12/31/2019

What to think about Modi these days

"As this outsider sees it, India’s secular democracy was never liberal. It had certain de facto liberal elements, but largely out of low levels of state capacity, necessitating a kind of tolerance but of course also leading to a very sub-par infrastructure. Furthermore, it has been commonly described by political scientists as a “democracy without accountability.” National voting has so much to do with religion, caste, and other particularistic principles that Indian democracy never enforced superior practical performance as it should have.


Then enter several forces at more or less the same time, including Modi, ongoing Indian economic growth, higher expectations and thus greater demands for state capacity, a rise in what is called “populism,” and also an increase in the focality of Islam and also terrorism around the world.

In essence that state capacity starts to be built and part of it is turned to wrong ends, in an attempt to appeal to the roughly 80 percent Hindu majority."


Editors’ Picks: Favorite Books of 2019

HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY by Jenny Odell

Exhaustively researched yet philosophical and poetic in its delivery, How to Do Nothing will make you rethink your relationship to thought itself. Incorporating history, journalistic narrative, scientific studies, literature, philosophy and even the study of trees and birdwatching, Odell mounts a convincing defense of individual attention. Her observations are fresh and often surprising. She wisely points out that the boundless connectivity afforded by smartphones is no substitute for knowing your real-life neighbors (which is less and less a commonplace reality these days, in the age of social media); it is neighborhoods, not Facebook friends lists, that spring to action in the event of local emergencies and climate-related disasters.

And against the grain of the average social science polemic decrying technology’s impact on our attention spans, How To Do Nothing argues that the designs modern media and technology have on our attention, while real and invasive, are ultimately shallow: it is much, much harder to penetrate and hijack levels of deep thought—the kind of reverent, insistent attention we pay to art and music—and therefore that’s the kind we should cultivate. This book changed how I live, despite not a word of it being pedantic. I hope it will change yours, too.

Cardinal Grech, renowned theologian, dies at age 94

"In this role as priest-secretary, it happened that during the conclave of June 1963, that which elected St. Pope Paul VI, Grech encountered the then-Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini in the apostolic palace. Montini asked if he was the confessor of the conclave. Grech said he was not, but Montini asked if he could hear his confession nonetheless. A few hours later, Montini was elected pope.

In a 2013 interview, Grech recounted the story, saying that he hoped he did not give the future Pope Paul VI “too arduous a penance.”"

The Social Conservatism of Hollywood

"The message of all this cinema: Follow the path of bourgeois virtue. Work hard, keep the peace, abstain from alcohol, have very few sexual partners, and keep your whole family far away from anyone who lives otherwise. Think about how many fictional characters would have lived longer if they never set foot in a bar.


Is this the message the writers intend to send? Unlikely. Instead, they try to create engrossing stories – and end up weaving morality tales.

True, Hollywood could make movies where criminals are “victims of their toxic social environment.” It could make movies where the people who face retribution are the self-righteous bourgeoisie who “created toxic social environment in the first place.” (This is arguably the plot of Natural Born Killers, though that’s giving it too much credit). Such stories, however, would be sorely lacking in emotional truth. You can’t credibly depict the life of a criminal without showing his choices; and when you see his choices, you see all the ways he could have done otherwise, “toxic social environment” notwithstanding."


Saving Behavior Across the Wealth Distribution: The Importance of Capital Gains

"Do wealthier households save a larger share of their incomes than poorer ones? We use Norwegian administrative panel data on income and wealth to answer this empirical question. The relation between saving rates and wealth crucially depends on whether saving includes capital gains. Saving rates net of capital gains ("net saving rates") are approximately constant across the wealth distribution. However, saving rates including capital gains ("gross saving rates") increase markedly with wealth. The proximate explanation is that wealthier households own assets that experience persistent capital gains which they hold onto instead of selling them off to consume ("saving by holding"). These joint patterns for net and gross saving rates challenge canonical models of household wealth accumulation. They are instead consistent with theories in which time-varying discount rates or portfolio adjustment frictions keep households from realizing capital gains. Between 1995 and 2015 Norway's aggregate wealth-to-income ratio rose from approximately 4 to 7. "Saving by holding" accounts for up to 80 percent of this increase."

Troubles in the Economists’ Case for a Carbon Tax

"As economist Bryan Caplan writes on the case for correcting externalities, “most people are not perfectly selfish, and it is usually feasible to charge consumers for a fraction of the benefit they receive” — as we demonstrably do in the case of carbon emissions; fossil fuels, except in countries like Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, usually don’t come cheap. The problem that carbon taxes try to address is one of a mild overproduction of emissions compared to an idealized situation where the social cost of carbon emissions on others could be fully internalized. 

But how could we possibly know where that idealized situation is?

Even accepting the externality argument, we are instantly confronted with two obvious problems: First, we don’t know how far apart these impressive-looking textbook curves of social and private benefit are. There is simply no way to adequately measure the cost of an externality (never mind that costs are individual and subjective rather than collective and observable). If we overcorrect, we are harming ourselves for no good reason."

*Capital and Ideology*, by Thomas Piketty

"2. At some point the book veers into partisan issues such as the wealth tax. Many of those parts remain interesting, but it also becomes clear that Piketty is “out to lunch,” to wit (p.591):
To return to the Soviet attitude toward poverty, it is important to try to understand why the government took such a radical stance against all forms of private ownership of the means of production, no matter how small. Criminalizing carters and food peddlers to the point of incarcerating them may seem absurd, but there was a certain logic to the policy. Most important was the fear of not knowing where to stop. If one began by authorizing private ownership of small businesses, would one be able to set limits?

