The Benefits of Global Technology Diffusion

Relying on a global dataset from the European Patent Office (PATSTAT), researchers were recently able “to trace knowledge flows using cross-patent citations, that is, the extent to which countries cite patents from other innovators as prior knowledge in their own patent applications. A first look at the data (Figure 3) suggests knowledge flows have increased significantly over the last two decades, and China and South Korea (depicted in Figure 3 as ‘other Asia’) have become substantially more integrated in global citations, both as citing and as cited innovators.”

They also find that “the share of technology leaders’ knowledge that diffuses to emerging market economies has increased steadily and significantly over time – and this finding is robust to excluding China from the ‘recipient’ economies (Figure 4). In contrast, the diffusion of knowledge from the G5 to (non-G5) advanced economies has remained flat or even moderated somewhat – albeit from a higher level – since the global financial crisis.”

It turns out

that both emerging market and other advanced economies have been able to capitalise on knowledge flows from the G5 to increase domestic innovation (measured by patenting) – with foreign knowledge playing a relatively larger role than domestic R&D in emerging market economies. These results also apply to productivity, suggesting that knowledge from the G5 has contributed to boosting income levels in other countries. The impact on productivity is economically meaningful, especially for emerging market economies. For instance, between 2004 and 2014, knowledge flows from the technology leaders may have generated, for an average country-sector, about 0.7 percentage point of labour productivity growth per year (Figure 5). This amounts to about 40% of the observed average sectoral productivity growth in this period.

Finally, the researchers’ “results point to a positive empirical relation internationally” between competition and innovation. They conclude,

Globalisation has intensified the international diffusion of technology, which is crucial to share growth potential across countries and boost global growth. The positive impact has been particularly large for emerging market economies, helping increase productivity for them, and supporting income convergence. Our results also suggest that the growing competition from emerging market economies may lead to more innovation, even in advanced economies.

Immigration Horrors Aren’t Exactly New

So remember that wall Trump keeps promising? Seventy percent of it was completed by previous administrations. Which is to say that immigration idiocy didn’t suddenly begin in 2016.

When it comes to deportations, the Trump administration hasn’t reached the heights of the Obama administration. According to Axios, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported more immigrants this fiscal year than any full fiscal year of Donald Trump’s presidency, but it has yet to reach Barack Obama’s early deportation levels, according to new internal Department of Homeland Security figures obtained by Axios.”

From Reuters

According to the Marshall Project, the current detention system has been continually expanding over the last 25 years:

Under President Bill Clinton the daily population in detention tripled from what it had been in 1994 to nearly 20,000 at the end of his second term. A pair of laws passed in 1996 and signed by Clinton resulted in a vast expansion of the system, introducing mandatory detentions for asylum seekers and legal immigrants who had committed crimes, indefinite detention and additional spending on enforcement. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush also cracked down on immigration, ending a policy in 2005 that permitted those being caught crossing the border to be released until their court dates. By the time Barack Obama took office, the average daily population had ballooned to more than 30,000.

Though detention numbers dipped briefly under Obama, by the time of the 2016 election the daily average had reached just over 34,000 after an influx of Central American migrants at the southern U.S. border. In each administration, the growth of the detention system was used to broker political compromises in lieu of dealing with an overburdened immigration system.

This is why claims that “children in cages” began under previous administrations are actually true (though the Trump administration has taken it to 11). And at least some criticisms began under the Obama administration. For example, National Review pointed to a 2011 PBS Frontline special that shined a critical light on the administration’s immigration enforcement:

The yearlong investigation did an extensive and deep dive into the U.S. immigration enforcement system and stories of hidden abuse in detention centers. The nearly hourlong report makes for harrowing viewers: Women who have been detained complaining about being harassed by guards for sexual favors, sexually assaulted by guards, and guards threatening to kill the women they are harassing if they talk. A single mom with two daughters who overstayed a visa gets deported back to Mexico just because she changed lanes without signaling. Cops describe patrolling neighborhoods with significant number of illegal immigrants, where people instinctively run from the sight of a police car. A mother of five American-born children being deported over a speeding ticket.

The report describes, “a vast network of 250 detention centers, from county jails to large centers run by private prison companies, where immigrants facing deportation are held until they can be removed from the country. In the past decade, three million immigrants have been detained in the system.” The report shows white-domed tents surrounded by barbed wire, and are described as overcrowded warehouses of people. Those who have been through the detention centers describe beatings, racial slurs, official coverups, and threats to deport anyone who complains. The problem is described as more than a few “bad apples,” but more of “barrels of bad apples.”

