Follow by Email

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Pandemic and the Social Capital of Local Neighborhoods

While biking on local trails early in the pandemic, I mused that people seemed "nicer" and hoped that one of the pandemic's long-term benefits that it would help bring Americans together after years of political polarization ("People Seem Nicer"). Unfortunately, some of our leaders (one in particular) have used the pandemic to divide us even more than we were before. Still, I have hope. I have hope because anecdotal evidence suggests that "social capital" may be on the rise in many of our local neighborhoods. If so, this could signal a reversal of several decades of decline, at least according to the political scientist Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone").

What's social capital? It is generally thought to be the quantity and quality of resources that we can access through our various social networks. By social networks I do not mean social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, but rather the connections we share with our friends, family, co-workers, and so on (Note: the analysis of social networks dates back at least to the 1930s, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye -- see Freeman 2004). Social capital is generally seen as a function of the number of ties (i.e., connections) we have with others AND the level of trust present in those ties. Put differently, the more ties of trust that we have (and continue to invest in), the greater our social capital.

Many scholars believe that social capital is positively associated with a number of instrumental and expressive rewards (e.g., higher paying jobs, better mental health), increased participation in various types of collective action (e.g., voting, volunteering, charitable giving), and the functioning of democratic institutions. It is also positively associated with healthy neighborhoods:
Consider a neighborhood with high social capital. In that neighborhood, the neighbors know each other, talk to each other often, and trust each other. In that neighborhood, a mother might feel comfortable letting her child walk alone to a nearby park. In a neighborhood with lower social capital, where the neighbors do not know or trust one another, the mother would either have to walk with her child to the park or hire someone to do it for her. (Pamela Paxton, 1999, p. 89)
So why do I think social capital may be on the rise in local neighborhoods around the country? Well, our own neighborhood has begun holding "social distancing" gatherings (which really should be called "physical distance gatherings"), such as movie nights where we play a movie on an outdoor screen and neighbors gather by households to watch. And when I mention this to others, many say their neighborhoods are doing similar things. And such activities typically increase the number of social interactions and level of trust between neighbors, thereby increasing not only the social capital of people within our neighborhood but the social capital of our neighborhood itself.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is only that. We can't know that such activities are systematically happening across the U.S. (and the world) without better data, which we won't have for a few years. However, if it is happening, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge from this pandemic with resources that we can use to "rebuild" the U.S. from the bottom (neighborhood) up into a less polarizing society. We can only hope.


Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Sociology 105(1):88-127.

________. 2002. "Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship." American Sociological Review 67(2):254-77.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

This Is Not Over: Unfortunately Some Are Acting Like It Is

Be careful out there. This isn't over. Unfortunately, some are acting like it is. People are flocking to beaches, resorts, restaurants, and in some states, bars, movie theaters, and theme parks, without taking any precautions, behaving like they did prior to the pandemic. Add to this the George Floyd protests where although a lot of the protestors are wearing masks, not all are. However, coronavirus cases and (more importantly) hospitalizations are increasing in several states. Some of these increases are traceable to early reopenings; others to the virus working its way into areas of the country that had been relatively untouched up to this point (for an excellent analysis, see "The new coronavirus spikes, explained").

I doubt that our elected officials have the stomach to shut things down again, so it's us to help keep everyone safe. So, wear your mask in public spaces (it's to protect others, not you). Practice social distancing (it's to protect you AND others). Don't stay indoors for an extended period (except your residence, of course), especially if its crowded. Wash your hands. Exercise. And... be nice to others. It may not always feel like it, but we're all in this together.

Updated: June 13th

Friday, June 5, 2020

What Would Happen if President Trump Washed Colin Kaepernick's Feet?

This picture of Fred Rogers washing the feet of François Clemmons, who played "Officer Clemons" on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," was recently posted on Facebook by Brian Brister (whom I don't know) along with commentary that appears below. When I saw and read the post, I couldn't help but wonder what the effect would be if President Trump washed Colin  Kaepernick's feet.


In August 1968, the country was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. four months earlier, and the race riots that followed on its heels. Nightly news showed burning cities, radicals and reactionaries snarling at each other across the cultural divide.

A brand new children’s show out of Pittsburgh, which had gone national the previous year, took a different approach. Fred Rogers had met François Clemmons at a church service after hearing him sing, and asked him to join the show. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer who was a kindly, responsible authority figure, kept his neighborhood safe, and was Mr. Roger’s equal, colleague and neighbor.

