McCloskey on Piketty

Earlier this year, The Spectator ran a great article contrasting the worldviews of French economist Thomas Piketty and Chicago-style economist Deirdre McCloskey. “Piketty (for those who have not followed the story so far) worries about capital and, in particular, the tendency for those who already have it to get more,” the article proclaims. “…McCloskey, by contrast, has long argued that economists are far too preoccupied by capital and saving…Th[e] jump in incomes [in the 19th century] came about not through thrift, she says, but through a shift to liberal bourgeois values that put an emphasis on the business of innovation. In place of capitalism, she talks of ‘market-tested innovation and supply’ as the active ingredient of our economic system. It is incidentally a system ‘drenched’ in values and ethics overlooked by economists.” And it is this that gets to the heart of the matter: “whether capital — past accumulation of savings — gets to devour the future, or whether the future is created afresh by each generation. This argument is a struggle between those who think riches are created from riches, and those who think riches are created from rags. Are big profits best viewed as a generous return on capital, in the way that worries Piketty? Or as coming from innovation that ultimately benefits us all?”

Well, McCloskey now has a full response to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century forthcoming in the Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics and available on her website. The title? “Measured, Unmeasured, Mismeasured, and Unjustified Pessimism: A Review Essay of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” From demonstrating Piketty’s misunderstanding of supply and demand curves (“He is in short not qualified to sneer at self-regulated markets…because he has no idea how they work”) to noting the strange obsession with inequality (“…and [apparently] we care ethically only about the Gini coefficient, not the condition of the working class”), McCloskey does a fine job in her 50 pages painting a very different picture of the world. However, my favorite portion has to be the following:

Righteous, if inexpensive, indignation inspired by survivor’s guilt about alleged “victims” of something called “capitalism,” and envious anger at the silly consumption by the rich, do not invariably yield betterment for the poor. Remarks such as “there are still poor people” or “some people have more power than others,” though claiming the moral high-ground for the speaker, are not deep or clever. Repeating them, or nodding wisely at their repetition, or buying Piketty’s book to display on your coffee table, does not make you a good person. You are a good person if you actually help the poor. Open a business. Arrange mortgages that poor people can afford. Invent a new battery. Vote for better schools. Adopt a Pakistani orphan. Volunteer to feed people at Grace Church on Saturday mornings. Argue for a minimum income and against a minimum wage. The offering of faux, counterproductive policies that in their actual effects reduce opportunities for employment, or the making of indignant declarations to your husband after finishing the Sunday New York Times Magazine, does not actually help the poor (pg. 34).

What she said.

Force Awakens Trailer and Lightsaber Crossguards: I am Dissappoint

2014-11-28 Useless Lightsaber Crossguard

I am not a fan of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser. It was so bad that I didn’t believe it was the real trailer at first. Alas, it is. Of all the things that annoyed me, however, there is one that stuck out the most: the absolutely useless and silly design of the crossguard for the lightsaber.

The purpose of a crossguard is simple: to protect the hand of the person using the sword (or, in this case, lightsaber).

2014-11-28 Sword_parts_no_scabbard

In order to be effective, the crossguard therefore has to be tough enough to stop an opponent’s blade. In an ordinary sword (made of metal), you just accomplish this by also making the crossguard out of metal. Simple. But the entire point of a lightsaber is that the blade cuts through just about anything. So the only thing that you could possibly make a crossguard out of would be the actual light blade. Anything else is just going to get lopped off instantly, offering absolutely zero protection. This can actually be done. If you look at the entry for crossguard light sabers in the Wookieepediayou can see how it’s been pulled off in the past.

2014-11-28 Useful Crossguard Lightsaber

Notice how the crossguard in that image is recessed so that a strike of an opponent’s blade that slid along the user’s blade would be intercepted by the blade of the crossguard. Not by the vulnerable housing for the crossguard blade. But in the crossguard lightsaber from the trailer, the blades of the crossguards are offset from the grip.This makes the crossguards about as useful as if a Viking went into battle with a crossguard make out of tissue paper.

