it is done any more. Now to filibuster, Senators don't have to walk out on the floor of the Senate, they don't have to talk all night, they don't even have to talk at all! All they have to do is pick up a phone. Or better yet, they can have one of their staff pick up a phone.  Thus, it's not surprising, that filibustering is much more common than it used to be as the graphic below illustrates:

There have been attempts to make filibustering more difficult, back to the way it used to be, but most of these attempts are, well, filibustered. They are typically put forward by the party in the majority and fought by the party in the minority. Thus, currently you find a number of Democrat Senators supporting limits to the filibuster when just a few years ago (when they were in the minority) they opposed it. Similarly, Republicans, who are in the minority, oppose such limits, but just a few years ago, they supported them.

Back in December NPR's Planet Money produced a interesting podcast on the filibuster ("Schoolhouse Rock Was a Lie: Or, How The Filibuster Ate Washington"). You can listen to it at the Planet Money website or download it from iTunes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

England's Expulsion of the Jews: A Case of Anti-Semitism?

In July 1290, King Edward I issued an edict giving all Jews in England three months to leave. While many scholars view this as another example of Christian anti-semitism, those explanations cannot adequately explain the timing of the expulsion, as well as why Jews were initially encouraged to settle in England and sometimes prohibited from leaving.  Mark Koyama, an Assistant Professor of Economics at George Mason University and senior scholar at the Mercatus Center, attempts to address the inadequacies of previous explanations in his paper, "The Political Economy of Expulsion: The Regulation of Jewish Moneylending in Medieval London." His argument is based on the value that Jewish moneylenders provided to the Medieval feudal economy, but their value declined with the advent of a market economy, which (in turn) left them vulnerable to the whims of an angry nobility.

How did this come about? Because Jews enjoyed high levels of literacy and numeracy and the fact that the Church's usury laws restricted Christians from making loans, Jews came to occupy an important niche in the medieval economy because they could provide the bookkeeping skills necessary to facilitate lending and other commercial transactions. Indeed, in 1190, Richard I (the Lionheart) established the Exchequer of the Jews (or Jewry), giving Jews monopoly power over lending because it provided a better system for tracking loans and being able to tax them more effectively. Moreover, the security measures installed around the Exchequer meant that the records were less likely to be destroyed. In practical terms, this meant that it was easy for the king to tally up and levy a tax (known as a tillage) on these financial transactions.

The arbitrary nature of the tallage, however, angered the nobility because it often led them to default on their loans, which in turn often meant that members of the royal court were able to purchase their land at bargain-basement prices. Instead of directing their anger at the king, however, the nobility directed it at the Jews, demanding an end to the Exchequer. And as King Edward I (1272-1307) found other avenues for imposing and collecting taxes, the Exchequer's value declined, and he disbanded it in 1275. However, because Edward continually looked for ways of increasing his revenues, he briefly toyed with the idea of reinstating the Exchequer. This, however, proved unpopular with the nobles in Parliament, and he ultimately decided (after a series of "baron revolts"), that the only way he could reassure them that he wouldn’t renege on his promises was to expel the Jews from England.

All of this is covered in the latest Research on Religion podcast ("Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions"). Here is a brief description of the podcast:
Prof. Mark Koyama of George Mason University explains why King Edward I expelled the Jews from England in July of 1290, giving them only three months to leave. Rather than focusing on anti-semitism or explanations based upon “greed,” Prof. Koyama shows how changes in feudal revenue collection during the 13th century led to a devaluation of the moneylending role that Jews played in the English economy and how expulsion represented a credible signal to the ever-rebellious lower nobility. He generalizes this explanation to help us understand why further expulsions of Jews occured in continental Europe in the subsequent centuries.
Moreover, as Professor Koyama notes in the podcast, Jews weren't the only groups that were expelled by kings. Indeed, there were others that were expelled for nearly identical reasons. Thus, while anti-semitism may have played an indirect role in the expulsion of the Jews from England (e.g., one could argue that anti-semitism is one reason Jews became moneylenders and helps explain why the nobility directed their anger at the Jews rather than King even though the tallage was levied by the King), it was probably no more than that.