A year later in 1969 when black Americans were still prevented from swimming alongside whites, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to join him and cool his feet in a plastic wading pool, breaking a well-known color barrier. And there they were, brown feet and white feet, side by side in the water, silently, contemplatively, without comment. The episode culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ feet. Most young kids were probably unaware of the real weight the episode carried, its scriptural overtones, but the image of a white man tending to the needs of a black man was seared in their minds nonetheless.

Twenty five years later, when François Clemmons retired, his last scene on the show revisited that same wading pool, this time reminiscing. Officer Clemmons asked Mr. Rogers what he’d been thinking during their silent interlude a quarter century before. Fred Rogers’ answer was that he’d been thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.”

In a world screaming out for tolerance, acceptance, kindness, and love - choose to be a Fred Rogers - because if more people could find a way to love others the way he did, without barriers, this world would be a much better place...

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Statement of Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen is a retired United States Navy admiral, who served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1, 2007, to September 30, 2011.

I Cannot Remain Silent

Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.

Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.

There was little good in the stunt.

While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.

As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.

We must, as citizens, address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community. We must, as citizens, support and defend the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard. The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.

I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.

Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.

Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so.

We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarized; too many military missions have become politicized.

This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Statement of General James Mattis

General James Mattis is a retired United States Marine Corps general who served as the 26th US Secretary of Defense from January 2017 through January 2019.

In Union There Is Strength

I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.

Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.

From: "James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution"

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Ranking the Star Wars Movies

While sheltering in place, my daughter Tara and I worked our way through a couple of film series: First, Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts (10 films); second, Star Wars (11 films). While watching the latter, I became interested in how others thought of the movies. My favorite's always been the original Star Wars, "A New Hope," although many favor the second, "The Empire Strikes Back." Personally, I prefer "Rogue One" and "The Force Awakens" over it, and I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel to "Solo" although I'm in the minority on that count. I averaged the rankings of the 11 movies according to Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Meta Critic:
1. A New Hope (Episode IV)
1. The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
3. The Force Awakens (Episode VII)
4. The Last Jedi (Episode VIII)
5. Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
6. Rogue One (Episode III.2)
7. Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
8. Solo (Episode III.1)
9. The Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
10. The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX)
11. The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Unsurprisingly, "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" rank at the top (and, in fact, are tied). It probably isn't too surprising that "The Force Awakens" is ranked so high. It was well received when released in 2015. It is somewhat surprising, however, that "The Last Jedi" ranks fourth. It was fairly polarizing when released in 2017. In fact, I read somewhere it is the most polarizing of the Star Wars movies. I'm fairly certain its initial rankings were a lot lower than they are now, which makes me think that the "The Rise of Skywalker" will climb in the rankings over the next couple of years. Sorry to those who envisioned a different ending, but it's better than "The Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith."

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Why We Should Wait to Open Our Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques

A little over a week ago, President Trump told states to lift shelter-in-place orders that prohibit faith communities from gathering in large numbers. As a response, the United Church of Christ issued a statement urging churches to wait until all safety concerns have been addressed ("Should Churches Return to Worship in Their Sanctuaries?").

Pastors and lay people have weighed in as well. Charles Weidman, a member of First Congregational Church of San Jose, had this to say in an (unpublished) letter to the editor to the (San Jose) Mercury News:
On Friday, May 22, Donald Trump demanded that states lift shelter-in-place orders which prohibit large groups from gathering in churches, synagogues, and mosques. He stated he would overrule states which do not comply with his demands (a power he does not have). 
In seeking to appear as a religious champion, he instead demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of these religions’ fundamental principles. Our faith calls us to care for one another, to ensure the safety of the sick and the vulnerable. We are, therefore, temporarily sacrificing meeting and worshipping together in large groups, because doing so helps to preserve the health of our church family and our surrounding community. 
Mr. Trump’s declaration that houses of worship are “essential” ignores faith teachings. Worship is essential. Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams throughout the nation have creatively developed ways to gather worshippers remotely. Exercising faith and prayer does not depend on a building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi understands this, demonstrating her devout faith by praying daily, even for Mr. Trump (see Matthew 5:44).  
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump does not practice any religion; he seeks only to exploit religion to support his own, selfish, political needs.
Then there's this from Rod Kennedy, pastor at a Baptist Church in Ottawa, Kansas:
President Trump: 
On behalf of my Baptist congregation I want to thank you for your concern for houses of worship. We respectfully decline your suggestion that we re-open. The First Amendment, religious freedom, separation of church and state - all that constitutes our right to ignore you. 
I’m not drinking bleach, taking suspect drugs, or buying your demagoguery. We will let you know when our church decides to re-open. After all, we are a free, independent Baptist congregation and government interference irritates our Baptist gumption. 
When churches do re-open we would be happy to SEE YOU IN CHURCH EVERY Sunday. It might help you find some divine wisdom. 
If you want to help, wear a mask, stop being divisive, make sure voting will be easy in November, and stop mocking, threatening, and demeaning others. It’s not a religious practice.
Thankfully, this past week the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services. As Charles points out in his letter to the editor, it seems that some people are confusing "church" with a building. It's not. Faith is much more than where people meet. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be able to meet, but it isn't worth putting peoples' lives at risk to do so. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is Trump a Lock to Win Reelection?