2014-11-28 Crossguard Comparisons

The whole idea of a lightsaber crossguard is a little dumb to begin with because what makes lightsabers awesome is their elegant simplicity. Double blades, intricate handles, all these additions detract from that simplicity and elegance. But if you’re going to put on a crossguard, at least think about it for 5 seconds and don’t make something that looks like a 7-year old glued the pieces together.

2014-11-28 Useless Lightsaber Crossguard - ZOOMED

Look, I get that Star Wars isn’t exactly supremely realistic, not even when it comes to lightsabers and their practical utility.

The Ewoks were always kind of dumb, even when I was a kid, and the idea of individual pilots zooming around in space fighters exactly as if it were a World War 2 era dogfight was outdated by the technology of the Korean War (jet engines and guided missiles), let along by the time we’ve got FTL spaceships. The originals had flaws, but they were still great. The prequels were so egregiously horrible as to be nigh unwatcheable.

We’ve all got to draw our own lines for what fits the spirit of the films, and what doesn’t. For which unrealistic detail is just part of the show, and for which is a violation of artistic integrity. The dumb crossguards cross a line of basic common sense for me. Even if my wife thinks I’m crazy and obsessive. But I’m not ruling out the new movie based on just a teaser. In the final product the good could very well outweigh the bad, and like I said, the originals had some pretty glaring flaws of their own.  But between the dumb crossguard and all the other issues with the trailer, my hopes for the franchise’s attempted resurrection are not getting any higher.

My First Piece for Meridian’s Expand

Thought Cloud

Not long ago I was asked to participate in a new initiative at Meridian Magazine: creating a new section (called “Expand”) The site launched about two weeks ago with a mission statement from Ralph Hancock, who is leading the project. The image above gives a pretty succinct distillation of what Expand hopes to do: provide a space for Mormon thinkers to host “civil discussion that engages the great moral questions, ideological movements, and contending intellectual frameworks of our day.”


The next two articles consisted of a pair of interviews/dialogues (part 1, part 2) between Hancock and Terryl Givens about Givens’ newest book:Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity.

Earlier today the fourth article was posted, and this is one that I wrote: Maybe the Prophets Know What They’re Doing. In it, I manage to dredge up most of the controversies and conundrums to hit the Bloggernaccle over the past couple of years. Except Mitt Romney. I didn’t mention him. But other than that, it’s probably in this article.

I don’t know how frequently I’ll be contributing posts there, but there are already lots more great articles in the pipeline, and I’m excited to see how the project grows and develops over time. I hope you’ll all check it out.

On Plane-Boarding-Efficiency and Self-Promotion

2014-11-26 Boarding Planes

I got about half way through this article about the fastest way to board airplanes when I read this line:

The same optimization routine that can solve the traveling salesman problem can be applied to airplane boarding. Drawing from its results, I’ve proposed an optimum boarding method. In this approach, often called the Steffen method…

My first thought when I read this was, “The author of this article better not be named Steffen.” He is. My second thought was to point out the passage to my wife, and say, “Please never do that when you’ve got your PhD.” She just groaned and rolled her eyes. Trying to get people to accept a theory or a method based on your own name is the academic equivalent of trying to give yourself a nickname. Not only will it not help matters, it’s just not done. If the method or the theory is awesome, it will be named after you. Maybe. That will actually depend on whether or not you have cadres of extremely loyal grad students and/or other ardent supporters not yourself who will go promulgate the name on your behalf. Most importantly, however, if the method or theory isn’t awesome, it’s not going to be named after you or anyone else. And this theory isn’t that awesome.

In field tests, this method has outperformed all others. In a test with 72 passengers it was nearly twice as fast as boarding back-to-front or in rotating blocks of rows, methods commonly used in the industry. It was 20 to 30 percent faster than more-optimized boarding methods such as random boarding, when people get on without regard to where their assigned seats are. It also beat boarding windows-middle-aisle. My method even outperformed the industry gold standard of open seating, used by Southwest airlines. That’s when passengers don’t have assigned seats at all.

Steffen's Method, Illustrated by Steffen.
Steffen’s Method, Illustrated by Steffen.