As always, Research on Religion podcasts are available at the RoR website ("Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions") or can be downloaded from iTunes.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

God and Baseball: 42

It's not everyday that I pull for the Dodgers, but that's what I found myself doing while watching "42," the recently-released movie about Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey and Dodger-great Jackie Robinson. The movie focuses primarily on Robinson's rookie season, highlighting the abuse he took from fans, ballplayers, and coaches, as well as the support he received from other fans, some (not all) of his teammates, and Branch Rickey.

What the movie skirts around, however, how Robinson and Rickey's Christian faith played a central role in this real-life drama. Rickey, for example, was a devout Methodist who wouldn't attend games on Sunday. He believed that it was God’s will that he integrate baseball and saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation. Moreover, he was looking for a man “with guts enough not to fight back.” He knew that integrating professional baseball would take more than pure ability. He knew the attacks would be awful, and if the player he chose retaliated, his experiment would fail. So why did Rickey choose Robinson? Because of Robinson's devout faith ("Movie About Robinson Misses Christian Dimension"):
Rickey knew he must find someone whose behavior on and off the field would be exemplary and who believed “turning the other cheek” was not just the practical thing to do but the right thing. In their historic meeting, to underscore the spiritual dimension of the undertaking, Rickey pulled out a book by Giovanni Papini, titled Life of Christ. He opened to the passage about the Sermon on the Mount and read it aloud. 
We know that Robinson’s passionate sense of justice had gotten him into trouble earlier in life. But the patient mentoring of pastor Karl Downs convinced him that Christ’s command to “resist not evil” wasn’t a cowardly way out but a profoundly heroic stance. 
When he met Rickey, Robinson was prepared for what lay ahead and agreed. But it was a brutally difficult undertaking. Robinson got down on his knees many nights during those first two years, asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back or say something vicious in return.
Most of this, unfortunately, was not in the movie. To be sure, the movie does make references to Rickey's faith. It's Robinson's faith that it ignores.  This is not to say that the movie is not compelling. It is. Indeed, when I update my list of the top all-time baseball movies, it will be on the list. But it would've been nice if moviegoers knew when they left the theater that Robinson was able to resist the goading of his opponents not just by slamming his bat against the wall in the dugout walkway but also because he believed God provided him the strength to do so.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Locavorism: Good for the Environment?

Localvorism (or locavorism) refers to the practice based on the belief that eating food grown locally is better for the environment because less resources are used transporting food. It seems like a logical argument, but as I pointed out in an earlier post, "eating local" doesn't benefit the environment as much as you might expect, if at all ("Is Going Local Good for the Environment"). In fact, David Cleveland, a UC Santa Barbara environmental professor, looked at what effect a 100% localization of the Santa Barbara County food system would have on greenhouse gas emissions:
We found that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Our savings in greenhouse gas emissions, per household, as a proportion of the total food system greenhouse gas emissions, was less than one percent (emphasis added).
Cleveland’s research built on the research of Chris Weber and H. Scott Matthews (“Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”), who found that most of the energy associated with food production is in the production rather than the transportation phase. In particular, 83% of greenhouse emissions are associated with the production phase and only 15% with the transportation phase (11% = long-range transportation; 4% = producer to retailer), which means that buying locally produced foods can actually increase greenhouse gas-emissions. Thus, Weber and Matthews argue that the best way to help the environment is to concentrate less on where the food we eat is produced and more on what we eat:
Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse-gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.
There could, of course, be other reason to embrace localvorism. It help supports the local economy (this, of course, assumes that people in one's community are more important than those outside of it); it may be healthier because locally-grown food is less likely to be processed and contain preservatives; and locally-grown food may taste better (although this is almost certainly debatable). However, if protecting the environment is the primary reason why one practices localvorism, then one may want to reconsider one's focus.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jane Austen, Game Theorist?

Game theory is the use of mathematical models to study of strategic decision making. Although generally the province of economists and other social scientists, it entered popular culture with the release of the movie, A Beautiful Mind, about the life of mathematician, game theorist, and Nobel Laureate (in economics), John Nash. Modern game theory is generally seen as getting its start with the publication of a paper by John von Neumann, but there are earlier precedents, such as (Blaise) Pascal's Wager, which argues that believing in God is the strategically rational thing to do because you won't be any worse off if you're wrong, but you'll be a whole lot better off if you're right.