Recently, political commentator Harry Enten ("How Trump has broken the polls") noted that although Joe Biden currently leads Donald Trump, on average, by about 6 points in the polls, a majority of voters still think Trump will win the election in November. However, if Biden holds his lead and wins the popular vote by 6 points, that will be more than enough to wipe out any advantage Trump may enjoy in the electoral college. Interestingly, Enten points out that a similar disconnect occurred in 2018:
Gallup asked Americans just before that election whether they thought Democrats or Republicans would control the US House after the election. By a 50% to 44% margin, they said Republicans. This came even as Democrats were clear favorites in pretty much every forecast and when that same Gallup poll showed Democrats with an 11-point lead on the generic congressional ballot. This... marked the first time that Americans incorrectly forecasted who would win the House.
This leads Enten to wonder whether voters are overreacting to the 2016 election. Hillary held a small lead in the polls (which she maintained in the election contrary to much conventional wisdom), and most Americans thought she would win. She didn't, of course, and now many voters seem to believe that there's something magical about Trump, that the polls underestimate Trump's appeal. Enten disagrees:
My advice would be that in gauging the electorate, you shouldn't be of the mindset that Trump is going to pull it out if the polls continue to suggest he won't. Even Trump's own polling reportedly has him behind. Trump's a politician, not a magician.
Something similar appears to be occurring with prediction markets. When asked to choose between a generic Democratic or Republican candidate, the markets currently favor the former over the latter by about 4 points (53-49). Moreover, when betting on which candidate will win individual states, the markets predict that the Democratic candidate will walk away with 290 electoral votes, while the Republican candidate will walk away with only 248. In other words, both predict a win for the Democrats. However, when asked to specifically bet on Biden or Trump, the markets choose Trump over Biden by about 6 points (50-44). Although part of this can be explained away because neither candidate has officially been chosen as their party's nominee, that's clearly not the whole story. Some of it has to reflect the sentiment that Trump's unbeatable.

I don't think he is. After 2016 the markets have become gun shy. After incorrectly predicting a Clinton win in 2016, they're overcompensating and overestimating Trump's chances of winning in 2020. Trump may win in November, but in order to do so, a higher percentage of Americans will have to vote for him then than many will now.

Note: This morning FiveThirtyEight published a "chat" ("If Trump Is Down In The Polls, Why Do So Many Americans Think He’ll Win?") that discusses this same phenomenon.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Things Are Looking Up for Biden and the Democrats

At first glance, it appears that Bernie Sanders did far worse in the 2020 Michigan primary than in the 2016 Michigan primary. After all, in 2016 he beat Hillary Clinton 49.68% to 48.26%, while in 2020 he lost to Joe Biden 36.4% to 52.9%. But here's the kicker. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders attracted roughly the same number of votes: 598,943 in 2016 and 576,754 in 2020. In other words, it wasn't that Sanders faired far worse in 2020 than he did in 2016; rather, it was the Biden did a whole lot better in 2020 than Hillary did in 2016: In 2020 Biden garnered 838,555 votes, while in 2016 Hillary got 581,775. That's more than 250,000 votes, a 44% increase from Clinton to Biden.

Undoubtedly, numerous factors lie behind Biden's surge. Almost certainly, one is that Democrats are far more motivated to beat Donald Trump this time around than they were in 2016. It's not that most didn't oppose him in 2016; it's just that most didn't think he would win. Another is that Democrats underestimated how much of the electorate (including Democrats) disliked Hillary Clinton. As I pointed out almost four years ago, regardless of who we elected, they were going to be one of the most unpopular President in U.S. history ("Our Next President Will Be Really Unpopular"). Thus, one can't help but wonder what would've happened if Joe Biden had run for President in 2016 and won the Democratic nomination.

He is, of course, running in 2020 and probably will be the Democratic nominee. A few months ago, I wouldn't have given him much of a chance ("Democrats Could Be In Trouble"). As I've noted on several occasions, it's difficult to unseat a sitting President when the economy is doing well. And, up until a month ago, it was. But, with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, things have changed. We're almost certainly in a recession, and it's likely to last through the end of 2020 and into 2021. And this has thrown the upcoming election's outcome into doubt. Trump is not an idiot (although his opponents like to paint him that way). He knows this is true, which is why he's chomping at the bit to "reopen" the economy. It could backfire, but he intuitively senses that if the economy doesn't reopen soon, his reelection chances are doomed.