I can think of a less naive explanation of Soviet attitudes toward the private sector. Piketty also calls for “participatory socialism” (p.592), a dubious doctrine not to be confused with say Nordic social democracy. For instance, Sweden (among other countries) seems to have fairly extreme wealth inequality."


The Paleoconservative Eminence? Cardinal Sarah On Identity, Nationality, & Roots

"“Globalized humanity, without borders, is a hell.” So Robert Cardinal Sarah bluntly informs Nicholas Diat in The Day Is Now Far Spent. “The standardization of ways of life is the cancer of the postmodern world. Men become unwitting members of a great planetary herd, that does not think, does not protest, and allows itself to be guided toward a future that does not belong to it.” Grim words, to be sure, but also curiously heartening for lay Catholic defenders of national identity and sovereignty, who have been marginalized for some time now. After being systematically ignored and even misrepresented, in some cases even by our own pastors, it is a welcome relief to find that one of the foremost ecclesial champions of prayerful silence and traditional liturgy has openly and frankly acknowledged the validity of our concerns.

In this context, I can’t help pointing out how recent book reviews have conveniently overlooked the cardinal’s opposition to globalization, even though said opposition is unambiguous and pertains to an issue lying at the very heart of burning controversies in America, continental Europe, and Britain. This is to say nothing of Cardinal Sarah’s really politically-incorrect positions. I.e., he condemns the West’s “unheard-of arrogance” toward the Kremlin; he supports the Visegrad Four countries against the technocrats of the European Union; he expresses sympathy for the gilets-jaunes. “Why should American democracy be exported to the four corners of the world?” he demands, before going on to tell the Western powers that it “is absurd to impose the same rules on all countries,” and that in any event he respects “the family policy of Russia more than that of Great Britain, Canada, or France.” Even if it is true that the American government “tried to bring freedom to the Syrians,” the fact is that “today the country resembles an expanse of ruins . . . Without Russia’s intervention, an Islamist regime would have ended up winning the day. The Christians of that country owe their survival to Moscow.” Let us repeat His Eminence’s very last statement, just so readers who yearn for Cold War II make no mistake about where he is coming from: The Christians of that country owe their survival to Moscow."

Love the Science, Hate the Scientists: Conservative Identity Protects Belief in Science and Undermines Trust in Scientists

"The decline in trust in the scientific community in the United States among political conservatives has been well established. But this observation is complicated by remarkably positive and stable attitudes toward scientific research itself. What explains the persistence of positive belief in science in the midst of such dramatic change? By leveraging research on the performativity of conservative identity, we argue that conservative scientific institutions have manufactured a scientific cultural repertoire that enables participation in this highly valued epistemological space while undermining scientific authority perceived as politically biased. We test our hypothesized link between conservative identity and scientific perceptions using panel data from the General Social Survey. We find that those with stable conservative identities hold more positive attitudes toward scientific research while simultaneously holding more negative attitudes towards the scientific community compared to those who switch to and from conservative political identities. These findings support a theory of a conservative scientific repertoire that is learned over time and that helps orient political conservatives in scientific debates that have political repercussions. Implications of these findings are discussed for researchers interested in the cultural differentiation of scientific authority and for stakeholders in scientific communication and its public policy."

12/27/2019

Move on — this isn’t true here

"I have a simple model of how some people — but by no means all — process political issues. Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status."

Advice on Writing

"When you’re going along writing and you need a reference for something you’re saying but you’re 70% or more sure that you have the idea right, don’t stop and check the reference. In fact, put a little TK in there with a note or two about the reference(s) you want to check. (The editors at Fortune taught me this trick when I wrote a lot for Fortune in the late 1980s.) Then on days where you’ve done your 1 or 2-hour minimum, use some less cerebral time to fill in those references.

Also, you may be writing on one idea and then you think of something else that belongs in the chapter but not in the part you’re writing. Write it down. That will also help jog your thinking when you get to that part. And the beauty of it is that it’s already one quarter or one third done. That’s the beauty of writing in 2019 instead of 1976, when I did most of my writing on my dissertation. Word is a wonderful software because it’s so easy to just stick things in and move them around."

The End of Traditional Monetary Policy

"The Federal Reserve’s current operating system allows it to sterilize the effects of monetary expansion. It can purchase securities and simultaneously (1) raise the rate paid on excess reserves relative to the federal funds rate or (2) work with the Treasury for it to increase the balance of the General Account. Or (3) it may isolate the effects of monetary expansion by providing support for overnight lending markets. As a result of payment of interest on excess reserves, there is a discrepancy between the quantity of base money in circulation and the total quantity of base money. Changes in the Treasury’s General Account and intervention in the overnight lending market can reduce the total quantity of base money while maintaining a swollen balance sheet. 

Monetary policy ain’t what it used to be.

The Federal Reserve has innovated methods that allow it to hide the effect of its monetary intervention — namely, support for federal borrowing. The intervention can only remain hidden so long as the Federal Reserve earns a profit."

How I practice at what I do

"1. I write every day. I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own. I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day."

Status-seeking services

"If you earn $100,000 and spend $60,000 on status-producing services (rent in an expensive city and/or tuition for your child at a brand-name college) and I earn $50,000 and spend nothing on those services, then the raw income data say that you are twice as well off as I am. But are you that much better off, or are you even better off at all?"

Some Advice to Fellow Lovers of Liberal Learning

"Here is the point I want to make: It is too late for us to make an innocent and naive return either to youthfully spontaneous individuality or to venerably traditional ancestral ways. We are too much caught in the regularity, efficiency, and rationality of our Cartesian world. That is why our enthusiastic attempts in those directions always look a little like a costume party.

