Sunday, August 25, 2013

Money For Nothing and Cows for Free

Conventional wisdom has it that charity works best when it focuses on long-term needs and skills, such as Habitat for Humanity, which builds and sells houses (at cost) to people in need, Rebuilding Together, which offers home repair and renovation services to cash-poor individuals, and Heifer International, which provides communities with livestock and other material goods, training, and organizational development. A new charity has burst on the scene, however, that breaks all the conventional wisdom rules: just give people cash ("Is it Nuts to Give to the Poor Without String Attached"):
In the past decade it has become increasingly common to give money right to the very poor. After Mexico’s economic crisis in the mid-1990s, Santiago Levy, a government economist, proposed getting rid of subsidies for milk, tortillas and other staples, and replacing them with a program that just gave money to the very poor, as long as they sent their children to school and took them for regular health checkups.
However, a relatively new charity, GiveDirectly, offers people cash with no preconditions, and at its most basic level, it is testing one of the simplest ideas in economics — that people know what they need, and if they have money, they will use it more wisely than some outside agency will. “This puts the choice in the hands of the poor, and not me,” Michael Faye, one of GiveDirectly’s co-founders told a New York Times reporter ("Is it Nuts to Give to the Poor Without String Attached"). “And the truth is, I don’t think I have a very good sense of what the poor need.”

GiveDirectly is the subject of a recent NY Times article ("Is it Nuts to Give to the Poor Without String Attached"), a brief segment on Planet Money ("The Charity that Just Gives Money to Poor People"), and an extended examination on This American Life ("Money For Nothing and Your Cows For Free").

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chicago: Our Kind of Town

In his recently published book, "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream," author Tom Dyja argues that America as we know it today would be very different without Chicago’s contributions.  In fact, he identifies 10 ways that Chicago has affected everyone’s life in America:
  1. Architecture
  2. Music
  3. Food.
  4. University of Chicago
  5. Television
  6. Civil-Rights Movement
  7. The Institute of Design
  8. Urban Preservation
  9. Literary Romance
  10. Hugh Hefner and Playboy
I'm not sure what his book has to do with Freakonomics or incentives (except, perhaps, the University of Chicago), but Dyja is featured on the latest Freakonomics podcast, "The Middle of Everywhere," in which he details how Chicago contributed in the ten areas listed above. If Dyja's right, then perhaps we can understand why Sinatra considered Chicago to be his (or, perhaps, our) "Kind of Town:"

Monday, August 19, 2013

Holy Hilarity

This past Sunday, our church celebrated "Holy Hilarity Sunday," which I learned arose in the early days of Greek Christianity to celebrate the Easter Season. According to Michelle Bearden, for centuries the observance was kept with "days of joy and laughter," parties and picnics, in the week after Easter. Originally called Bright Sunday, the day was meant to keep the excitement of the Resurrection alive, with churchgoers and pastors playing practical jokes on one another, singing, and dancing.  The custom was rooted in the early church theologians, who reasoned that God had played a tremendous practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. They called it risus paschalis—the Easter laugh!

In the spirit of the day, our pastor (the Rev. Jeff Cheifetz) shared the following story, which can be found in the book, Holy Humor:

During an ecumenical gathering, someone rushed in, shouting, "The building is on fire!"
  • The Methodists at once gathered in a corner and prayed. 
  • The Catholics passed a collection plate to cover the damages. 
  • The Baptists cried, "Everybody into the water." 
  • The Lutherans posted a notice on the door declaring fire was evil, because it was the natural abode of the devil. 
  • The Congregationalists shouted, "Every [one] for [her]self!"
  • The Seventh-Day Adventists proclaimed, "It's the vengeance of an angry God!" 
  • The Christian Scientists agreed among themselves that there really was not a fire. 
  • The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson, who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and make a written report to the next Session. 
  • The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out in good order. 
  • The Unitarian Universalists concluded that the fire had as much right to be there as anyone else.
And here's a few gems he shared that have been culled from church bulletins:
  • The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on people who are not afflicted with any church
  • Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands
  • The sermon this morning: "Jesus Walks on the Water." The sermon tonight: "Searching for Jesus"
  • The pastor will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing, "Break Forth Into Joy"
  • Don't let worry kill you - let the church help
And finally, 
Once a minister parked her car in a no-parking zone because she was short on time and couldn't find a space with a meter. So she put a note under the windshield wiper that read: "I have circled this block ten times. If I don't park here, I'll miss my appointment. FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES." When she returned, she found a citation from a police officer along with this note. "I've circled this block for ten years. If I don't give you a ticket, I'll lose my job. LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Grace-Full Congregations