To be clear, the state of the economy generally doesn't affect most peoples' votes, but historically it's had a substantial impact on swing voters. Some observers of the political scene believe that given our currently polarized political climate ("Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization"), the state of the economy will have a smaller impact than it has in the past. Why? Primarily because political polarization has shrunk the number of swing voters in the U.S. 

While that's entirely possible and strikes me as actually likely, Biden doesn't have to convince that many swing voters to switch back from Trump to him in order to win the general election. Trump only won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by a combined 78,000 votes. I'm sorry, but that isn't a lot of votes, so it isn't unreasonable to argue that the current downturn in the economy will substantially hurt Trump's prospects in the Fall. Add to this the fact that Biden is far more popular among rank-and-file Democrats than Hillary ever was back in 2016, and it's hard to deny that things are looking up for Joe (and the Democrats) unless one's burying one's head in the sand. Of course, it's a long time between now and November, and a lot can (and will) happen. But, all things considered, Joe (and the Democrats) should be feeling hopeful.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Social Distancing Isn't Just About You

Yesterday, we were out for a bike ride and rode past a house where a handful of neighbors were holding a party. Kids were playing basketball in a nearby court, and (we assume) their parents and friends were hanging out in one of the yards. Much to their (we assume) disappointment, two members of the San Jose Police Department had just "joined" the party, informing the partiers that currently such gatherings were verboten. By the time we returned from our bike ride, the party was no longer (or maybe they moved it to someone's back yard).

I'm sure most of those gathered for the party showed up because they weren't worried about becoming infected or too sick if they did. But social distancing isn't just about them. It's also whether they catch it and pass it on to someone who can't fight off the infection. There are numerous stories about people who didn't know they were infected, went to some gathering, and passed it on to someone who then later died.

Don't be one of those persons. This isn't just about you.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

People Seem Nicer

With the "shelter in place" in effect, I've been biking a lot on local trails and streets. And people seem nicer. Cars stop to let bikes cross (what were once) busy streets, and people seem more willing to make room for people to pass. Of course, the latter could simply be people seeking to maintain a safe social distance, but people also greeting random others with a smile and well wishes. To be sure, there've been a few "Lord of the Flies" moments, such as people fighting over household goods at Costco, and then there were those folks waiting in long lines to stock up on guns and ammo. Not sure I want to know what they think they're preparing for. Still, although my bike-riding experiences don't constitute a random sample, I'd like to think (hope?) that they reflect the fact that people are acting nicer.

This has made me wonder if one long-term benefit of the coronavirus pandemic may be that it helps bring us together after years of political polarization. It won't happen overnight. Although Trump cleverly exploited it to win the 2016 election, the divide that separates us has been with us for some time. The political scientist, Liliana Mason, traces it back to at least 1972 (Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity"). And there's plenty of blame to go around. Some point to the racially-tinged southern strategy of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater's as a cause, but as the political scientist, Mark Lilla, points out, liberals have also been complicit ("The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics"). Regardless of the causes, we have sorted ourselves into competing tribes or teams that often appear more interested in winning than in doing what's good for the nation as a whole.

Nevertheless, people who study our tribal tendencies also point out that when divided groups are presented with a superordinate task, they often put their differences aside and band together. And I wonder if, perhaps, coming together to tackle the coronavirus might just be the superordinate task that does it for us. There are some, however, who argue that it will have just the opposite effect, exacerbating other divides, in particular those defined by race, class, and age: "Slurs against Asian Americans. Jokes about baby boomers dying. And blue-collar workers’ plight is nothing like the 'work from home' lifestyle" (see "Covid-19 Is Becoming the Disease That Divides Us"). I'm hoping I'm right and they're wrong. People really do seem nicer.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Church and the Coronavirus

In the 1990s the sociologist, Rodney Stark, sought to answer the question: "Why did an obscure religious sect (Christianity) evolve into a dominant religious institution in just a few centuries?" The result was his book, "The Rise of Christianity," which over the course of several chapters, he speculates on a number of possible factors.