First, if Steffen says his method outperformed Southwest’s method (no assigned seats) but doesn’t provide a number, I’d guess it was by less than 20%. So you get an improvement of 20% (or less) in exchange for a boarding pattern that looks like the image to the right. The thing to notice there is that the first person who is seated (bottom right, which corresponds to the rear right of the airplane) boards 24 spaces ahead of the person they are sitting next to.

Think about the way people travel. When it’s in pairs or groups, they like to sit together. In order for this to work, you would have to line up with 24 people (or more, depending on the size of the plane) between you and the person you’re traveling with. If it’s your spouse and you want to be together, that’s a mild annoyance. If it’s a child or someone who needs even a little bit of help, that’s a pretty serious issue. And even if it’s another adult, there are still going to be all kinds of problems with who-carries-what. Not to mention people will game the system so that the person who goes first is going to be the one who carries all the carry-ons to get them stowed.

All methods have drawbacks, and I’m sure Steffen’s method probably isn’t worse, in aggregate, than other methods. But, in my humble opinion, that inconvenience of breaking up parties of travelers (in addition to the headache of keeping your passengers in exact order) probably outweigh the 20%-or-less time benefits.


T&S Post: When to Disobey

2014-11-24 rebel-animals-5

This morning’s post for Times and Seasons was about: When to Disobey. Short version? Being willing to say “no” to religious leaders isn’t fundamentally a question about the quantity of obedience. It’s about the quality of obedience. Being open to saying “no” transforms blind, automatic obedience to willing, mindful obedience. Long version? Read the post. (The comment thread is pretty active, too.)

The Slow Hunch: Another Recap

Once again, I have let all three readers of my blog The Slow Hunch down. Instead of providing links here on Difficult Run to new blog posts each time I write one, I’ve let them build up over the past couple months. To add a little salt to the wound, letting them pile up has made realize that I still don’t post all that much despite my supposedly new commitment to do so.

But I digress. Here is yet another recap of my past few posts at The Slow Hunch:

  • The Edinburgh Review, 1854: “All Is ‘Of the Earth, Earthy'”” – Looks at an April 1854 report in The Edinburgh Review examining Mormonism in Utah, which emphasizes the overlap of the sacred and the “earthy” among the Mormons.
  • The Union Review, 1868: “Labour, In Fact, Is Their Religion”” – Relies on another non-Mormon account–this time from a book review in an 1868 volume of The Union Review–that comments on the religious nature of the Utah Mormons’ industriousness.
  • Thomas Carlyle and the “Perennial Nobleness” of Work” – Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle’s “Draft Essay on the Mormons” praised the leadership of Brigham Young (though not by name) and the practical, action-oriented belief system of the Mormons. Carlyle’s well-known “gospel of work” in also briefly examined in various letters and writings. 
  • The Human Economy” – Discusses the shift from an industrial (hired hands) to a knowledge (hired heads) to an eventual human (hired hearts) economy. Managers are beginning to pay attention to the “soft skills” of those they hire.
  • Resolving Conflict” – Features a TEDX talk from author Jim Ferrell of the Arbinger Institute on resolving conflict at home, work, and abroad.

Stop on by.

President Obama and Immigration

I’ve blogged before about the benefits of immigration reform and (more) open borders. I also think our path to citizenship is a mess. So, my initial reaction to the President’s announcement regarding immigration was mixed. Peter Suderman at Reason has a pretty balanced take on why my reactions were mixed. In response to the claims that President Obama’s actions are “unprecedented and illegal,” Suderman notes the following:

1. Probably legal: “As Reason’s Shikha Dalmia and Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Jonathan Adler have noted, the president has a great deal of authority to set enforcement priorities and exercise discretion when it comes to immigration law. Even some of the loudest critics of Obama’s action have come around to the idea that, at least technically, it would not exceed the president’s discretionary power, even if it would constitute an unusual and strained use of it.”

2. It is unprecedented: “The administration and some of its supporters are arguing that various presidents, including Republicans, have taken comparable steps before, limiting deportations through executive order, and that makes this well within political norms. This argument leaves out crucial details about congressional involvement and support for those previous presidential orders.” These crucial details have been well-documented by David Frum at The Atlantic.