And yet I believe in some such return. I think most of us have a feeling that some sort of a new beginning is needed, and I have never heard of a true beginning which was not a return. What I want to claim is that a liberal education, like ours, here, this summer, is the beginning of that beginning.

Some people say that the correct meaning of the phrase “liberal education” is “food for the free.” “Liberal” means “suitable for free people,” and the word “education” has its root in common with our word “edible.” I don’t know if this etymology is correct, but I will use it to help me say something opposite: It seems to me that in modern times a first, preliminary function of a liberal education must be to serve as a purgative, a cleansing, of those who wish to be free. By its means we can cleanse ourselves of our undigested and unconscious prejudices, most of which turn out to be associated with just that rationalized sameness I was describing before. Isn’t that just the effect which the study and discussion of Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, de Tocqueville, and Marx had, if they had any?"

Potential White House open-access edict could upend scientific publishers

"The White House is considering issuing an executive order that would mandate immediate free access to all published federally funded research, with no embargo period, according to administration and scientific publishing officials.

At least two rounds of interagency reviews of the proposed executive order have occurred, according to an administration source, but there has been no word on when or whether the order will be issued. The review process is being coordinated by the White House staff secretary, says the source, rather than the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has previously led the formulation of open-access policy."

The Gift of the Magi

"Think of it this way. The rural shepherds came down from the hills because the angels appeared and told them of the Savior’s birth. The animals were all on their knees, moved by the visible sight of the divine. But the Magi had to have set out long before, in order to arrive in time. They had to read the stars, the signs of the age and the deep meanings of the universe—and then act on what they thought they had discerned. These were city dwellers and learned people, and when a great star appeared in the sky, they followed their intellectual curiosity and journeyed off to discover where it led. They brought gifts, because they wanted to honor the newborn king for whom they were searching. More to the point, they brought gifts because they imagined they might actually find him.

All of which is to say, they had the intelligence to examine honestly the clues the world offered them. They had the wisdom to seek the truth for its own sake, whatever it might prove to be. These are believers in the mind, in other words, who undertook a great expedition because they trusted their thoughts, conjectures, and hypotheses—and refused to shake themselves back into the small thoughts of ordinary life.

A cold coming they had of it, the worst time of the year to take a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off: in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter."

Evangelicalism’s Silent Majority

"I keep coming back to the same thing. I'm going to emphasize what we do well, and base it on consensus. I'm sorry about the painful things that people say and do. I was a lifelong pastor, and I know people will say and do unbelievable stuff. If that becomes the center of attention, though, you’ve lost your core.

You can't be controlled by the distractions. I want to be about who we are and what we're doing."

12/26/2019

Desmond Dekker & The Aces – Israelites (Official Lyrics Video)




- 'Desmond Dekker & The Aces – Israelites (Official Lyrics Video)'

Finding Faith in the Manger: Berlioz’s “Infancy of Christ”

"Much later in life, near the age of fifty, Berlioz returned, at least in imagination, to his childhood faith in the form of what he called his sacred trilogy, L’Enfance du Christ. Berlioz first wrote the central portion of the work, the “Shepherd’s Farewell to the Holy Family” as it flees to Egypt. Because of its rustic, archaic charm, Berlioz enjoyed passing it off on its first presentation as the work of an obscure seventeenth-century master, Pierre Ducre, a name Berlioz made up. It took him three years to complete the composition, to which he added a first part dealing with Herod’s dream and a third section portraying the Holy Family’s arrival in Egypt. Conceived “in the manner of the old illuminated missals,” L’Enfance du Christ is, as Berlioz described it, “innocent and sweet.”

Berlioz explained how the defining characteristic of his style applied to L’Enfance du Christ: “When I say passionate expression, I mean an expression determined on enforcing the inner meaning of its subject, even when that subject is the contrary of passion, and when the feeling to be expressed is gentle and tender, or even profoundly calm. This is the sort of expression that has been discovered in L’Enfance du Christ.” Throughout, Berlioz achieves a wonderful sense of dramatic truth—from Herod’s tortured dreams and bloody desperation, the angels’ warning to Mary and Joseph, their moment of respite in the desert, to the pathos of the Holy Family’s door-to-door search for refuge in Egypt, and the final welcoming celebration in the house of the Ishmaelites."

Sinner or saint – God loves you, Pope Francis says on Christmas Eve

"According to Francis, the only response to the gratuitous love of God can be acceptance, gratitude, and giving love in return.

“Whatever goes wrong in our lives, whatever doesn’t work in the Church, whatever problems there are in the world, will no longer serve as an excuse. It will become secondary, for faced with Jesus’ extravagant love, a love of utter meekness and closeness, we have no excuse,” he stated.

“At Christmas, the question is this,” he continued. “‘Do I allow myself to be loved by God? Do I abandon myself to his love that comes to save me?’”"

The new spending bill is a disaster

"The disaster is the repeal of the so-called “Cadillac tax” on expensive health care plans. To understand why this is such a tragic mistake, you first need to understand the nature of American health care. Almost half of the US healthcare system is directly financed via government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Veteran’s Administration. A large share of private sector health care provision is funded by private insurance. Because this insurance is often provided by employers, it is tax deductible.

This means that the government effectively picks up about 40% of the cost of health care provided by the private sector. Needless to say, this provides a powerful incentive for excessive use of health care, and helps to explain why American health care is far more expensive than in other countries. Even worse, this tax provision encourages people to pay for health care via the insurance system, rather than out of pocket. Even my disposable contact lens are purchased this way, which means American taxpayers pick up roughly 40% of the cost of this frivolous luxury."

NASDAQ 11,743?

"The overall tech bubble was actually not all that irrational, as we now know that fairly high tech stock prices were quite justified in the late 1990s, especially conditional on rational NGDP growth forecasts. Of course we didn’t know which specific tech stocks would become trillion dollar companies, which is the nature of efficient markets."