One of the more intriguing chapters concerns the effect that the epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries of the Common Era had on Christianity and its religious competitors. Briefly, Stark, who at the time considered himself an agnostic, argues that Christian doctrine enhanced the ability of the early Church to better survive the epidemics, and consequently, its social networks emerged from the plagues relatively intact, while those of its competitors did not. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that the early Church would attract new converts (because of an increase in the ratio of personal ties to non-Christians), which helps explain part of its success. It also raises issues to how today's Christians will respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Explanations and Effectiveness

Why reasons does Stark offer to back up his argument? First, he argues that the church offered better explanations for and appeared more effective in combatting the epidemics. Stark notes that social scientists have long believed that natural and social disasters often produce crises of faith because they can challenge the legitimacy of dominant religious traditions. This can happen in at least two ways: First, when a dominant religion is incapable of offering adequate explanations of a disaster, and second, when it may be, or at least appears to be, ineffective in the face of the disaster. When crises of faith do occur, societies often turn to “new” religions that provide better explanations and appear more effective. Moreover, people almost always prefer explanations that help make life, even in the face of a disaster, coherent and understandable.

Stark believes that a crisis of faith (or faiths) occurred when the epidemics hit the Roman Empire. He argues that neither the pagan priests nor the philosophers offered adequate explanations as to why the plagues occurred, why some people died, and so on, but the early Christian church did. It offered “a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:80–81).

As we will see in the next section, however, not only did Christianity offer its adherents better explanations, but Stark also believes that it appeared to be, and probably was, more effective in combatting the epidemics. Because of doctrines that insisted that Christians minister to the sick and dying, it is likely that Christians enjoyed higher survival rates, and this would have been seen by many non-Christians as nothing short of miraculous. Moreover, the higher survival rates would have produced a larger proportion of Christians who were immune to the disease because those who contracted it and recovered were protected from further infection. Thus, they could “pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability” (Stark 1996:90), and this was almost certainly seen by some non-Christians as evidence of the superiority of God, or at least the Christian God.

Christian Charity and Differential Survival

Second, Stark argues that the Church's doctrines concerning love, charity, and social service led to higher survival rates among Christians than among its competitors. He notes that although at the time science offered no cure for the epidemics, “elementary nursing” would have greatly reduced the mortality rate. “[The s]imple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:88).

Unfortunately, according to Stark, between “a quarter and a third” of all Roman citizens perished because they did not receive such nursing (Stark 1996:76), and a primary reason was because when the plagues struck, most people, or at least those with the resources to do so, fled. Why? Because, Stark believes, the dominant religions of the time possessed no doctrines that claimed that people were obligated to minister to the sick and dying. Christianity, however, did. And, according to Stark, these ideas translated into action. In particular, they led Christians to nurse those who became infected, which in turn, led to higher survival rates among those they nursed, both Christians and non-Christians. But, since Christians were more likely to stay behind (and receive nursing), they probably had higher survival rights.

Differential Survival and Network Ties

Finally, Stark argues that the Church's higher survival rate left its social networks (not to be confused with Facebook) undamaged for the most part, while leaving those of its competitors in disarray. This probably would have enhanced its ability to recruit new followers. Why? A wealth of research has found that people are far more likely to join a new religious movement, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of personal risk, if they already know (have a tie) to someone who is a member.

A colleague of mine (Robert Schroeder) and I used computer simulations to test Stark's argument and found that, given his assumption, it has merit ("Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity"). In particular, we found that Christian social networks survived the epidemics more intact than did the social networks of its religious competitors. The differences between the two were not as dramatic as Stark originally hypothesized, but they are not substantial nonetheless. Christians lost fewer ties and gained almost as many converts as they would have done if the epidemics had never occurred. By contrast, their competitors lost more ties, most of which were to non-Christians, which increased the probability they would've converted to Christianity.

The Church and the Coronavirus

A number of scholars have challenged Stark's assumptions, from whether the differences between Christianity and its competitors were as substantial as Stark believes to whether the nursing of those infected had as much of an effect as he claims. Nevertheless, Stark's analysis raises the issue of how today's Church responds to the Coronavirus pandemic that's sweeping through today's world. Will we, as Stark believes that members of the early Church did, consider the welfare of others above our own? Will we, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr,
Have the courage to change the things we can,
The composure to accept what we can't,
And the wisdom to know the difference?
I pray that we will because we could be facing another crisis of faith. Let's hope the Church responds as it once did.