3. It is a further expansion of executive power and the norms around using it: “Just because an executive action is technically legal does not mean that it falls within legal norms, and executive power can be expanded not only through explicit assertions of previously off-limits authority, but by making use of powers that existed but were never used, or never used to such an extent…Anyone who worries about executive overreach, even those supportive of expanded immigration, ought to be wary of the precedent this move, and the thin line of reasoning behind it, could set.” Expanding the power of one man should be troubling.

4. Executive action may be preferable to reform bill: “If you favor making immigration easier and more straightforward, and think that draconian enforcement efforts are both wasteful and counterproductive, then there are real upsides to executive action when compared to a big congressional overhaul.” Increased border control funding and an “incredibly invasive form of workplace nannying which would create huge hassles for workers and employers, as well as large numbers of false positives—making hiring, and finding employment, an even harder process than it already is.”

5. Executive action could poison broader, more stable reform: “There’s no question that the immediate political consequence would be to further outrage Republicans, and turn a party that has long had a mix of views about the virtues of expanding immigration into one dominated by opposition…But the backlash might not just be the immediate consequence, and it might not just be limited to the congressional GOP and its core supporters; unilateral action might result in a deepened long-term opposition to greater immigration as well.” I highly doubt this has anything to do with the morality of immigration. It is likely nothing more than a political move meant “to provoke Republicans into a frothing rage, in hopes that they will do something politically stupid as a result. (They might oblige.)”

Suderman concludes with caution:

This is not to simply condemn Obama’s plan, but instead to warn enthusiastic supporters that the choice to act at this time, in this way, without legislative backing or public support, might be satisfying in the moment, but also stands a real chance of closing off opportunities for a better, more lasting solution at some point in the future. Consensus is hard, and sometimes it seems impossible, but in politics, it’s also important.

President Eyring at the Vatican

President Henry B. Eyring–LDS apostle and First Counselor in the First Presidency–participated in The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Interreligious Colloquium at Vatican City on Nov. 18, 2014. His presentation was entitled “To Become as One.” The video is below.

Julie Smith at Times & Seasons had an excellent insight about the following quote from President Eyring:

Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one—slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts.

Smith notes,

What I hear him saying is that men and women come to marriage with a different set of roles/characteristics,  but one goal of marriage is for them to teach each other and to adopt each other’s roles. I sometimes hear in LDS venues a rather opposite idea–one I find theologically problematic inasmuch as it suggests that men and women should maintain separate characteristics, something I find incompatible with both the idea of the perfection of Christ and his ability to serve as an example for all both men and women, as well as the idea of men and women striving to themselves become perfected. His thinking here can be a great bridge from older teachings about gender difference to a newer vision where those differences can still be acknowledged but won’t be seen as limiting. I especially like his idea that, as he took on nurturing and his wife took on leading, it didn’t diminish either of them. (Contra language we sometimes hear bemoaning the loss of femininity and masculinity.)

Smith’s observation reminds me of a point made by Texas A&M professor and fellow Latter-day Saint Valerie M. Hudson regarding the telos (“end,” “purpose,” “goal”) of marriage:

What we [Mormons] understand from our doctrine is that the telos of marriage is to ground every human family in real, lived, embodied gender equality.  And then, as a consequence, all reproduction would occur only within that context of gender equality.  If the ideal were lived, then every son and daughter of God would be born into a family that lived gender equality, and thus each would learn how to form such a relationship when they themselves came of age.  Reproduction is the fruit, not the root, of what God intended in establishing marriage. 

That is why it doesn’t matter who’s fertile, and whether a marriage of infertile people is a marriage is beside the point.  The test of whether you have a marriage or not is whether it is gender-equal monogamy.

For Hudson, companionate heterosexual monogamous marriage is a matter of gender equality and human peace incarnate. I think President Eyring’s talk could lead to exciting new ways of discussing gender in the LDS Church.

Cleansing the Temple

Note: Obnoxious amounts of Christianity ahead. You’ve been warned!