“What will you do to stay weird?”

"7. Develop a small group of intensely weird but smart friends, and treat them as your relevant audience.

A very good path, though due to the problems with the other options, your weird friends might themselves turn too normal. This may require a kind of collective bootstrapping method.

8. Read extensively in weird areas, outside the present and outside of your home nation, and refuse to read much news.

9. Adopt impenetrable terminology.

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk to that one!

10. Blog rather than tweet. Stay off Twitter altogether.

Duh."

Joyous Surrender: A Rhapsody in Red (and Green)

"A follower once asked St. Francis—oh, so prissily—whether it was licit to eat meat on the Feast of Christmas, and he shouted in reply, “On a day like this, even the walls eat meat. And if they cannot, then let them be spread with meat.” Now there’s a picture that won’t make House Beautiful any time soon: the walls of the dining room dripping with smeared meat. Such an image will not be subsumed by any attempt to tidy up the holiday and make Christmas manageable. St. Francis points toward something about the wonder and the mess of the Incarnation: the shattering of ordinary life that the Nativity declares. The smash of predictability, the breaking of attempts at elegant organization. This world is out of our control—not just in the bad sense of sin and fallen nature, but also in the impossibly good sense that God, in his providence, has taken it in hand."

The Significance of Jesus’ Birth

"How, except by the virgin birth, could our Saviour have lived a complete human life from the mother’s womb, and yet have been from the very beginning no product of what had gone before, but a supernatural Person come into the world from the outside to redeem the sinful race? We may not, indeed, set limits to the power of God; we cannot say what God might or might not have done. Yet we can say at least that no other way can be conceived by us. Deny or give up the story of the virgin birth, and inevitably you are led to evade either the high Biblical doctrine of sin or else the full Biblical presentation of the supernatural Person of our Lord. A noble man in whom the divine life merely pulsated in greater power than in other men would have been born by ordinary generation from a human pair; the eternal Son of God, come by a voluntary act to redeem us from the guilt and power of sin, was conceived in the virgin’s womb by the Holy Ghost.

What, then, is our conclusion? Is belief in the virgin birth necessary to every man if he is to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? The question is wrongly put when it is put in that way. Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell. Some knowledge is certainly required, but exactly how much is required we cannot say. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbellef,” said a man in the Gospels who was saved. So today there are many men of little faith, many who are troubled by the voices that are heard on all sides. It is very hard to be a Christian in these times; and there is One who knows that it is hard. What right have we to say that full knowledge and full conviction are necessary before a man can put his trust in the crucified and risen Lord? What right have we to say that no man can be saved before he has come to full conviction regarding the stupendous miracle narrated in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke?"

12/24/2019

The gift of the Incarnation

"The Magi from the East would also receive the announcement of the incarnation, but in a more subtle and obscure form: by way of a star in the East, which, “…went before them till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” (Matt. 2:9) It is a wondrous thought to contemplate that these Magi, who were really primitive astronomers, received the announcement of human redemption by means of their own work: the study of the heavens.

The word “mundane” is usually taken to denote something uninteresting or boring, but the root of the word, mundum, means that which pertain to our world. The lesson here is that in our ordinary lives, in our mundane existence, God can be found. This is what Emmanuel means. This discovery can also be made in our giving and receiving during this season in particular. Receive His gifts with a thankful heart this Christmas and find your rest in Him. Merry Christmas."

This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful

"Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. New York has managed to rebuild when bridges and subways failed and, in the case of the World Trade Center, when buildings were destroyed by terrorists. A handful of new subway stops have opened on Second Avenue, and the 7 Line was extended into Manhattan’s Far West Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he’s rebuilding terminals at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. But those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands. The subway system is falling apart. Entire neighborhoods are transit deserts. Century-old tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey are beginning to fail."

on not owning my turf

"I have written against the walled gardens of social media and in favor of tending the digital commons, but maybe “commons” was a bad metaphor. Maybe the open web is more like a public park that the city government might at any time sell to developers who plan to turn it into a high-rise. Absence of walls is not presence of public ownership.

I own my computer and the files on its hard drive. That may be all, in the digital world, I own."

Fact Checking the 1619 Project and Its Critics

"Barring the revelation of additional names, it appears that the 1619 Project neglected to adequately vet its material covering slavery during the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Its editors also appear to have assigned the primary article on this period to a writer who may possess expertise in other areas of social science involving race, but who is not qualified for the specific task of assessing slavery’s economic dimensions.

Although Silverstein attempted to defuse this angle of the historians’ criticism, he ended up only affirming its validity. Since the period in question encompasses several of the most important events in the history of slavery, this oversight harms the project’s credibility in the areas where the five historians are highly regarded experts."

Work on these things

"Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?"

Ryan Murphy's "Markets Against Modernity"

"The book is sort of like behavioral economics, but feels different. It has some similarity to Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, but the analysis is applied to private sector activities. It doesn’t fit neatly into either the “left” or the “right” side of the political spectrum. It’s not clear if the message is that we need more regulation or less. At times it can be elitist (when defending science over pseudo-science), while at other times it is anti-elitist (when criticizing expertise in cultural fields.) I see its hard-to-pin-down nature as a plus, but others may be frustrated.

One of my favorite sections discussed social capital. I’ve generally bought into the notion that high levels of social capital are desirable. To some extent that is true, but Murphy points out that social capital can also pressure individuals into acting in ways that are counterproductive. Social capital can encourage “buy local”, or “natural” products, or “do-it-yourself”, even where these approaches make no sense."