…In the Frontline report, the administration insists the current enforcement policies are necessary to protect the American people. The report shows the president traveling to El Paso and boasting, “We have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. We now have more boots on the ground and we are deporting those who are here illegally.” The deputy director of ICE boasts of “record-breaking numbers in terms of criminal alien removals” that include “1,000 murderers, 6,000 sex offenders, 45,000 serious drug violators. As we expand the deployment of Secure Communities, focus on criminal aliens, you’ll see that number continue to go up and up.” Officials from the administration boast that they’re finally taking enforcement seriously, a contrast with their lax predecessors.

One of the president’s immigration advisors callously declares, “At the end of the day, when you have a community of 10 million, 11 million people living and working in the United States illegally, some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children. They don’t have to like it, but it is a result of having a broken system of laws.”

Critics complain that the administration’s policy is just “enforcement on steroids.” The report warily details how ICE has extended its reach by enlisting the help of local law enforcement to better identify illegal immigrants who have committed crimes — turning local cops into a de facto enforcement branch of federal immigration law.

All of this really should teach us to not deify political administrations. What’s more, it should break the brain of every rabid anti/pro-immigration, pro/anti-Trump Republican/Democrat.

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“Sounds a Lot Like Trump”: Economists’ Reactions to Warren’s Economic Policies

Over at the Peterson Institute, there is a rundown of Elizabeth Warren’s “A Plan for Economic Patriotism.” You can read the analysis for yourself here, but I wanted to point out three things that jumped out at me:

  • The comparison to Trump (see the photo above).
  • The number of “Good idea, but…”
  • Almost every potentially positive policy devolves into protectionist nonsense.

Let me first start with the exception: her training programs. As America becomes more globalized–both through trade and immigration–more training for American workers displaced by global competition might be necessary.

Now, let’s take a look at her proposed Department of Economic Development:

See what happened there? A potentially good idea turned into a protectionist dumpster fire. How about her R&D policies?

Yet another potentially good idea likely squandered by the protectionist slant. And then there are her straight-up awful ideas:

I’ve pointed out the similarities between the economics of Trump and Sanders before. It appears the populist impulse is even more widespread among American politicians.

God help us.

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Unintended Consequences: Chinese Edition

It is honestly kind of hard not to laugh at the Chinese response to Trump’s tariffs. From the Peterson Institute:

China increased its retaliatory tariffs hitting US exports on June 1 in response to President Donald Trump’s latest escalation of his trade war. Yet, this action is only half of the bad news for US exporters. The other half is that China has begun rolling out the red carpet for the rest of the world. Everyone else is enjoying much improved access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers, a fact that has been little noticed or reported in accounts of the US-China economic confrontation.

…Trump’s provocations and China’s two-pronged response mean American companies and workers now are at a considerable cost disadvantage relative to both Chinese firms and firms in third countries. The result is one more eerie parallel to the conditions US exporters faced in the 1930s.

Another important implication of China’s action is that Americans are likely suffering more than President Trump thinks due to his trade war. Inflicting such punishment on Americans may be one factor motivating China. A separate motivation may be that it is trying to minimize the harm to its own economy by importing vital goods at better prices from other parts of the world.

Figure 1: China’s average tariff rate is climbing on US goods and falling for the rest of the world

Lovely.

Once More For the People in the Back: Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist

Mocking Spongebob Meme | bUt WhAt AbOuT sWeDeN!! | image tagged in memes,mocking spongebob | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

So here’s something I’ve been saying for the last few years. From The Washington Post:

Undoubtedly, the Nordic nations, with their high incomes, low inequality, free politics and strong rule of law, represent success stories. What this has to do with socialism, though, is another question.

And the answer, according to a highly clarifying new report from analysts at JPMorgan Chase, is “not much.”

Drawing on data from the World Bank, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and other reputable sources, the report shows that five nations — Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands — protect property rights somewhat more aggressively than the United States, on average; exercise less control over private enterprise; permit greater concentration in the banking sector; and distribute a smaller share of their total income to workers.

“Copy the Nordic model if you like, but understand that it entails a lot of capitalism and pro-business policies, a lot of taxation on middle class spending and wages, minimal reliance on corporate taxation and plenty of co-pays and deductibles in its healthcare system,” the report notes.