I’ve been contemplating Jesus’ cleansing of the temple for a few weeks now. I like Saint John’s account the most:

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he spoke of the temple of his body.

I believe the passage has literal meaning. Jesus literally drove people out of the temple because they had turned God’s house into a house of trade. We should avoid the same temptation to have our focus at church become socialization or business rather than love of God. Similarly, we should have zeal for upholding God’s truth in the universal Christian community where immoral teaching and heresy often appear.

Yet more and more the spiritual meaning of the passage has been speaking to me. I think we often look to the external temple (the church) with zeal for rightness, but how often do we look to our inner temple? I look in myself, and I see pride, greed, fear, jealousy, unfaithfulness, falsity, and every manner of unrighteous emotion. I recall the words of Matthew:

13 [Jesus] said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

I then ask myself how a man who wants to have zeal for the external house of the Lord can do anything while his internal house remains in disarray. It is not possible. At best, it will Pharisaical pride at stamping out exterior wrongs all while ignoring blatant interior wrongs. Jesus had no patience for exactly one group, and that group was the Pharisees. So let’s not be them.

Rather, we must ask Jesus to cleanse our inner temple. Perhaps something like, “Jesus, bind up a whip of cords, overturn my unrighteousness, make this temple into a house of God.” I’m under no impression I will be liberated from the brokenness of human nature. But I want to ask God to help me. Like Joan of Arc answered during her trial:

[Joan is asked : Do you know if you are in the grace of God?]

“If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me.”

Only from this relationship with God should we even start thinking about external concerns of church doctrine or moral issues. Only then can truth flow from love of God and neighbor rather than the desire to see others in the wrong or doctrinal obsession. I still feel those temptations pull at my heart, goading me to put others in the wrong so that I may feel right. Even when we know these feelings are wrong, we are tempted next to meet them half-heartedly because we view experiencing these emotions as inevitable. No! Bind up a whip of cords, drive them from the temple of the Lord. They have no place here.

Which brings me to my last idea. A natural stage in Christian life is restraining yourself from something you want because you know it’s wrong or unhelpful. However, we cannot persist here. If we do, we will spend our whole lives feeling like we’ve simply been holding ourselves back to serve the Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s good. “Take up your cross and follow me.” However, this is not the fullness of life that Jesus intends. He wants us to rejoice in our life with Him, going forth with joy. So, let us pray to Jesus, saying, “Lord, make my heart like your heart, my desires as your desires, my mission into your mission.” In this way we may grow closer to the Lord, rejoicing in goodness and love rather than feeling like we’re just holding back evil day by day.

As a final note, don’t by any means construe my ideas as anything more than the thoughts of a single Christian. I am not a priest, I am not a trained theologian, and I’m not even 30. If these internal reflections are helpful, I’m glad. If they aren’t, ignore them freely.

New AEI Study on Family Structure

A brand new study from the American Enterprise Institute (authored by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and economist Robert Lerman) looks at the impact of family structure. Its key findings:

  1. The retreat from marriage—a retreat that has been concentrated among lower-income Americans—plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. We estimate that the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.
  2. Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women. Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual “intact-family premium” that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.
  3. Men obtain a substantial “marriage premium” and women bear no marriage penalty in their individual incomes, and both men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to peers with otherwise similar characteristics. For instance, men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $15,900 per year in their individual income compared to their single peers.
  4. These two trends reinforce each other. Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult. Both the added education and marriage result in higher income levels. Indeed, men and women who were raised with both parents present and then go on to marry enjoy an especially high income as adults. Men and women who are currently married and were raised in an intact family enjoy an annual “family premium” in their household income that exceeds that of their unmarried peers who were raised in nonintact families by at least $42,000.
  5. The advantages of growing up in an intact family and being married extend across the population. They apply about as much to blacks and Hispanics as they do to whites. For instance, black men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 in their individual income compared to their single peers. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less educated. For instance, men with a high-school degree or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to their single peers.

These findings (among others) led Larry Kudlow to write elsewhere, “While restoring economic growth may be the great challenge of our time, this goal will never be realized until we restore marriage. In short, marriage is pro-growth. We can’t do without it.”

Check it out.