China isn’t close to being the #1 economy

"The key point is the difference between income and wealth. GDP and related numbers measure income flows: namely, the quantity of goods and services produced in a given nation in a given year. Wealth is a measure of the total stock of resources in a nation and is much higher. Furthermore, the gap between wealth and income is usually higher for nations that have been wealthy and stable for a very long time, such as the U.S.

When it comes to national wealth, the U.S. has a big lead over China, possibly as much as three times greater. That is a very rough estimate by Michael Beckley of Tufts University, drawing on data from the World Bank and the United Nations."

what I’m afraid to say in synagogue

"My fellow congregants are not dogmatic about religion. They would be horrified if someone got up and said that there is no merit to any religion other than ours. No one would ever say that we have nothing to learn from Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or atheism or other branches of Judaism. No one would dismiss the adherents of other faiths as “deplorable.”

But when it comes to politics, it is a different story. Is it possible that conservatives have some good political ideas? My fellow congregants do not think so. To them, conservatism is nothing but a collection of pathologies and hatreds."

Theory of the Nudnik: The Future of Consumer Activism and What We Can Do to Stop it

"How do consumers hold sellers accountable and enforce market norms? This Article contributes to our understanding of consumer markets in three ways. First, The Article identifies the role of a small subset of consumers—the titular ‘nudniks’—as engines of market discipline. Nudniks are those who call to complain, speak with managers, post online reviews, and file lawsuits. Typified by an idiosyncratic utility function and personality traits, nudniks pursue action where most consumers remain passive. Although derided in courtrooms and the court of public opinion, we show that nudniks can solve consumer collective action problems, thereby leading to broad market improvements.

Second, the Article spotlights a disconcerting development: Sellers’ growing usage of Big Data and predictive analytics allows them to identify specific consumers as potential nudniks and avoid selling to or disarm them before they can draw attention to sellers’ misconduct. The Article therefore captures an understudied problem with Big Data tools: sellers can use these tools to shield themselves from market accountability.

Finally, the Article evaluates a menu of legal strategies that would preserve the benefits of nudnik-based activism in light of these technological developments. In the process, we revisit the conventional wisdom on the desirability of form contracts, mandatory arbitration clauses, defamation law, and standing doctrines."

12/23/2019

Refreshing, Rejuvenating, and Improving Our Public Discourse: 2019 Holiday Book Recommendations

"With Newman’s canonization on the horizon, I wanted to learn more about the man whose theological acuity and piercing insights into spiritual psychology—not to mention exquisite prose—I had come to love. Sheridan Gilley’s biography of Newman, Newman and His Age, is less well known in the US, but he captures well the man and his place in history where other biographers focus more on his thought. Gilley helps us appreciate how influential Newman was in his own time, and on unexpected figures like William Gladstone. He also underscores how Newman charted a via media between theological liberalism and ultramontanism, an example which we would do well to follow today."

Classical music for $100

"No box sets. I know it’s tempting when you can get the complete works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms for $85.93. But it’s useless to the early-comer in classical music. Not so much because it’s quantity over quality (there are some very high quality dirt-cheap box sets out there) but because it’s an overwhelming quantity. The experience will be like an argument without cohesion; a narrative without structure. Even all the Beethoven Symphonies, just five CDs, is overkill. Experiencing this music for the first time is a piece-by-piece event and needs to be as focused as possible. Too many CDs are more a distraction to that end than they are an aid. The Beethoven Piano Concertos is as close as I’ll come to bending that rule."

Benedict XVI creates foundation for Catholic journalism in Germany

"Named after a weekly Catholic newspaper, the goal of the “Tagespost Foundation for Catholic Journalism” is to raise the equivalent of about $500,000 in 2020 to invest in training young journalists and to support a variety of projects, including research into issues of biomedical ethics, in Germany.

Given that the country’s tax-rich dioceses and powerful bishops’ conference are already financing a wide array of media projects and news outlets that provide training, including a dedicated Catholic journalism school based in Munich, the initiative by the pope emeritus was recognized by both supporters and critics as a strategic move to bolster orthodox Catholic reporting independent of episcopal and other influences.

The “Society of Catholic Journalists” criticised the move, saying it raised concerns as to why the pope emeritus decided to undertake this initiative without involving the existing journalism school."

A Path Toward Getting Rid of Social Security

"Therefore, I would rather consider a modernized UBA, which Americans long enjoyed in the form of free or heavily subsidized land, most of which was indeed nearly worthless until it was worked. A UBA program today might promise every American land, a health savings/retirement account, an investment endowment/business startup grant, an education grant, or some combination thereof, worth a total of $X upon mere attainment of some age Y, or a younger age upon passing a stringent financial literacy test. (Yes, I see this as a Nudge to induce more people to learn more about consumer finance!)

Unlike a life annuity/UBI, UBA would require work to improve the land, run a company, pick and monitor investments, earn a wage until retirement, or attend university or trade school and then develop a career. While lenders may allow UBI recipients to capitalize their annuities in order to fund education, real estate, business, or financial asset acquisition, UBI recipients would remain beholden to the government and hence have incentives to exert political pressure to maintain or increase UBI payments."

Thinking about Restraint with John Quincy Adams

These were not isolated views on Adams’ part: in a letter to Richard Anderson in which he discussed the recent revolutions in Latin America in detail, Adams once again emphasized the importance of neutrality, commerce, and equality in relations. He noted that the United States and Spain had maintained peaceful relations during this period, despite the tension in South and Central America. He observed that the United States had “national obligations prescribed to them to remain neutral” during these civil conflicts. However, once Colombia declared itself an independent republic, the United States was clearly in a different position. Adams noted that since Colombia approached the United States with an eye towards “negotiation of treaties of commerce and navigation founded upon the bases of reciprocal utility and perfect equality,” the United States was hardly in a position to decline this invitation, particularly since the Spanish were in no position to continue the civil conflict in that newly formed nation. As a former colony that had just fought a war of independence to achieve representative self-governance the United States had a duty to support the newly minted representative nations of South and Central America both for philosophical and practical reasons. A strong, politically stable, and economically vibrant Latin America would both enhance the long-term prospects for the United States and keep European colonial ambitions—particularly those of Great Britain—at bay. However, it also would provide more examples of successful self-governance and undermine support for non-representative regimes.