There may be other precedents as well. Indeed, UCLA political scientist, Michael Chwe, argues that the author Jane Austen was a game theorist of sorts ("Jane Austen, Game Theorist"); he notes that her novels are chock full of the tools that game theorists use, such as strategic thinking and decision analysis:
There are lots of little parables, or little asides, in the novels which don’t have anything really much to do with the plot or anything. You could just take them out and no one would care, but they do seem to be little explicit discussions of aspects of choice and aspects of strategic thinking. So, for example, in Pride And Prejudice, the very first manipulation is kind of what gets the whole novel started. The Bingleyscome into town and so the Bennet family has five unmarried daughters, and that’s kind of a huge problem. So Mrs. Bennet is super-focused on getting her daughters married and for obvious reasons. It’s not like they can get jobs or anything. If that is the main way, you could become either a governess or you could get married. That’s basically it. So the very first manipulation is Mr. Bingley shows up with his sister and they rent out Netherfield which is this estate nearby. And so Mr. Bingley’s sister invites Jane to come for dinner. And the first manipulation is Mrs. Bennet says, “Well you’ve got to go on horseback.” … The daughters say, “Why horseback? Shouldn’t she take the carriage?” And Mrs. Bennet says, “Well, it’s going to rain and if she goes on horseback it is very likely that they will invite her to stay the night, and hence she’ll get to spend more time.” [I]t seems kind of silly but you have to play for keeps. This is a big deal. If you know, if somebody marriageable is nearby and you have a chance to spend 20 more minutes with that person, you’ve got to go for it. … And so in Pride And Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is not a very sympathetic character, and she seems to be very foolish, but if you look at what she accomplishes, it is pretty good.
The above quote is taken from a recent Freakonomics podcast, in which Stephen Dubner interviews Chwe, as well as Dubner's Freakonomics co-author, Steve Levitt. As always, you can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Jane Austen, Game Theorist") where you can also access the audio transcript.

Monday, July 15, 2013

PorcFest: Libertarianism to the nth Power

I've written on libertarianism in previous posts ("What Do We Mean By Justice?" "Wealthy GOP (Libertarian) Donors Backing Same-Sex Marriage" "The Curious Popularity of Ayn Rand"). As I've noted in those posts, libertarians believe in limited government. They favor free markets and oppose most government regulation. They contend that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. Thus, they tend to oppose (a) laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) and laws that redistribute income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect).

Although most libertarians favor limited government, they still think government is important and has a role (e.g., in protecting property rights). However, there are a handful who take individual freedom to the nth degree, and these folks can be found at the Porcupine Freedom Festival (aka, the PorcFest) where people try to live without government interference, where you can use slivers of silver to buy uninspected bacon, where 9-year-olds can sell you alcohol, and where you can chat with people who think we should return to the gold standard and abolish the IRS (not to mention the Federal Reserve).

If you are like most folks and don't want spend a week at the festival, you can learn about it from a recent NPR Planet Money podcast ("Libertarian Summer Camp"). You can either listen to the podcast at the Planet Money website or download it from iTunes.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

KTVU's Rush to Break the News

San Francisco television station KTVU Channel 2 recently offered an apology for airing fake names of the four pilots on Asiana Flight 214, which crashed at San Francisco Airport on July 6th ("KTVU Apologizes for Airing Offensive Fake Names of Asiana Flight 214 Pilots"). Apparently, someone pulled a prank on KTVU, feeding them the fake names, and leading KTVU anchor Tori Campbell to read the names on air (read them out loud a couple of times; it'll become obvious that they're fake):
  • Captain Sum Ting Wong
  • Wi Tu Lo
  • Ho Lee Fuk
  • Bang Ding Ow
You gotta wonder why the station didn't phonetically pronounce the names before sending them to the anchor's teleprompter. My guess is that in their rush to be the first media outlet to break the news about the pilots' names, they didn't bother to check their facts. To be fair, they did call the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to check the spelling of the names, but the person they reached was a summer volunteer intern who wasn't in a position to confirm the names and KTVU didn't check to see what his/her position was. Still, all they had to do was say the names out loud, for goodness sake. The original broadcast appears below:

P. S. Here's Stephen Colbert's take on KTVU's mess up:

Apparently, this has been pulled from YouTube. Here's a link to it on Hulu:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Airplanes and Airconditioning

Does anyone wonder why when at the gate, the air-conditioning on planes doesn't work (or at least it doesn't work on the planes I've been on)? We have the technology to fly people all around the world and to the moon. Surely, we possess the technology to overcome this shortfall.