Sean F. Everton and Robert Schroeder. 2019. "Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58(4):775-89. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12631

William H. McNeill. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Reinhold Niebuhr. [1944] 2015. "Serenity Prayer." Page 705 in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. by Elisabeth Sifton. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rodney Stark. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Two Good Reasons to Practice Social Distancing

There's two good reasons to practice "social distancing," that is, the conscious effort to reduce close contact between ourselves and others in order to prevent the transmission of a virus to others. One is to lower the probability that we will contract the disease. Most everybody gets this. And, as everyone knows, some of us are more likely to become infected than others. Unfortunately, it appears a lot of folks don't get the second reason: to not pass the virus on to someone else. This attitude seems to prevail among those who think they're unlikely to become infected. The problem is, it is quite possible that they could become infected, but the symptoms are so mild, that they don't know they have it. And then they head out into public places and unwittingly pass it on to others who may not be so lucky.

So, let's all do our best to keep our distance from others. We can still visit with friends, pick up a Peet's or Philz, and maybe even dine out. But we can do so without getting into other peoples' space. We're all in this together: Republicans and Democrats, believers and atheists, the Left Coast and the South, the Northeast and the Midwest. Let's start acting like it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

How Will The Giants Do This Season? (If There is One)

How will the Giants do this season? I asked the same question last year ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"), and my answer was that they would probably do better than many expected. I anticipated Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Panik, and Posey all to have decent years, and except for Longoria, none of the them really did. And by late May, I was calling for a rebuild ("Should the Giants Pull the Plug?" "Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question").

Then, the performance of a few new players, such as Kevin Pillar, Mike Yastrzemski, Donovan Solano, and Alex Dickerson, plus the revival of Pablo Sandoval, altered the landscape. The Giants started winning, and rather than dealing Madison Bumgarner at the trade deadline, they held on to him, hoping they could make a run at the playoffs. They didn't, but at 77-85, they finished better than preseason projections (73-89 per PECOTA, and 71-91 per 538). So, I guess I was right after all (albeit for all the wrong reasons).

I'm pretty much taking the same position this season. Currently PECOTA projects the Giants to win 68 games (538 has yet to release theirs), but I believe they will win more than that. I do think Posey will have a better year than last; he seems to be healthy, and he's been hitting with more authority this Spring training. Additionally, it looks like Crawford and Belt will be platooned this year, splitting their time with the likes of Marcio Dubon, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano, and Yolmer Sánchez, which should improve their numbers relative to plate appearances, as well as the Giants overall numbers at short and first. In the outfield we have Yaz and Dickerson coming back, and Hunter Pence (yea!) will probably platoon with the latter. That's a pretty good combination. Austin Slater showed promise last year, as did Jaylin Davis, so our outfield may be okay. Rumor has it that Marcio Dubon will be spending time in the outfield too.

Pitching could be a major problem. No MadBum, and Tyler Beede, probably our best pitching prospect, has arm problems, and it's unclear when he'll be back. It'll be up to Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to have better than expected seasons if the Giants hope to be competitive. Who knows how the rest of the rotation will fare. That, I think, is the Giants' biggest uncertainty. And then there's the bullpen. More uncertainty. Tyler Rogers could turn out to be a good closer, and we do have Tony Watson returning. The bullpen may turn out better than it appears at first blush. Only time will tell.

I do anticipate the Giants acquiring players that turn out to be pleasant surprises. Farhan Zaidi is doing with the Giants what he did with the Dodgers. Picking players off a waivers, signing unheralded free agents, and trading for players other teams want to unload, and then giving them a shot. And while most don't pan out, some do. Think Justin Turner or Chris Taylor. We need to find players like them (Darin Ruf?).

And then there's Joey Bart. The Giants number one prospect. He'll almost certainly be pulled up to the majors this year, which means that Buster will see more time at 1st base. The Giants have a few more prospects that may not be too far from making their major league debuts either: Sean Hjell, the 6'11" pitcher who had a pretty good Spring training, and Heliot Ramos, who hit a massive home run in Spring training and is only 20 years old.

So, how will we do? I say we will win about as many games as last year. However, if Beede gets healthy, and Joey Bart makes even more of splash than anticipated, we might surprise a few people. I doubt that we'll reach the playoffs, but the second half of the season may prove entertaining and we could be pretty well set up for 2021 (perhaps, we'll start talking about the magic of "odd years" in the future).

Friday, February 28, 2020

Can Bernie Win?

Can Bernie win? Can he beat Trump? On most days, I'd say no. He won't attract enough moderates. They'll hold their nose and vote for Trump, not because they like the latter, but because they can't imagine voting for a self-avowed socialist.

But then, think about how much Bernie's campaign is reminiscent of Trump's campaign four years ago. Remember how no one (including me) thought Trump could win? Trump's base was a bit fanatical, but remember how most of us thought he wouldn't attract enough moderates in the general election? Well, we know how that turned out.