It goes on to point out that the majority of Nordic countries

have zero estate tax. They fund generous programs with the help of value-added taxes that heavily affect middle-class consumers.

In Sweden, for example, consumption, social security and payroll taxes total 27 percent of gross domestic product, as compared with 10.6 percent in the United States, according to the JPMorgan Chase report. The Nordic countries tried direct wealth taxes such as the one that figures prominently in the plans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); all but Norway abandoned them because of widespread implementation problems.

The Nordic countries’ use of co-pays and deductibles in health care may be especially eye-opening to anyone considering Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan, which the presidential candidate pitches as an effort to bring the United States into line with European standards.

The Post concludes,

These countries are generous; but they are not stupid. They understand there is no such thing as “free” health care, and that requiring patients to have at least some skin in the game, in the form of cost-sharing, helps contain costs…If they have established anything, it’s not socialism, or even the dominance of a benevolent state, but responsible governance. They have achieved a clear division of labor, between government (which arguably has a comparative advantage in health insurance and education) and the private sector (which is better at producing and distributing most other goods and services).

What the Nordic countries don’t do is pretend that society can have a strong and efficient social safety net without a big, mandatory financial contribution from the middle class. Nor do they deal punitively with the private sector, upon whose productivity the entire system ultimately depends.

American socialists’ enthusiasm for the northern European systems may be sincere. We shall see whether it can withstand full and accurate information about how those systems actually work.

Immigration’s Effects on Wages: Norway Edition

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From a new study:

In a recent paper (Bratsberg et al. 2019), we ask what the impact is of such a large immigration-induced labour-supply shock on occupational wages, labour costs, and the industry mix of the economy. The impact of immigration on labour markets has received substantial attention over the last decades. However, most studies focus on the wage structure (e.g. Dustmann et al. 2016). Evidence on the general equilibrium adjustment of occupational wages, labour costs, and industry employment in response to immigration shocks is still relatively scant. We set out to close this gap using high-quality and detailed administrative Norwegian data.

The eastern enlargement in 2004 and 2007 extended the common European labour market to include roughly 100 million individuals from the EU accession countries. With real wages among the highest and unemployment among the lowest in Europe, Norway became a popular destination for labour migrants.

Over the ensuing decade, Norway stands out as one of the countries that received the largest inflows of migrants relative to country size.

Norway is “particularly useful to study because the policy change was exogenous. As a part of the single market, but not a member of the EU, Norway is bound to adopt EU legislation without representation in the European Parliament and Commission. The policy change was instant, comprehensive, and externally imposed, providing a unique setting to study the impact of immigration.” The authors conclude,

Based on the Norwegian data, we observe that the relationship between the initial level of, and the change in, the immigrant share and language intensity is strong. According to our estimates, the change in the immigrant share is 11 percentage points lower in language-intensive versus non-intensive occupations (comparing the 90th versus 10th percentile) over the 2004-2013 period.

According to our results, labour immigration leads to large adjustments in relative industry employment and labour costs. These effects are particularly strong in industries that are initially intensive in the use of immigrant-heavy occupations. In line with our hypothesis, this can be traced back to movements in relative occupation wages: occupations with a large increase in labour supply faced 18% lower wage growth compared to occupations with a small increase (comparing the 90th versus 10th percentile) over the same 10-year period.

As is well known, a reduced-form approach can only identify relative effects – the common effect of immigration across all occupations and industries is not identified. To address the real wage and overall welfare effects of the migration shock, we therefore quantify the general equilibrium effects of immigration according to our calibrated model. The counterfactual analysis shows substantial real-wage losses in some occupations, whereas other occupations have real-wage gains. Although real wages in some occupations decline, the aggregate welfare effects of the immigration shock on natives are close to zero, as some natives switch to higher-wage occupations in response to the immigration shock. The welfare effect on the existing population of immigrants, on the other hand, is negative, as they have a comparative advantage in low-wage occupations.

As I said in my BYU article last year,

According to the 2017 NAS report, most empirical research shows that “the impact of immigration on wages of natives overall is very small.” However, “native dropouts tend to be more negatively affected by immigration than better-educated natives. Some research also suggests that, among those with low skill levels, the negative effect on natives’ wages may be larger for disadvantaged minorities.” Yet, these negative effects “tend to be smaller (or even positive)” when periods of ten years or longer are considered. In fact, research suggests “that immigration to the United States between 1990 and 2006 reduced the wages of natives without high-school degrees by only 0.7 percent in the short run and increased their wages by 0.6–1.7 percent in the long run.” Similar to the effects of employment, low-skill native wages may be depressed in the short run, but long-run effects tend to be zero to
positive (pg. 95).