I recently heard a wonderful lecture by Karen McClintock, Methodist minister and professor of psychology at Southern Oregon University, on how congregations can be a refuge from a world in which shame-based behavior is often the norm. Unfortunately, they aren't always are, and McClintock discussed how churches can become "grace-full" rather than "shame-based" congregations. She also briefly introduced four types of shame: comparison, perfection, chronic illness, and sexual, all of which she covers in more detail in her book, "Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations." If her book's anything like her lecture, it's worth reading.

That said, one could have walked away from her lecture (and perhaps after putting down her book) with the impression that the church is actually less psychologically healthy (i.e., more shame-based) than the world at large. Such an impression would be mistaken, however. As I've noted previously ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"), people of faith, on average, enjoy better mental and physical health than people with no faith. That is, they are more likely to happy, healthy, and live longer lives. Thus, churches (and synagogues, temples, and so on) must be doing something right.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

All He Knows How to Do?

There's a heartwarming story about San Jose State football player, Anthony Larceval, in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News ("A Spartan's Resolve"). It tells how Larceval contracted a rare disease, meningoencephalitis, in mid-December of last year. After a couple of days of flu-like symptoms, he collapsed and for five weeks he was in various states of consciousness. When he finally awoke in late January, missed his team's Military Bowl victory over Bowling Green, lost 40 pounds, had difficulty walking and talking, and was told by doctors that he wouldn't be able to play again for twelve months, which meant that he would miss his senior year. The good news is that Larceval beat the odds and will be able to play this season

One quote jumped out at me that gave me a little discomfort, though. Larceval remarked, "I've been playing football since I was 6 years old. This is all I know how to do." All he knows how to do? I sure hope not. He's a fifth-year senior in college, and I would like to believe that he's learned something while he's been at State because odds are he won't be playing football next year. I'm guessing Lacerval was just engaging in a bit of hyperbole (the article does say he will graduate and hopes to teach high school special education). At least I hope he was.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

School's In for Summer

Back when I was a kid, school started on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Not anymore. My daughter starts next Monday (August 19th), and she has Freshman orientation tomorrow. One of her friends started today, and in some parts of the country, school's been back in session for a week or two (or more). It seems like we're slowly creeping toward little or no summer vacation. That'd be a shame. Kids only have so much time to be kids, and it appears that we're slowly taking a good chunk of their childhood away.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

God is Alive and Well in the U.S.

One of my uncles, complaining about the findings of a recent survey, questioned its accuracy, noting that "no one interviewed me." His remark reflects a common misunderstanding about surveys: that you have to interview a lot of people in order for a survey to be accurate. That, however, is not true. What matters is that the sample that is drawn is representative of the population at large. As George Gallup once noted, sampling a population is like taste-testing soup; a single spoonful can reflect the taste of the whole bowl, if the soup is well-stirred (similarly, doctors don't have to drain all the blood out of our bodies in order to test it for various diseases; as long as the blood sample drawn is representative of the rest, the tests can be quite accurate.). In other words, a survey can accurately reflect a much larger population so long as the sample is well-stirred -- that is, as long as it's representative of the whole.