To be sure, Trump did lose the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes, but he won key battleground states that helped him win the electoral college. Although in New York he lost to Hillary by almost 2 million votes, for which she was awarded 29 electoral votes, Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by just under 78,000 votes, which earned him 46 electoral votes. That margin was largely due to white working class Americans who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. It is not inconceivable that, given the policies Bernie advocates for, those same voters would vote for Bernie. Put differently, Bernie could win the popular vote by even a smaller margin than Hillary but still pull out an electoral college victory.

Then there is what political scientists call "party fatigue," which occurs when voters grow tired of a particular party being in power and vote for the party out of power. It is possible that as disruptive as Trump's presidency has been with its daily tweets and mercurial behavior, enough voters will have had enough of Trump--that is, they'll be suffering from "Trump-fatigue"-- and they'll vote for whomever Democratic nominee is.

Another variable is the economy. If the economy tanks, then it won't matter who the Democrats nominate. He or she will win, even Bernie. As I noted previously ("Democrats Could Be in Trouble"), the one guarantee of economic expansions is that they always end. There's always a recession in their future. It's just difficult to predict when they'll occur. The economy has been good to Trump so far, and if it continues to do so, then he'll be tough to beat. But, if it turns south, then he may be looking at a one-year presidency.

So, although Mayor Pete's my favorite ("Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It"), and I think a moderate like Joe Biden or Mike Bloomberg is a better bet ("Candidate Ideology and Vote Choice in the 2020 US Presidential Election", "Bernie Sanders looks electable in surveys — but it could be a mirage"), it is conceivable that Bernie could beat Trump in November. 2020 should be an interesting year.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Democrats Could Be In Trouble

Democrats could be in big trouble. Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents in US history, but if the economy remains strong, they will have a hard time beating him in November. They still might win the popular vote, but winning the electoral college might be a bridge too far.

Making matters more difficult, they could nominate someone who has little to no chance of winning. Among the candidates on the left, Bernie Sanders seems to have the best chance of securing the nomination, and while I personally like him ("Bernie Sanders and Civil Discourse"), I'm skeptical that he'll attract enough moderate voters to win. (I actually have imagined one scenario in which he can win, but that's for a future post.) Among the moderates, Mayor Pete's my favorite ("Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It") and I think Amy Klobuchar would do well, but Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg probably have the best chance of beating Trump. However, the former appears like he has little or nothing left in the tank, and the latter has to show that he can do more than produce slick (albeit impressive) campaign ads.

The Democrats best hope might be for the economy to tank. Pointing out that the current economic expansion began under Obama will have little effect. Nevertheless, the economy will stop expanding at some point. There's always a recession in the future when you're in the midst of an expansion. But predicting when that will happen is anyone's guess. If it begins in the next couple of months, then the Democrats' chances will improve substantially, regardless of who's nominated. But if it doesn't begin until the late Fall (or after), it will probably be too late.

Does this mean Democrats should just give up? Of course not. Who knows what might happen. The one thing they have going for them is Trump's unpopularity and what political scientists call "party fatigue." Party fatigue occurs when voters grow tired of a particular party being in power and vote for the party out of power. It is possible that as disruptive as Trump's presidency has been with its daily tweets and mercurial behavior, enough voters will simply have had enough and swing the election to whomever the Democratic nominee is.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What Makes a Good Restaurant?

Peter King is a former chef who now writes mystery novels. His first set of mysteries focus on an unnamed “Gourmet Detective,” who isn’t really a detective, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, he’s a former chef who specializes in tracking down rare food ingredients and advising restaurants and producers where to locate substitute or replacement foods, especially for those that no longer exist. Still his “detecting” inevitably leads to real detecting, usually when someone connected to the food industry (chefs, owners, critics) gets him or herself killed.

All of the books feature descriptions of dishes that can leave the reader's mouth watering. In the fourth book, Death al Dente, the Gourmet Detective is asked to evaluate three chefs who run restaurants in Italy, so we are treated to the Gourmet Detective's opinion as to what makes a good restaurant. Here's a sample:
  • The lighting should be good, as if to emphasize that there is nothing to hide, and the acoustics should be excellent — points overlooked in too many restaurants.
  • Skepticism concerning quality is justified when the menu is as thick as a magazine, for it means that many of the products are frozen.
  • The service is a clue to the restaurant itself. Close your menu and someone should be there to take your order. Put down a piece of silverware and a fresh one should immediately take its place. If you leave the table, your napkin should be removed and a clean, folded one should await your return.
  • Any waiter must be able to answer any question about the food, its ingredients, and how the dish is prepared. If you eat all the sauce and food remains, you evidently liked the sauce and a good waiter will offer you more. When the bread basket is emptied, it should be refilled.
I can't say I've been to too many restaurants that meet all of those criteria (if at all). I'd be interested to visit one that does, however (as long as I can afford it).

