Tyler Cowen, Bad Religion, and contemporary religious practice

Tyler Cowen writes about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and as usual shows a lot of acumen in a small space; consider:

My main question is what could have become of most organized religion in an era of newly found television penetration — a competing source of ideas about right and wrong — and the birth control pill and sexual liberation of women? Not to mention gay rights. The recent evolution of American religion may not be optimal, but it is endogenous to some fairly fundamental forces. Non-religious thinking seems to offer especially high returns to successful people these days, and while American religion certainly has survived that impact (unlike in the UK?), what is left will seem quite alienating to much of the intelligentsia, Ross included.

For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25. American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture. Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?

I left this as a comment: I wonder why a large divergence in American religious signaling (as opposed to actual practice) has opened up, while in Europe pure signaling seems smaller (see, for example, Slate’sWalking Santa, Talking Christ: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?“, which observes that Americans say they engage in religious practice much more than they actually do, as measured by attendance in religious institutions like churches). The trappings of religion seems to offer benefits to some people, especially the non-intelligentsia, even when religious doctrine is unimportant. The only popular media representation of this sort of thing I can remember is in Friday Night Lights, where many of the characters go to church but aren’t theologically inclined.

In other religious news, I’ve been reading John Updike’s novels, and the way many of his characters are aware of each others’s church affiliation is striking (such and such is a Methodist, such and such is an Episcopalian) because a) I don’t think that way, b) I don’t even know the major differences among Christian sects, save for Catholics, and c) to Updike’s characters this is important, but mostly as a form of group membership. The status markers are religious in nature. This gives many of his novels an old-fashioned tinge; in my own mind or culture, people get divided into “hard-core religious” and “not,” with more people in the “not” category, even when they claim they are. Religious signaling might increasingly be a matter of convenience, in which one adopts religious trappings when they’re useful and discards them when they’re not (especially sexually).

For liberals / people in the intelligentsia (those two groups are not synonymous), I get the sense that college or academic affiliation is the modern secular equivalent. You build group affiliation based on college instead of your brand of Christianity / Judaism / Islam. Incidentally, Updike also gets the power of movies to take over religious beliefs: they are sprinkled throughout In the Beauty of the Lilies, which is often boring and over-written; it should be half as long, though as always there are beautiful individual sentences. It is hard to accept the more retrograde parts of older religions when they are paired against modern narrative experts, especially modern visual narrative experts who make TV shows and movies.

In general I find religious discussions very boring but sometimes like meta-religious discussions about why people are religious. I’ve been citing him a lot lately, but Jonathan Haidt is very good on this subject in The Righteous Mind.

Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

Alex Tabarrok's Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

What success looks like: A link from Dave Winer of Scripting News

I’ve been reading Dave Winer’s blog Scripting News since long before I’d heard the word “blog.” Scripting News been covered in Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters and countless other profiles as one of the early examples of a blog. Imagine my delight when:

Yes, that’s a link my post on the sad and stupid demise of Flip at the hands of Cisco. I wouldn’t call Winer’s Retweet “a dream come true” or any other phrase that should be reserved for acts of extreme achievement or copulation (which can sometimes be an extreme achievement), but it’s certainly gratifying—like getting e-mails or comments from writers and critics I admire.

Now I only need a link from Marginal Revolution and my blogging life will be, if not complete, then at least substantially more satisfying than it might be otherwise.

Institutional hypocrisy enabled by wealth, part 2, gambling edition

My comment from July 18 regarding Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition:

[…] hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money.

Today’s New York Times:

With pressure mounting on the federal government to find new revenues, Congress is considering legalizing, and taxing, an activity it banned just four years ago: Internet gambling.

Lesson: moralizing is a vice enabled by excess wealth. Now that our societal wealth is not quite so vast, maybe we’ll consider lowering the prison population; as the Economist wrote, America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal.

Releasing some of them would be morally justified, as the Economist makes clear, and probably economically rational. This assumes such people are not Zero marginal product workers, as Tyler Cowen discusses at the link. Such an assumption might be too large to be sustained; I can’t evaluate the arguments about zero marginal product workers very well.

Tyler Cowen's political (and general) wisdom

“[…] we are accustomed to judging the truth of a claim by the moral status of the group making the claim.”

That’s Tyler Cowen speaking of “Climategate” in his post “The limits of good vs. evil thinking.” Normally I would put something like this in a links post, but “The limits of good vs. evil thinking” is so good that I’m emphasizing it with an independent post.

The major problem is that sometimes people we perceive as morally palatable can make untruthful or not optimally useful claims, while the opposite—people we perceive as morally unpalatable can make truthful or optimally useful claims—can also occur. Notice that I’m intentionally not providing examples of either phenomenon. As Paul Graham says in the notes to “What You Can’t Say:”

The most extreme of the things you can’t say would be very shocking to most readers. If you doubt that, imagine what people in 1830 would think of our default educated east coast beliefs about, say, premarital sex, homosexuality, or the literal truth of the Bible. We would seem depraved to them. So we should expect that someone who similarly violated our taboos would seem depraved to us.

If I said this kind of thing, it would be like someone doing a cannonball into a swimming pool. Immediately, the essay would be about that, and not about the more general and ultimately more important point.

The more important point is about avoiding ad hominem attacks and being able to consider claims independently of the person making the claims in some circumstances. As Cowen says, this is really hard.

The Logic of Life on Marginal Revolution

I had mixed feelings about Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, and the Marginal Revolution forum on the book has ended with this post. Among its observations:

But where do “geniuses” come from? Turns out, there is a fascinating literature on creativity and achievement. A few names: R. Keith Sawyer, a sociologist/psychologist, writes eloquently on the emergence of genius from networks and groups. Sociologist Randall Collins wrote a highly regarded book on prominent philosophers showing that “genius level” philosophers tended to be clustered in space and time, suggesting that genius is made possible by very specific kinds of “hot house” situations. Other research, pioneered by Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson, shows that high level performance isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s also a matter of specific training techniques and immersion in a topic. Basically, it’s not just talent that leads to achievement, it’s also the right kind of social environment.

Fabio Rojas includes three links in that paragraph, but to get them you’ll have to see the MR post.

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