Survey research is the subject of a recent Research on Religion podcast ("Frank Newport on Survey Research and America’s Religiosity"). It not only explores how surveys can be conducted accurately (i.e., getting a well-stirred sample) but also whether the recent rise in religious "nones" should be interpreted as evidence that America's becoming less religious. The interviewee, Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief at Gallup (yes, that Gallup) thinks not. In fact he has written about it his most recent book, "God Is Alive & Well: The Future of Religion in America." Here's a brief description of the podcast:
Dr. Frank Newport, the Editor-in-Chief at Gallup, discusses the process of public opinion research and what it tells us about America’s changing religious landscape. We spend a significant amount of time discussing how polls are conducted, what their limitations are, and how survey companies like Gallup try to overcome these problems. This is a fantastic primer for those who are unfamiliar with survey research. We spend the second half of the interview discussing Dr. Newport’s book, “God Is Alive & Well,” which argues that America is still a vibrantly spiritual nation.
As I noted in a previous post ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"), although approximately 20% of Americans indicate that they have no religious affiliation, we should not interpret this to mean that they are irreligious (as many have done). For instance, of the religiously unaffiliated,
  • 18% consider themselves religious
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important
  • 41% pray weekly or more
  • 68% believe in God
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience
  • 30% believe in spiritual energy in things like mountains, rocks, and crystals
  • 31% have been in touch with someone who has died
  • 25% believe in astrology
  • 24% attend church, synagogue, temple, etc.
  • 19% have seen or been in the presence of a ghost
  • 15% have consulted a psychic
I'm not sure how you would categorize such folks, but "atheist," "irreligious," and "secular" aren't the first words that jump to mind.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Sabbath: A Gift of Rest

Here's a book that pleasantly surprised me: Senator Joe Lieberman's, "The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath." As many of you know, not only is Joe Lieberman a former Vice Presidential candidate and a Senator from Connecticut, he is also an Orthodox Jew, who regularly observes the Sabbath, which in practical terms means he doesn't work from the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath on Friday afternoon until it's conclusion Saturday evening. And in this book he not only explains how an Orthodox Jew celebrates the Sabbath (which is different from how Conservative and Reform Jews and some Orthodox Jews celebrate the Sabbath), but also why. In short, his message is quite simple:
The truth is that we--and the world--will survive just fine if we stop working or shopping and stay home with our families one day a week. Our lives will continue. Our careers will go forward. Our families will flourish... The fact is that none of us is essential every minute of the week. I am here to testify that laying your work aside for one day a week is a responsible and ultimately productive choice. The big Sabbath lesson and insight may be as humbling and anxiety-producing for you as it used to be for me, but it is ultimately liberating (pp. 33-34).
How is it liberating? In one of those lovely paradoxes that crop up in life from time to time, Senator Lieberman notes how adhering to laws can set one free:
Our true freedom as human beings is dependent on our acceptance of the responsibility to serve God by obeying His laws. The laws of the Sabbath... may seem burdensome at first glance, but without them, the gift of rest that comes with the Sabbath would be almost impossible to enjoy... if there were not a divine law commanding me to rest, I would think of many good reasons to go about my normal routine on Friday night and Saturday. That is my nature. I am, for example, addicted to my Blackberry (p. 28).
I suspect there will be some who will not pick this book up because they disagree with Lieberman's politics. That would be a mistake. This is not a book about politics. It's a book about how it's possible for us, regardless of our political and theological leanings, to live full, productive, and enjoyable lives without giving in to the frenetic pace of today's world. That strikes me as a good thing.

P.S. I picked up this book because our church was invited to participate in a discussion of the book with a local Jewish congregation (Congregation Beth David). Because the discussion was held on the Jewish Sabbath, we had to turn our cell phones off, refrain from writing, and for those of us who read the book on a Kindle or a Nook, we had to leave "the book" at home (or at least turn it off!).

Monday, August 5, 2013

Boys vs Girls: America's Demand for Sons

Many readers are aware of the Asian preference for baby boys over baby girls. What you may not know is that the introduction of the ultrasound machine in Asia has led to the disappearance (i.e., through abortion, infanticide, etc.) of an estimated 160 million females in Asia. Aside from the morally problematic nature of gender-based abortions, as Mara Hvistendahl has pointed out ("Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men) this has led to higher rates of sex-trafficking, incidents of AIDS, and crime.