According to Adams, there were two reasons for recognizing these new sovereign nations. The first was political. He described the American “doctrine” of politics as based on “the principle of unalienable right. The European allies, therefore, have viewed the cause of the South Americans as rebellion against their lawful sovereign. We have considered it an assertion of natural right.” The second reason was the mutual economic gains derived from the principle of free trade and open, equal access to markets. He dismissed the European focus on “their monarchical and monopolizing contemplations” and instead lauded the Colombians for their promises of both opening their markets to free trade and promising to place foreign businesses and traders on equal legal and commercial standing. He acknowledged that the local businessmen would be at a slight advantage, but he described the American position as “placing the foreigner, in regard to all objects of navigation and commerce, upon a footing of equal favor with the native citizen; and to that end of abolishing all discriminating duties and charges whatsoever.”

Divided Loyalty? Liberal Toleration in the New Locke Manuscript

"Recently St. John’s College issued a press release concerning a newly discovered Locke manuscript on toleration. The manuscript consists of two lists, in which Locke sets down reasons to tolerate and not to tolerate Catholics. The two historians (J.C. Walmsley & Felix Waldmann) who discovered the manuscript showed that Locke drew all twenty-four of these arguments from another book by Charles Wolseley, Liberty of conscience, the magistrates interest (1668). What Locke was doing is pretty clear: he set down eleven of Wolseley’s arguments for tolerating Catholics in the first list. He then argues against tolerating Catholics, using Wolseley’s own principles, in the second list. It appears that he was preparing to write a criticism of Wolseley’s work and believed it was indeed not in the magistrate’s interest to tolerate Catholics, primarily on account of their allegiance to a foreign power."

The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory

"Aristotle tells us that in every political regime, we see a class of people who dominate the other classes through a combination of custom and force. The ruling class always seeks to justify this dominion, and it always gives reasons that are only partially valid (at best). No regime is then fully just. But a regime is better when the members of its ruling class are better human beings, and it is worse when they are worse human beings.

Thanks to its doctrine of popular sovereignty, liberal theory denies that such class conflict will have any political traction in a properly constructed government. But a glance at our history shows that it has always had plenty of political traction in American governments. And from Charles Murray and J.D. Vance on the center-right to Robert Putnam and Richard Reeves on the center-left, American intellectuals today have been reviving interest in the political importance of social class. An Aristotelian approach to our politics would ask more explicitly what the characteristic virtues and vices of our ruling class are. Following the lead of Vance, William Deresiewicz, and Ross Douthat, we should be examining (and finding marginal improvements for) the institutions that give that class its moral formation.

Aristotle also tells us that, thanks to these unavoidable class dynamics, every political community contains the seeds of its own destruction. The ruled classes can never be fully persuaded that the rulers deserve their privileges (in part because the rulers never entirely do). And any attempt at greater inclusivity within the ruling class will only be even more irritating to those who remain excluded from it."

Sacrificed Upon the Alter

"Does Alter accomplish this aim? He does indeed approach the text with an exquisite sense for its syntax and rhythm. At the same time, for all Alter’s sensitivity to the Hebrew Bible’s words, there are times when his attempt to put his own spin on biblical translation ends up being destructive of the ideas that the Bible is attempting to present. Moreover, his methods, defended in his commentary, can be challenged based on the very approach that he claims to represent.

Alter is himself a reputed Jewish academic, has previously served for thirteen years as contributing editor to Commentary, and has devoted his distinguished career to biblical exegesis and translation. And yet, from the perspective of the People of the Book, the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible remains Jewish in ways that Alter’s translation will never be."

American Studies

"Stephen Knott’s The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a fantastic history of the second branch of our government. It is not an attack on Donald Trump (though to be sure, Knott has his criticisms) but a reflection on the office rooted in the premise that George Washington’s character offers the ideal to which presidents should aspire and toward which the presidency should form them. It is, in that sense, a story of decline, though by no means a simple one or a tale devoid of hope for reformation or improvement. Fascinating throughout, and a model of how to think about American history through an institutional lens.


Greg Weiner’s The Political Constitution is a warning against the siren’s song of judicial supremacy. You would think conservatives would not need such a warning, but Weiner worries, rightly, that a conservative form of that doctrine now threatens to deform the character of the right’s constitutional thinking from within—especially if great judges are more or less the only praiseworthy legacy of Trumpism, which seems likely.

Great books on the presidency and the courts call out for a great institutionalist book about Congress, and while I don’t think I found one among the past year’s offerings, I’d highly recommend a slightly older book—Josh Chafetz’s 2017 book Congress’s Constitution. Read those three together and you’re certain to deepen your constitutionalism."


12/20/2019

Losing Faith in the Humanities

"[I]n the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. We all understand what religious secularization has been — the process by which religion, and especially Christianity, has been marginalized, so that today in the West, as Charles Taylor has famously put it, religion has become just one option among a smorgasbord of faith/no-faith choices available to individuals. 

A similar process is underway in the humanities. Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and postcanonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population."