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Fans Having Fun with the Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Unsurprisingly, baseball fans are having a little "fun" with the Astros sign stealing scandal. For example, someone edited the Wikipedia page listing major league baseball's MVPs:

It was edited back not too long after it was changed. Another Wikipedia entry, this one about the 2017 American League Championship Series between the NY Yankees and Houston Astros, was also edited to read, "The Astros cheated the Yankees in seven games after falling behind three games to two."

I hasn't been changed back, at least not the last time I checked. I'm waiting for an LA fan to take a shot at the Wikipedia page about the 2017 World Series. They could take some inspiration from the Pope, who has apparently joined in the fun:

Everything you read on the internet is true, right? Then there's the Astros' new Bobble Head:

Evidently other people have had their signs stolen by the Astros:

Pete Rose can't quite get his head around about the punishment the Astros' manager received from MLB for cheating:

Even Patriot-hating fans have joined the pile on:

And more than a few people have suggested a new name for the Astros:

And then there's some new Astro's batting helmets:

That's it for now. I'll keep updating this post as new memes come to my attention (at least for awhile).

Updated: March 2, 2020

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs in Baseball

"Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it" -- Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame Manager

"The great American game of baseball is a fraud, a treachery and un-American. It offers a regrettable example to the nation's youth, is populated by cheats, thrives on sneaky tricks, and teaches Fagin values to thousands of Little Leaguers" -- Shirley Povich, Washington Post, 1972

So, let's be clear: Stealing signs is considered to be okay in baseball. In fact, a certain amount of cheating is tolerated and expected. In fact, one of baseball's greatest cheaters, Gaylord Perry, whose spitballs were allegedly covered with so much vaseline (or reasonable facsimile) that it would hit batters in the eye when the ball crossed the plate, is in the Hall of Fame. The story may be apocryphal, but the fact that Perry regularly threw spitters is not. And it wasn't as if those who voted for him didn't know about it when they cast their ballots. Perry's autobiography, "Me and the Spitter," was published in 1974; he wasn't elected to the Hall until 1991.

Moreover, this isn't the first time that teams have used "technology" to steal signs. Apparently, the 1951 NY Giants used a telescope in the their clubhouse behind center field to steal the signals of opposing catchers, which were relayed via a buzzer connected from the clubhouse to telephones in the Giants dugout and bullpen. "Every hitter knew what was coming," said pitcher Al Gettel. "Made a big difference" ("Shot Heard 'Round the World"). The Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, caught and tied the Dodgers for the National League Pennant, and then won the playoff when Bobby Thomson's launched his "Shot Heard 'Round the World" into the left field bleachers at the Polo Grounds (see picture above).

So, what is it about the Astros' (and apparently, the Red Sox) sign stealing scandal that has everybody's knickers in a twist? Primarily, the Astros' very sophisticated use of technology to steal signs, which most observers seem to believe crossed the line. That said, while some want major league baseball (MLB) to take away the Astros' World Series championship, I think it's unlikely since many within the league suspect that the Astros probably weren't the only team doing it ("Tim Flannery on Sign Stealing in Baseball", "Jack McDowell says Tony La Russa had sign-stealing system with White Sox in '80s", "Former MLB players, coaches have mixed feeling toward Mike Fiers, the whistleblower on the Astros cheating scandal"). There's a reason why Buster Posey uses complicated sign sequences even when there isn't a runner on second. He's worried that the other team is watching on TV. Any team can have the game on in their clubhouse and have someone trying to decode the signs during the game. The Astros just happened to be the team that got caught doing it.

Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn't acceptable isn't always clear. To be sure, the MLB outlawed sign stealing using optical or other mechanical aids back in 1961 (evidently several teams were doing it), but it also outlawed spitballs (in 1920) and then looked the other way when Gaylord Perry started throwing them. Then, of course, there's the use of PEDs. Some (e.g., alcohol, amphetamines) have been tolerated for years, while others were eventually deemed unacceptable (e.g., steroids, which were banned by the MLB in 2005, four years after Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record).

(Tyler Skaggs's death from an opioid overdose this past summer makes me wonder whether opioids are replacing alcohol as the drug of choice for handling the stress associated with playing baseball (or any professional sport). I hope not.)

Practically, what this means is that players and teams will always push the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. To paraphrase Hall of Fame manager, Leo Durocher, they will try to "win any way they can as long as they can get away with it." And those who do won't know exactly where that unacceptable line is. They won't know it, that is, until they're caught (if they ever are).

Updated: February 2, 2020