Are There Children in America Living on $2 a Day?

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From Reason:

Claims that millions of Americans are mired in extreme poverty, barely surviving on $2 or $4 a day, are false, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The paper, released June 3, is by Bruce Meyer, Derek Wu, and Victoria Mooers of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and by Carla Medalia of the U.S. Census Bureau. Some households that income surveys erroneously categorized as extremely poor actually had “net worth in the millions” of dollars, the authors found.

…The new NBER paper takes aim at a Nobel laureate in economics, Angus Deaton, who claimed that 5.3 million Americans in 2015 were living on less than $4 a day. It also criticizes work by a professor at Johns Hopkins, Kathryn Edin, and by a professor at the University of Michigan, H. Luke Shaefer. Edin and Shaefer are authors of a book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” that claimed about 3 million children lived in households with incomes of $2 a day or less.

“We find that 92% of the households categorized as extreme poor based on survey-reported cash income are misclassified,” Meyer and his coauthors write. “Many of the households included in survey-reported extreme poverty appear to be better off than the average American household based on numerous indicators of material well-being.”

Rather than millions of extremely poor American children, Meyer and his co-authors found the 285,000 households in “extreme poverty” were either single individuals or “households with multiple childless individuals.”

They write, “this result likes in stark contrast to the focus in academic and policy circles on the plight of extreme poor households with children.”

They write that “the errors in the income level exaggerate the level of extreme poverty.”

The new study, according to Reason, relies on “information from the 2011 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) as well as administrative tax and benefit program data” and found that

“of the 3.6 million [non-homeless] households with survey-reported cash income below $2/person/day,” the vast majority—92 percent—were “not in extreme poverty once we include in-kind transfers, replace survey reports of earnings and transfer receipt with administrative records, and account for the ownership of substantial assets.”

In fact, new research shows “more than half of all misclassified households have incomes … above the poverty line” entirely.

…The composition of extremely poor households also differs from common understandings of it: “Among the 285,000 households left in extreme poverty, 90% are made up of single individuals. Households with multiple childless individuals make up the other 10% of the extreme poor. Strikingly, after implementing all adjustments, [none of the SIPP surveyed] households with children have incomes below $2/person/day.”

I’ve talked about this $2-a-day claim before. The data supporting it seemed sketchy then. Appears even more so now.

The Economic Illiteracy of Journalists: Venezuela Edition

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Modern journalism often makes me want to go lay down in the middle of I-35 during rush hour traffic. I’ve complained about economic illiteracy before, but I think this one from Pacific Standard takes the cake. It begins,

These days it seems you can’t talk about socialism without being required to talk also about Venezuela—largely because certain people on the right bring up the failures of Venezuela every time the word “socialism” appears. Right-wing pundits claim incessantly that socialist policies are to blame for the terrible conditions that Venezuelans are now living through.

But this story is fundamentally false.

And who does the author consult to establish the falsity of this story?

  • A Marxist (Wolff), which is about as fringe as fringe can get in economics. Marxists are the anti-vaxxers of mainstream economics.
  • A supporter of Modern Monetary Theory (Galbraith), which has virtually no support among mainstream economists.
  • Noam Chomsky.

The author declares,

Most crucially, it was a government rife with corruption that shattered Venezuela…Anat Admati, a professor of economics and finance at Stanford University, tells me that corruption can devastate any country. Regardless of the ideology that inspires your economic policies, Admati says, if there’s too much corruption, the country will fail…Corruption, not socialism, is the malignant tumor on democracy worldwide—in Venezuela, yes, but also here at home.

First off, to say socialism has nothing to do with Venezuela’s collapse is absurd. A 2018 report from the Council of Economic Advisers provides a rundown of some of Venezuela’s socialist policies, from the nationalization of industries (such as oil) to heavy taxation on earning and spending to price controls. Using a synthetic control methodology, economists Kevin Grier and Norman Maynard compared Venezuela’s performance under Hugo Chavez to its expected performance based on similar oil-producing, non-socialist Latin American countries. They find that “after 1998 (the year of Chavez’s successful presidential campaign) synthetic and actual Venezuela sharply diverge. By 2003, Venezuelan per-capita income is more than $3500 below that of synthetic Venezuela, and the gap exceeds $2500 in all subsequent years. It appears that Chavez’s leadership and policies were quite bad for the overall level of wealth in Venezuela” (pg. 8). They conclude, “We find that although average incomes rose somewhat during his time as president, they lagged far behind where they might have been if Chavez had not taken office” (pg. 14). In short, the oil boom masked Venezuela’s socialist underbelly. When the oil prices collapsed, the rot was exposed.

