1.5 Million Missing Black Men

A recent piece from The New York Times describes what can only be called a staggering, haunting, and horrific picture:

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.

They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to an Upshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.

African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.

Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.

…The disappearance of these men has far-reaching implications. Their absence disrupts family formation, leading both to lower marriage rates and higher rates of childbirth outside marriage, as research by Kerwin Charles, an economist at the University of Chicago, with Ming-Ching Luoh, has shown.

The black women left behind find that potential partners of the same race are scarce, while men, who face an abundant supply of potential mates, don’t need to compete as hard to find one. As a result, Mr. Charles said, “men seem less likely to commit to romantic relationships, or to work hard to maintain them.”

Arguments over racial disparities are sensitive and more often than not heated (just take a quick look at your Facebook feed regarding Baltimore). Blame is placed in various places, from systemic and institutional racism to individual choice and accountability. I have my own opinions (largely a mixture of the two), but that isn’t what I’m interested in with this post. Put aside the finger-pointing, the outrage, and the judgment for a moment. Just look at those numbers and think of the human faces behind them. And then weep.

The Paradox of Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom

910 - AntiDiscrimination Religious Freedom

In which law professor (and my good friend) Nate Oman boils down the most depressing aspect of the current culture war. Both religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws are  necessary contingent on the prevailing local culture, but states where there is the greatest need for religious protections are the least likely to enact them, and states where there is the greatest need for antidiscrimination laws are the least likely to enact them. As a result:

I think that in blue states conservative religious objectors will likely be dealt with harshly and punitively. In red states, I think that there is a real danger that in some places homosexuals will lack the ability to fully and meaningfully participate in the market.

Depressing stuff, but Nate has hope. Read the article to see what it is.

Harvard’s Roland Fryer, Clark Medalist 2015

Harvard economist Roland Fryer was awarded the 2015 John Bates Clark Medal by the American Economic Association. Many top economists have been the recipients, from Milton Friedman to Paul Krugman. But as The Economist points out,

Mr Fryer’s prize…stands out. Top academic economists tend to be white. They often hail from privileged backgrounds and build their reputation on inscrutable econometrics. Mr Fryer does not fit that mould. He is the first African-American to win the medal (after having in 2007 become the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard, at age 30). Mr Fryer’s childhood was not an easy one. He grew up poor, and was abandoned by his mother and beaten by his father as a child. As a teenager he survived by selling counterfeit handbags and dealing marijuana. Perhaps not coincidentally, his research agenda is heavily focused on investigations of real world policy questions. Mr Fryer has used economic tools to study America’s racial divide and to explore how it might be narrowed—economic questions that historically have been understudied. Economics, as a field, seems slow to appreciate the possibility that the introduction of new perspectives can mean that more interesting questions get asked, leading to better answers.

The AEA summarizes his work as follows:

His innovative and creative research contributions have deepened our understanding of the sources, magnitude, and persistence of U.S. racial inequality.  He has made substantial progress in evaluating the policies that work and do not work to improve the educational outcomes and economic opportunities of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  His theoretical and empirical work on the “acting white” hypothesis of peer effects provides new insights into the difficulties of increasing the educational investments of minorities and the socially excluded.  Fryer is the leading economist working on the economics of race and education, and he has produced the most important work in recent years on combating the racial divide, one of America’s most profound and long-lasting social problems.

I first came across Fryer as an undergrad. My wife at the time was taking a sociology course in preparation for dental hygiene school. His work came in handy when she had assignments regarding racial inequality in America. I’ve tried to keep up with his work over the years. I was very excited to see him awarded.

Be sure to check out the AEA link above or this link to Bloomberg for a more in-depth overview of his research.


Detail from stained glass work "Education"(Chittenden Memorial Window at Yale). Public domain. (Image links to original.)
Detail from stained glass work “Education”(Chittenden Memorial Window at Yale). Public domain. (Image links to original.)

A fundamental assumption of the secularization thesis is that religious and scientific paradigms conflict intrinsically. Religion, comprising superstition and unreason, cannot exist side by side with science, comprising skepticism and reason. This irresoluble conflict requires the advance of science to come at the expense of religion. However, the prediction of the secularization thesis (that as the world modernizes secularism will come to dominate) has not been borne out over the last few decades. This is particularly true in the United States, where religion stubbornly refuses to to go quietly into that good night.