Explainer: What was in the Queen’s Speech of December 2019

"Repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: The 2011 bill, passed by the Coalition government, guaranteed that Parliament would sit for fixed, five-year terms, unless two-thirds of MPs voted to hold an early election or a measure of no-confidence passed and was not repealed within 14 days. Before that, the Prime Minister could dissolve Parliament (with royal consent) and call an election at any time of his or her choosing. “[S]trategically timed opportunistic elections have allowed governing parties to realize an average vote-share bonus of just under 6 percent and seat-share bonuses of 12 percent, doubling the probability that the Prime Minister survives in office,” according to one estimate."

New Paper on Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict

"In this new paper (“Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of the Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)“, WID.world Working Paper 2018/7), Thomas Piketty documents a striking long-run evolution in the structure of political cleavages.

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for left-wing (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. It has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to a “multiple-elite” party system in the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income/high-wealth elites still vote for the “right” (though less and less so).

The paper argues that this can contribute to explain rising inequality and the lack of democratic response to it, as well as the rise of “populism”, as low-income, low-education voters might feel left behind."

Christmas consumerism: Spending for the glory of God?

"Christmas reminds us of a man who brought heaven to earth—healing hearts, restoring relationships, and spreading abundance across everyday life. If we truly believe that whole-life redemption is at the heart of the season, it would certainly seem possible to participate in festive generosity without succumbing to the stuff. The Christmas story doesn’t just have the power to inspire and transform our giving, but also our receiving—not just our producing, but also our consuming."

The best books on Ruskin

"It helps us to build a wonderful, varied portrait of Ruskin the man. He would dismiss people without a second’s hesitation. He often really had no interest in them. He would meet someone, and on the following day forget he’d ever met them. On one occasion, he is reported as making this wonderful remark: I have to turn up to dinner today, in order to prove that I’m not a myth. These are delightfully revelatory things that Effie manages to tell us about him, and incidentally, she reminds us that she’s clever enough in her own right. She describes how she’s learning German, she knows Italian, feels that her French is not up to scratch as far as she’s concerned. We’re talking about a woman who is no pushover, intellectually.

We learn an awful lot about the unguarded Ruskin by reading her letters, his weaknesses and foibles, his impulsive collecting habits, the money he would spend (often his father’s) on flights of fancy such as casts of sculpture and all sorts of other stuff, and having them shipped back to England, constantly. He was spending absurd amounts of money, and were it not for these letters of Effie’s, we might not be unaware of the extent of his compulsive behaviour. It’s an insightful commentary upon the nature of the man himself, and how he proceeded through life, pleasing himself."

Extend gratitude beyond platitudes

"For the past few years we have had a rule: you cannot unwrap the next present until you have written a thank-you note for the last one.

At first, this was merely my inner economist thinking about efficient incentives. I want my children to write thank-you letters and this generally requires some kind of bribe. At Christmas, that is easy: we are surrounded by gift-wrapped bribes. Using the next gift to incentivise the previous thank-you letter is an idea so elegant I am surprised it is not ubiquitous.

I then realised that this system had unexpected benefits. It forced us to slow down, to look seriously at each gift, to think about what was good about it, and to reflect on the giver. Gratitude as a chore became replaced by gratitude as a mindful counting of blessings."

Is Your City Infrastructurally Obese?

"Michigan City hit its peak population of 39,369 in 1970. Since then it has dropped by 21%. Yet in terms of land area, Michigan City is roughly the same size today as it was when the decline began and annexation of land began to taper. 

Thus, Michigan City’s infrastructure is at least 21% larger than necessary.

Why is Michigan City predicting that it will gain back all of its population losses from the last 50 years? According to one city council member I talked with, city officials believe Michigan City will grow again once the South Shore Line Double Track project is completed. This $416 million project is expected to cut travel time to Chicago in half (from two hours to one). Even if this prediction is correct, it doesn’t explain why Michigan City needs a 37% increase in land to support roughly the same population it had 50 years ago."

Why so little home building?

"Why do I focus on Phoenix? Recall that many articles pointed to Phoenix as the smoking gun behind the 2006 “housing bubble” hypothesis. It was generally conceded that the price spikes in New York, Boston and California might have partly reflected building restrictions, the so-called NIMBY phenomenon. But cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas were seen as having almost unlimited land for development. The price spike seemed irrational, as it was assumed that the high prices would lead to a surge in new construction, eventually bringing prices down to much lower levels.

But what if supply is also constrained in Phoenix and Las Vegas? I don’t have any good explanation for what that might be so, but the data strongly suggests that there is some sort of supply problem. The high prices are back, but construction remains severely depressed. During the period from 1950 to 2006, the sort of prices we now see in Phoenix and Vegas would have led to a huge surge in housing construction. For some reason we are not seeing that surge. Thus the most powerful evidence in favor of a 2006 housing bubble—the anomalous rise in house prices in the inland Southwest—is no longer evidence for the existence of a housing bubble."

The Last Jedi and the Ancien Régime: A Spoiler-Heavy Defense

"And, as Luke puts it to Rey, it is Jedi arrogance that assumes that the fate of the Jedi order is identical with the fate of the good and the true. The Force is in everything, binding everything together, and the Jedi do not have a monopoly on it.

All this, along with his own failures in trying to reestablish the Jedi order, is what leads Luke to the conclusion that he must die and the Jedi must die with him. He wants to burn the past. In this way, while Luke has been described in this film as a kind of John the Baptist, he is more of radical reformer of the Jedi order. No greater act of iconoclasm can be thought of than to burn the sacred tree and the sacred texts
...
By the end of the film, though, it seems as if Luke has reached a new insight. Rather than simply burning the past in an attempt to forget or erase it, he tells Kylo that in fact Luke Skywalker will not be the last Jedi. Some trees need to burn in order to give off fertile seeds, and perhaps this is what Luke’s sharp critique of the Jedi legacy has accomplished with Rey. The Jedi texts, if not the Jedi traditions, have been preserved. The past has not been forgotten, but its failures can teach us important lessons."