Even still, to say that “corruption, not socialism” led to Venezuela’s downfall reminds me of a quip by the assassin Vincent (played by Tom Cruise) in the film Collateral. After a dead body falls on his cab and the realization sinks in that Vincent is responsible, a shocked Max (Jamie Foxx) says, “You killed him!” Vincent, unfazed, responds, “No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” It’s a distinction without a difference.

In their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson distinguish between inclusive and extractive institutions, with the former creating the conditions for prosperity. “Inclusive economic institutions,” they write,

…are those that allow and encourage participants by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish. To be inclusive, economic institutions must feature secure private property, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also must permit the entry of new business and allow people to choose their careers…Inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth, and economic prosperity (pg. 74-75).

In other words, inclusive institutions are largely free-market economies. On the other hand, extractive economic institutions lack these properties and instead “extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset,” empowering the few at the expense of the many (pg. 76).

The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index, published in its annual Economic Freedom of the World reports, defines economic freedom based on five major areas: (1) size of the central government, (2) legal system and the security of property rights, (3) stability of the currency, (4) freedom to trade internationally, and (5) regulation of labour, credit, and business. According to its 2018 report (which looks at data from 2016), countries with more economic freedom have substantially higher per-capita incomes, greater economic growth, and lower rates of poverty. This makes economic freedom an excellent proxy for Acemoglu & Robinson’s “inclusive institution.” What’s more, Venezuela comes in dead last in the list of 162 countries. Drawing on the EFW Index, Georgetown political philosophers Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski point to a strong positive correlation between a country’s degree of economic freedom and its lack of public sector corruption.

“Corruption,” writes economist Joseph Connors, “is institutionalized exploitation and…it becomes institutionalized in the least capitalist countries. Transparency International, the creator of the Corruption Perception Index, is an organization dedicated to eradicating corruption. According to its metric of corruption, people who live in capitalist countries experience significantly less corruption than people in less capitalist countries. Market competition helps explain why this is true. Market competition diffuses power, and corruption thrives on centralized power. Thus, capitalism provides the environment that allows markets to keep corruption at bay.”

Granted, a lack of corruption could very well give rise to market reforms and increased economic freedom instead of the other way around. However, recent research on China’s anti-corruption reforms suggests that markets may actually pave the way for anti-corruption reforms. Summarizing the implications of this research, Lin et al. explain,

Reducing corruption creates more value where market reforms are already more fully implemented. If officials, rather than markets, allocate resources, bribes can be essential to grease bureaucratic gears to get anything done. Thus, non-[state owned enterprises’] stocks actually decline in China’s least liberalised provinces – e.g. Tibet and Tsinghai – on news of reduced expected corruption. These very real costs of reducing corruption can stymie reforms, and may explain why anticorruption reforms often have little traction in low-income countries where markets also work poorly. China has shown the world something interesting: prior market reforms clear away the defensible part of opposition to anticorruption reforms. Once market forces are functioning, bribe-soliciting officials become a nuisance rather than tools for getting things done. Eliminating pests is more popular than taking tools away … A virtuous cycle ensues – persistent anticorruption efforts encourage market-oriented behaviour, which makes anticorruption reforms more effective, which further encourages market oriented behaviour.

There is also evidence that suggests that more government fingers in the pies increases corruption. For example, a 2017 study finds that larger municipality councils in Sweden result in more corruption problems. A 2009 study finds that more government tiers and more public employees lead to more bribery. Finally, a 2015 study shows that high levels of regulation are associated with higher levels of corruption (likely because of regulatory capture).

So while some may think socialism couldn’t have crippled Venezuela because Sweden, they’re wrong. And wrong in a big way.

More on Trump’s Trade War

I’ve touched on one of these papers before, but NBER Digest has a nice rundown of recent work on Trump’s trade war. One study finds

that the costs of the new tariff structure were largely passed through as increases in U.S. prices, affecting domestic consumers and producers who buy imported goods rather than foreign exporters. The researchers estimate that the tariffs reduced real incomes by about $1.4 billion per month. Due to reduced foreign competition, domestic producer prices also increased. The prices of manufactured goods rose by one percentage point relative to a no-trade-war scenario. The reduction in real incomes represents the welfare cost of higher consumer prices, less the government revenue collected by the tariffs and the additional income of domestic producers who were able to sell their products at higher prices.