912 - Religiosity vs GDP

A new paper from the American Sociological Review goes deeper than merely noting the surprising longevity of American religion in the face of science, however, and severely undercuts the premise that religious and scientific paradigms are necessarily locked in a zero-sum contest.

The paper’s authors—Timothy L. O’Brien and Shiri Noy—start with data from the General Social Surveys conducted in 2006, 2008, and 2010. They measured respondents’ relationship to science based on two metrics. The first is the degree of favorability with which a person views science and the second is a person’s scientific literacy. They also measured respondents’ relationship to religion using two approaches, including asking questions like “whether the Bible is (1) the actual word of God, (2) inspired by the word of God, or (3) filled with myths and fables” and respondents’ views of their own religiosity.

Next, they used a statistical technique to determine whether the pattern of answers would be most likely to emerge from a population that had 2 cohorts (e.g. a religious cohort and a scientific one) or more than two. The results indicated that there were three cohorts present in the population.

The first two are well known. Traditionals, as they are called, tend to score lower on scientific literacy, trust science less, embrace religion more, and are also relatively marginalized in terms of social class. Traditionals are the largest group, and make up 43% of the sample. Moderns, by contrast, tend to score higher on scientific literacy, trust science more, are dismissive of religion, and are more socio-economically elite. They make up 35% of the sample. The new third group, making up just 21% of the sample, is the most interesting.

This is the group that O’Brien and Noy designated as post-seculars, and they emphasize that it is not merely “a midpoint between modern and traditional, but a distinct way of using science and religion to interpret the world.” In terms of science, post-seculars are roughly as literate as moderns, and much more literate than traditionals. “For example,” notes the article, “47 percent of the traditional class, compared to 92 and 90 percent of the modern and post-secular groups, respectively, correctly answered that radioactivity occurs naturally.” But post-seculars do not fully share in the optimism and confidence expressed by moderns about science. In addition, there are a couple of specific questions where post-moderns diverge dramatically from moderns: human evolution and the big bang. This table—an abbreviated version of Table 2 in the paper—shows just how wide that divide is.

Conditional Mean of Each Category
Question (0 = disagree, 1 = agree) Traditional Modern Post-Secular
The continents have been moving for millions of years and will move in the future? .665 .983 .801
The Universe began with huge explosion? .212 .678 .058
Human beings developed from earlier species of animals? .330 .877 .032

When it comes to a question about continental drift (which is an important question for reasons we’ll come to later), the post-secular group falls between traditionals and moderns: about 80% of post-seculars accept the theory vs 98% of moderns and 67% of traditionals. But when it comes to the big bang and human evolution, post-seculars reject the scientific consensus much more strongly than the traditionals. Post-seculars accept the big bang and human descent from animals at miniscule rates of 6% and 3%, respectively. That’s a truly astonishing degree of uniformity out of a cohort that represents more than 1/5th of the American public.

The trend is similarly fascinating when it comes to religion, with the post-secular group consistently showing the greatest levels of religiosity. They are also much more consistently conservative on political questions that have strong religious components, such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. In both cases, the post-secular cohort is not only more conservative than the moderns, they are more conservative than the traditionals as well. But on issues where there isn’t a direct religious component (like increasing fuel efficiency standards for vehicles or the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power), the post-seculars flip to be at least as pro-science as the moderns.

It is abundantly clear that the standard religion vs. science dichotomy is insufficient to explain what is happening in America, but the real story is harder to ascertain. Further research is required, of course, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

First, I disagree with the authors attempt to keep the secularization thesis on life support. While conceding that post-seculars demonstrate that there is no universal conflict between science and religion, the authors suppose that there are at least a few crucial issues where it really must be either religion or science, but not possibly both. Thus, “rather than the fully compatible worldview we anticipated, the post-secular perspective sees conflict between science and religion as limited to particular issues related to life. In these domains, the post-secular perspective is associated with a tendency to use religion to ground one’s views.” They also raise the possibility that post-seculars simply see questions of human and cosmological origins as unscientific and that therefore “for these individuals… evolution and the big bang are not viewed as legitimate science.”