12/19/2019

How socialism causes atheism

"[A] growing body of research reveals that as the welfare state grows, the church shrinks. Adam Kay of Duke University discovered that church and state have a “hydraulic relationship”: Events “that lower faith in one of these external systems (e.g., the government) lead to subsequent increases in faith in the other (e.g., God).” Another study found that increased welfare spending “in a specific year predicted lower religiosity one to two years later.” It concluded, “The power and order emanating from God can be outsourced to the government.”

There is an undeniable correlation between socialism and secularism, but does it prove causation? A strong case is made by analyzing the “Nones” at different stages of their flight from faith. Pew Research asked “Nones” in late 2017 the reason they no longer affiliate with a religion. The overwhelming majority of atheist “Nones” (75 percent) said they do not believe in God, while a plurality of agnostic “Nones” (38 percent) said they “question a lot of religious teachings.” Those “Nones” who still believe in God are equally motivated by two factors: They question religious doctrines (25 percent), and they “don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues” (21 percent)."

The Countercultural Idea of a Christian University

"A Christian education, grounded in an ontological realism—a recognition that the universe is, that it has a structure and reality independent of our own thoughts about it—seeks an understanding of the whole and the proper place of humans in the reality we inhabit. Governed by the dictum of faith seeking understanding, Christian schools recognize a source of knowledge and truth – Christian revelation – which is excluded from secular education. Because of this we know that secular universities cannot lay claim to all knowledge. Moreover, the source of knowledge – the Creator of all truth, being, and goodness – makes us confident that truth exists, and that we can hope to draw near to it. We can only draw near in this life: no one academic discipline (let alone a reductionist ideology) can ever embrace the fullness of truth. Nevertheless, in the relationship of discipline to discipline, of past knowledge and wisdom to present intellectual inquiry, and of scholarly activity to personal experience, we can glimpse the unifying wisdom of God. However impossible it is for us to grasp the fullness of truth in this finite life, we know that such a view is possible, that we can grow toward it in community with others, that drawing closer to it both satisfies a deep need and improves our lives.

John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University, called this practice of putting knowledge into conversation with knowledge, of seeking the whole and of restlessness in the face of partial knowledge claiming to be the whole, a ‘philosophical habit’, an ‘enlargement of mind’. He argued that growth in this intellectual habit is crucial to the formation of the soul, by imparting intellectual humility, freedom, and creativity to the persons who acquire it."

Edmund Burke and the Dignity of the Human Person

"Though we correctly remember Edmund Burke as the father of modern conservatism, we too often forget that he was also a pure and unadulterated radical when it came to promoting the dignity of the human person. In his own writings, speeches, and legislation, he never ceased to promote the rights of Irish, Americans, Roman Catholics, Hindus, and Africans (against the slave trade). One could only impossibly describe Burke’s life and purpose by ignoring the oppressed he sought to liberate and strengthen.

Contrary to much modern conservative and traditionalist misunderstandings, Burke embraced completely the concept of natural rights, though he feared that any attempt to define such rights as this or that would end in a disaster of abstractions. “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society,” Burke wrote in 1790. “I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Properly understood, rights come from the laws of nature, Burke wrote, but they did so not as a direct line, but rather as refracted light. Rights must always and everywhere take into account the complex nature not only of man but, especially, of men. “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.”"

Vatican’s investment funds were vehicles for Italian bank fraud

"Two investment funds used by Vatican dicasteries were also used by a major Italian bank to conceal illegal investments for which the bank was eventually closed.

On Friday, Maltese media reported that the IOR, or Vatican Bank, is being sued in turn by Optimum for breach of contract; the firm claims the Vatican’s bank owes an additional 24 million euros as an already agreed-upon investment in one of its funds. The IOR has itself sued Optimum Asset Management; trying to recover millions it invested in an Optimum fund alleged to have lost 230 million euros."

When federal policy threatens homeless women in Frankfort, Kentucky

"HUD’s current priority on more permanent housing carried over from the Bush into the Obama and Trump administrations. That is despite the current administration’s most recent budget plan calling for “tenant work and self-sufficiency” as part of its broader efforts to ensure recipients of various benefits are engaged in work or productive activities. Yet a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors cast doubt on the effectiveness of Housing First. It notes that “For outcomes such as impacts on substance abuse and mental illness, Housing First in general performs no better than other approaches … It tends to cost more as well.”"

The Resource Costs of Fiat Money Are Now Higher Than Those of a Gold Standard

"Recent data on gold production from the World Gold Council (2019) allow us to revisit the question with something better than casual empiricism, and to reach a conclusion. Plugging recent numbers from the World Gold Council into Friedman’s own model, it is fairly clear that gold coins and bullion in recent years have been produced in greater volumes than would have been the case under a gold standard with reasonable prudential reserve ratios, and thus gold-extraction resource costs have been higher under fiat money in practice. Note that this accounting effort provides an underestimate of the total resource costs induced by fiat money, because it neglects the costs incurred in acquiring silver, collectibles, cryptocurrencies, and other inflation hedges."

A war on freelancers is a war on women

"Media outlets that rely on independent content producers are scrambling to comply with the law before it takes effect in a few days – and one of them, Vox, announced it will engage in a round of mass firings.

The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, said her goal is to “preserve good jobs,” but only those that pay “a livable, sustainable wage job.” Vox apparently did not fall into that category.

The hundreds of workers Vox laid off have the opportunity to apply for the new, full-time jobs the company just announced – 20 of them."