This could end up being “especially costly for multinational companies that have made substantial sunk-cost investments in supply chains in other countries, for example by relying on facilities in China or other impacted countries. The study estimates that around $165 billion worth of trade has been rerouted to avoid them.”

Another study

estimate[s] that the new tariff regime reduced U.S. imports by 32 percent, and that retaliatory tariffs from other countries resulted in an 11 percent decline of U.S. exports. They use these responses to estimate import demand and export supply elasticities, and then apply these estimates to calibrate a general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy with detailed input-output linkages. They estimate that higher prices facing U.S. consumers and firms who purchased imported goods generated a welfare loss of $68.8 billion, which was substantially offset by the income gains to U.S. producers who were able to charge higher prices ($61 billion). The researchers estimate the resulting real income decline at about $7.8 billion per year, a value broadly comparable to the net income decline estimated in the previous study. 

What’s more, “The average real wage of workers in tradeable sectors declined by 0.7 percentage points, with a standard deviation of 0.4 percentage points across counties, with workers in the Midwest suffering more than those in other regions.” The protectionist policies also appear to be (of course) political. It turns out that “the U.S. tariffs protected industries that tended to employ workers in the most politically competitive counties. Foreign governments imposed retaliatory tariffs in sectors based in more Republican-leaning counties. The researchers estimate that counties with at least an 85 percent Republican vote share bore losses over 50 percent greater than counties in which the Republican vote share was less than 15 percent.”

Surprise, surprise.

Some Thoughts on the Tolkien Movie

I could have sworn there was a quick image of a cross in one scene, but I couldn’t find it online. So here’s a generic screen shot from the movie instead.

I saw Tolkien last week, and I really enjoyed it. This was surprising to me, because religion was absolutely essential to J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, to his motivations for inventing Middle Earth and all that went with it, and to the themes and characters of all the works he wrote in Middle Earth. Hollywood, on the other hand, is utterly incapable of handling religion seriously. So, how did Tolkien manage to be a good film anyway?

By basically ignoring religion.

Don’t get me wrong. They do mention that he’s Catholic, depict his relationship with the priest who was his caretaker after his mother died, and talk about the tension when Tolkien–a Catholic–wanted to pursue a relationship with Edith, who wasn’t Catholic.

You might think that’s religion, but it’s not, any more than Romeo and Juliet coming from different houses was about religion. His Catholicism is treated as a kind of immutable faction that he was born into and so is stuck with it.

Now, if the movie tried to explain anything deep about Tolkien’s character or his work while omitting religion, it would have failed utterly. It succeeds because–after redacting religion from Tolkien’s life–it also studiously avoids trying to say anything deep about his life or his life’s work.

As far as this film is concerned, all you need to understand how Tolkien’s life led him to create Middle Earth are a series of simplistic and primarily visual references. Tolkien left behind a boyhood home of rolling green hills. That’s the shire. Once, he saw the shadows of bare tree branches on the ceiling of his childhood room at night. That’s ents.

And of course there’s World War I. German flamethrowers attacking a British trench became the balrog. Shattered and broken human corpses mired in a denuded wasteland reduced to mud and water-filled craters became the Dead Marshes. And a kind of generic sense of impending, invisible doom became a dragon and also Sauron’s all-seeing eye.

As for the most famous aspect of Tolkien’s writing–the fact that he invented entire languages–that’s basically written off as a kind of personal obsession. Some people juggle geese. What are you going to do?

None of this is wrong, and that’s why the movie is so enjoyable. It’s fun to see the visual references, even if they are a bit heavy-handed. The rise-from-ashes, boyhood camaraderie and romantic plotlines are all moving. But for the most part the movie avoids all the really deep stuff and just tells a light, superficial story about Tolkien’s circle of friends growing up. And I’m fine with all of that.

Not everything has to go deep, and a movie is far from the best way to investigate what Tolkien meant by “subcreation” or a “secondary world” and all the theology that goes with that, anyway. Even if Hollywood could do religion. Which, seeing as how they can’t, just makes me grateful that in this film they didn’t try. That saves it from ruin and makes it a perfectly fun movie that every fan of J. R. R. Tolkien should see.