The fundamental problem at this stage in the analysis is the failure to differentiate between science as philosophy and theory on the one hand, and science as social practice and institution on the other. It may very well be the case that scientific theory and religious belief are fully compatible on a philosophical level, but that scientific and religious authority are incompatible on a practical, social level.

Unfortunately, the issues of human evolution and cosmological evolution have become such controversial symbols in the dispute over authority, that it is impossible to separate philosophical from institutional concerns in simple survey responses. If, for example, a post-secular believes that God created human beings in His image using evolution as a mechanism, how would they respond to a question that asks about evolution without mentioning God? In a purely neutral context, it could go either way. But the contemporary context is very far from neutral. Post-seculars quite reasonably read questions on human evolution that leave out God as loaded questions about the practical, social concerns rather than as neutral ones about the science of genetics and natural selection. This interpretation is suggested by the question about continental drift. 80% of post-seculars agreed that the continents have been drifting for “millions of years,” which means that strict creationist accounts are emphatically ruled out by most post-seculars. The best way to reconcile a rejection of human evolution and a rejection of literalist creation accounts is to understand that the survey is conflating two distinct issues.

If this interpretation is correct, then post-seculars are not a cohort comprised of cafeteria scientists and cafeteria religious followers who pick and choose from the two like a double buffet to create their own idiosyncratic world views. Instead, their positive views of religion and science could very well represent a genuine project of unification and reconciliation on a philosophical level paired with an unflinching loyalty to religious authority on a practical level.

Exploring The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is probably the most vexing philosophical question for monotheism. It has affected people I know personally all the way up to famous scholars like Bart Ehrman. What are we to do with this problem? Even though the question has been explored endlessly, I want to think about it a little today.

First, according to contemporary philosophers, the logical problem of evil is more or less solved. The logical problem of evil is a subset of the problem of evil that argues that God’s existence is logically incoherent with the existence of evil. And yet many people remain unsatisfied with the logical resolution of this problem. Why?

Some people argue because the evidential problem of evil remains. The evidential problem of evil involves arguing that the existence of evil makes God’s existence unlikely, rather than illogical. That seems like a decent argument to make, and harder to refute decisively, but I don’t think God’s existence simply being made less likely or unlikely would have the same destructive effect on faith that the problem of evil has.

I want to try a different avenue. I think the problem of evil persists because it so deeply offends our moral sense. To explain, I will turn to a different story.

In Greek philosophy, much thought turns over the Homeric gods. The Homeric gods are the gods we traditionally associate with Greece–Zeus, Athena, Ares, Hermes, Apollo, and the like. The Greek philosophers by and large reject the Homeric gods. But why they reject the Homeric gods is illustrative. They don’t reject the Homeric gods on an empirical basis, such as the fact that you can physically walk over to Mount Olympus and check if the gods are actually there. Nor do they reject them on a logical or probabilistic basis. Rather, they reject the Homeric gods on a moral basis. Surely the gods do not act in ways unworthy even of human beings. Xenohpanes, a pre-Socratic philosopher, writes:

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all those things which in men are a matter for reproach and censure: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception.

Plato expresses similar thoughts:

Plato’s second objection, however, is more fundamental…Homer and the poets teach falsely about the gods and morals. Gods who fight one another, lie and cheat, and who speak and act falsely, are not suitable for the raising and teaching of children.

The Greek philosophers then puzzle out what or who exists if the Homeric gods do not. Some of their thoughts will sound very familiar to modern monotheists (especially Xenophanes’ writings). What I want to note, though, is the direction of their thought. If something about the gods and the world seem contradictory, the Greeks posit the gods (or more generally and non-theistically the moral foundation of the world) must be better than the popular understanding, not non-existent. I think this distinction is very important.

Why? Because, remember, our objection was originally moral in nature. If our objection is moral, and our conclusion then is that the supernatural does not exist, we face the much bigger problem of accounting for the origin of the moral sense that invalidated the supernatural in the first place.