Asia's not the only area of the world where people prefer boys over girls. Americans do too, as they have for over 70 years. The table below summarizes survey results from 1941 to 2011 to the question, "Suppose you could only have one child. Would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?As you can see there is very little change between 1941 and 2011. There's a bit of an uptick, but that's probably due to sampling error ("Americans Prefer Boys to Girls, Just as They Did in 1941"):

No Opinion


The consequences for this in America are not as profound as they are in Asia (probably because of America's more restrictive norms concerning abortion), but the preference for boys over girls does have some negative effects: For example, a recent study ("The Demand for Sons") found that
  • Couples who conceive a child out of wedlock and find out that it will be a boy are more likely to marry before the birth of their baby
  • Parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced
  • Fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters versus sons
  • In any given year, roughly 52,000 first-born daughters younger than 12 years (and all their siblings) would have had a resident father if they had been boys
  • Divorced fathers are much more likely to obtain custody of sons compared to daughters
  • For children and families with absentee fathers due to a first-born daughter, family income is reduced by about 50 percent and poverty rates are increased by about 30 percent 
Why? Well, that is the subject of a recent Freakonomics podcast (“Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce?”), which can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Freakonomics website. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Why the Giants Shouldn't Panic

In early May I noted that in the world of sports we often mistakenly see patterns in random events and interpret them in terms of cause and effect when there is none ("Randomness and Winning (and Losing) Streaks"). A team will go on a 5-game losing streak, and fans start asking what's wrong when, in fact, there's probably nothing wrong. Randomness has simply played a role. For example, a basketball team, which typically makes 50% of its shots, can have a series of games where an unusual number of shots roll in and out, and consequently they lose a number of games in a row. Or a baseball team suffers through a losing streak when it keeps hitting line drives that are caught, while the other teams' bloops all fall in. Add in a key injury or two, and a mild slump can turn into a season-ending one.

To illustrate, consider the following graph. It plots the possible distribution of wins for a professional baseball team that wins, on average, 90 games a season. As it shows the number of possible wins in a given season for such a team ranges from 59 to 112 although the probability of the two extremes is exceedingly low (0.01% -- that's 1 in 10,000). Nevertheless, there's still just under at 10% chance (9.21%) that the team will finish at or below .500 ball for the season (i.e., they will win 81 games or less). And if this were to occur, the fans and the owners would probably be asking, "What Went Wrong?", when it's possible that nothing went wrong, except that the team had a really, really bad run of luck.

Which brings us to the Giants and why they and their owners and their fans shouldn't panic. Most are wondering what went wrong. Indeed, Giants GM Brian Sabean recently remarked,
We're all going to have to take a step back and a deep breath and find out what went wrong, why it went wrong, who we want to go forward with and how we add from the outside.
Chances are, however, all that went wrong was simply a run of poor play and bad luck, illustrated and compounded by the injuries to two of the Giants key players, outfielder Angel Pagan and pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. In fact, if the Giants were able to put together a nice run and sneak into the playoffs this year, they could end up surprising a lot of people since by that time, Pagan and Vogelsong would be back in the line-up.

To Sabean's credit, he didn't panic and make a mid-year deal like the one he did two years ago that brought Carlos Beltran to the Giants for half of a season and sent one of its top prospects (pitcher Zach Wheeler) to the Mets. Going forward, the key will be for him to adopt the same approach. This isn't to say that a tweak here or there wouldn't be good for the team. And since the cost of signing all of the Giants' free agents may be too high, they could be forced to sign a new pitcher or two. Nevertheless, there's no reason for Sabean and the Giants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

PS: Before Pagan was hurt, the Giants were 27-22 and averaging 4.5 runs per game. Since his injury, they are 22-39 and averaging only 3.3 runs per game.

PSS: For more on the nature of randomness, winning, and losing, see the earlier post noted above ("Randomness and Winning (and Losing) Streaks").