Here’s where my story ties back to the problem of evil. I believe that the problem of evil persists because it fundamentally offends our moral sense. But if the origin of the problem of evil is our moral sense, we make a deadly error in rejecting the supernatural and embracing naturalism as the solution. C.S. Lewis explains this idea in full in Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

Naturally I’m biased as a Christian, but I find this resolution fitting. The answer to our problems are implicit in the very objections we raise.

The Lost Pages of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

The Wall Street Journal has an exciting piece on 3 newly discovered pages cut from prior to the publication of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time. The pages were discovered by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. The new pages feature a conversation between Meg and her father.

…Meg has just made a narrow escape from Camazotz. As Meg’s father massages her limbs, which are frozen from a jarring trip through space and time, she asks: “But Father, how did the Black Thing—how did it capture Camazotz?” Her father proceeds to lay out the political philosophy behind the book in much starker terms than are apparent in the final version.

He says that yes, totalitarianism can lead to this kind of evil. (The author calls out examples by name, including Hitler, Mussolini and Khrushchev.) But it can also happen in a democracy that places too much value on security, Mr. Murry says. “Security is a most seductive thing,” he tells his daughter. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the greatest evil there is.”

Ms. Voiklis said she wanted readers to know the book wasn’t a simple allegory of communism. Instead, it’s about the risk of any country—including a democracy—placing too much value on security. The tension between safety and personal freedom is an idea that resonates in today’s politics.

Check out the WSJ article and the pages themselves.

Does a Welfare State Encourage Entrepreneurship?

It might, according to some economic research. As AEI’s James Pethokoukis explains,

Image result for welfareOver at The Atlantic, Walter Frick offers economic literature roundup that suggests the latter. A strong safety net encourages startups by making the effort seem less risky, he argues. For instance, a 2014 paper found the expansion of food stamps “in some states in the early 2000s increased the chance that newly eligible households would own an incorporated business by 16 percent.” Another paper by the same author found that “the  rate of incorporated business ownership for those eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it.”

However, he notes,

Now it is one thing to argue that a more robust safety net would be good for US entrepreneurship broadly understood — I think that would be the case in some areas, though I would be careful about eliminating welfare work requirements — and quite another to make the same claim about  mimicking the Scandinavian social democracies. In “Can’t We All Be More Like Nordics?”, Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Thierry Verdier argue that “technological progress requires incentives for workers and entrepreneurs [and] results in greater inequality and greater poverty (and a weaker safety net) for a society encouraging more intense innovation.” If cut-throat, inegalitarian US capitalism became more like cuddly Scandinavian capitalism, the US might no longer be as capable of pushing the technological frontierIndeed, the researchers have found a large per-capita gap between Scandinavia and the US when it comes to highly cited patents. The US also has a high-impact entrepreneurship rate three times as high as Sweden. (Of course, open economies benefit from innovation first produced elsewhere.) In short, the US has a pretty special thing going, and we should be careful not screw that up.

Worth checking out.

Spirituality Leads to Happier, Healthier Children

So says a recent article in TIME by psychologist Lisa Miller. “An increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement,” she writes

whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment…Children come to believe they are no better than their last success and suffer a sense of worthlessness when there is loss or even moderate failure. Where love is conditional on performance, children suffer.

Now the antidote. A new study just published online in the Journal of Religion and Health by my lab at Columbia University shows that happiness and the character traits of grit and persistence go “hand in hand” with a deeper inner asset: spirituality, which this study measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. More generally my research of more than 20 years on adolescencedepression and spirituality shows more specifically how putting a priority on performance stunts development of a child’s inner life and the single most powerful protection against depression and suffering, the spiritual self.

Not only does the article demonstrate the importance of spirituality, but also the harmful effects of a status and achievement-driven culture. Check it out.

“Tell Me…Do You Bleed? …You Will”: Batman v Superman Trailer

I wasn’t too mortified when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Bruce Wayne/Batman in what is now called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While I prefer his brother Casey as an actor and often wish Ben would remain behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo are all great), he’s not a terrible choice. Many point to how awful Daredevil was, but that had little to do with Affleck (who did the superhero scenes fairly well) and more to do with idiotic scenes like this. Whatever the complaints, he looks pretty rad in the trailer below, especially with the brief voice-over by the most welcome Jeremy Irons. Let’s hope the movie lives up to its potential.