Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to comfort the suffering

Every 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. If they are not, the doctors smile and schedule another scan. The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. ...

What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy? I find that the people least likely to know the answer to these questions can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers and solvers.

The minimizers are those who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative. These people are very easy to spot because most of their sentences begin with “Well, at least ….” Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion. ...

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.

The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. ...

The hardest lessons come from the solutions people, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried. ...

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud. Sometimes those who love you best will skip that first horrible step of saying: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Hope may prevent them from acknowledging how much has already been lost. But acknowledgment is also a mercy. It can be a smile or a simple “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it, I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.

After acknowledgment must come love. This part is tricky because when friends and acquaintances begin pouring out praise, it can sound a little too much like a eulogy. I’ve had more than one kindly letter written about me in the past tense, when I need to be told who I might yet become.

But the impulse to offer encouragement is a perfect one. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: “Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”
--Kate Bowler, NYT, on just loving

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Making playgrounds riskier to build kids' grit

Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.

Four years ago, for instance, teachers at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School looked critically around their campus and set about, as one of them put it, “bringing in risk.”

Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff: stacks of two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks. The schoolyard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and workbenches with hammers and saws. ...

Now, Ms. Morris says proudly, “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,” all used under adult supervision. Indoors, scissors abound, and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers (“they normally only cut themselves once,” she says).

Limited risks are increasingly cast by experts as an experience essential to childhood development, useful in building resilience and grit. ...

Outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, a placard informs parents that risks have been “intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.” ...

Australia last fall introduced new standards for playground equipment, instructing operators to consider the benefits, not just the risks, of activities that could result in injuries. Cities and school districts in Canada and Sweden are following suit.

(In the United States, a country with far higher litigation costs, government agencies overseeing play safety are not known to have made any such changes.) ...

Ms. Talarowski, who was struck by how much more adventurous playgrounds were when she moved on London in 2015, threw herself into gathering data. Using a quantitative tool developed by the RAND Corporation, a research center, she used video to track the behavior of 18,000 visitors to London playgrounds, then compared it with similar data on visitors to American parks.

The findings suggested that exciting equipment had a pronounced effect: The British playgrounds had 55 percent more visitors over all, and children and teenagers were 16 to 18 percent more active. The features that held visitors’ attention the longest — sand, grass, high swings and climbing structures — were elements American park managers use sparingly, because of high maintenance costs and the risk of falls, Ms. Talarowski said.
--Ellen Barry, NYT, on un-bubble-wrapping childhood

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Norway's extreme love of the outdoors

Then there is Norway’s abiding infatuation with its lush natural surroundings. People have a such a deep bond with the landscape that there is a ubiquitous word for communing with it: friluftsliv, a.k.a. “open-air living.” The concept is so popular that NRK, the nation’s largest TV network, found a way for Norwegians to enjoy it indoors.

In 2011, the network placed a camera on the front of a boat called the MS Nordnorge and ran live footage for 134 hours of nothing but nature, quietly passing by. Half of the country tuned in.
--David Segal, NYT, on a rugged people

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The inauspicious beginning of K-pop

Before the liberalization of South Korean media in the late ‘80s, the music produced by broadcast networks was exclusively either slow ballads or “trot,” a Lawrence Welk-ish fusion of traditional music with old pop standards. ...

As of 1992, national TV networks had penetrated above 99 percent of South Korean homes, and viewership was highest on the weekends, when the talent shows took place. These televised talent shows were crucial in introducing music groups to South Korean audiences; they still have an enormous cultural impact and remain the single biggest factor in a South Korean band’s success.

As Moonrok editor Hannah Waitt points out in her excellent series on the history of K-pop, K-pop is unusual as a genre because it has a definitive start date, thanks to a band called Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji had previously been a member of the South Korean heavy metal band Sinawe, which was itself a brief but hugely influential part of the development of Korean rock music in the late ‘80s. After the band broke up, he turned to hip-hop and recruited two stellar South Korean dancers, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, to join him as backups in a group dubbed Seo Taiji and Boys. On April 11, 1992, they performed their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” on a talent show:

Not only did the Boys not win the talent show, but the judges gave the band the lowest score of the evening. But immediately after the song debuted, “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history.
--Aja Romano, Vox, on knocked down four times, rising up five

Friday, February 9, 2018

Did the Milgram obedience experiment subjects know it was fake?

Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. ...

Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. ...

Little studied before, the secretly recorded interviews were conducted by the actor who played the role of experimenter. Hollander and Turowetz listened to 91 of these interviews featuring 46 “obedient” participants who’d applied the most extreme level of shock, and 45 who defied the experimenter and at some stage refused to continue. ...

The most common explanation was that [the obedient participants] believed the person they’d given the electric shocks to (the “learner”) hadn’t really been harmed. Seventy-two per cent of obedient participants made this kind of claim at least once, such as “If it was that serious you woulda stopped me” and “I just figured that somebody had let him out“.
--Christian Jarrett, British Psychological Society Research Digest, on a problem with deceiving experimental subjects. HT: Marginal Revolution

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How to talk to cavemen

Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

They are more conserved through time and across cultures than words for other presumably bedrock concepts like mother, father and most body parts, with a few puzzling exceptions like the words for tongue and eye.

“The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

“It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”

That continuity, Dr. Pagel added, “should astonish us.”
--Natalie Angier, NYT, on words that count

Monday, February 5, 2018

The "cheating husband" email scam

...a nasty new swindle of the digital age: The “cheating husband” email scheme. In it, anonymous extortionists mass email large numbers of men, threatening to unmask their infidelities. The extortionists have no idea if the men have done anything wrong, but enough of them are guilty, it turns out, that some pay up, sometimes with Bitcoin.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Watching Fast and Furious movies makes you drive recklessly

Using detailed traffic violation data from Montgomery County, Md., we were able to examine all speeding tickets there from 2012 to 2017. This length of time allowed us to investigate the effect of three movies in the “Fast and Furious” series. Looking at the 192,892 speeding tickets recorded, we analyzed the average miles per hour over the speed limit that drivers were charged with going on a given day.

We found a large increase in the average speed of drivers who received speeding tickets on the weekends after “Fast and Furious” releases. Comparing the three weekends before each movie’s release with the three weekends after, we found that the speeds people were given tickets for increased almost 20 percent, to an average of 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, from 16 miles per hour.

We also found that rates of extreme speeding increased. For example, the percentage of drivers charged with driving more than 40 miles per hour above the speed limit nearly doubled (though it remained a tiny proportion of the total), to 2 percent of all violations.

Additionally, using data on latitude and longitude reported in the tickets, we found that increases in this extreme speeding were concentrated in areas close to movie theaters (often within two miles), consistent with speeding behavior induced by moviegoing.

We compared the geographic distribution of these extreme speeding violations in the three weekends before versus after movie releases. We found that the vast majority of tickets handed out in the three weekends after movie releases occurred on Route 270, a major highway that runs adjacent to several large movie theaters in the county.

During the three weekends before movie releases, extreme speeding violations were not only less common but were also, on average, farther from the movie theaters (and Route 270).

To check that these findings weren’t spurious, we looked at speeding tickets after the release of four movies in “The Hunger Games” series, another popular franchise in the same time period that didn’t glorify fast driving. Speeding didn’t go up.

We also performed a “falsification test.” When we looked at the dates of “Fast and Furious” releases and compared them with the previous year, when no movie was released, there was no effect on speeding.
--Anupam Jena, Aakash Jain, and Tanner Hicks, NYT, on an effect I have personally been subject to

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Next weight loss trend: Weighted vests

Our skeletons may help to keep our weight under control, according to a fascinating new study with animals.

The study [published in PNAS] suggests that bones could be much more intimately involved in tracking weight and controlling appetite than scientists realized. ...

...the scientists implanted tiny capsules into each rodent’s abdomen. Some contained weights equaling about 15 percent of each animal’s body mass. Others were empty. ...

The scientists then left the rodents alone to deal with these added ounces as they would. And their bodies quickly went to work. Within two days, the animals containing the weighted capsules were eating less and after two weeks, had generally lost almost as much weight as the capsules contained.

When the scientists subsequently removed the weighted capsules from some of the animals, those mice and rats began eating more and soon added back those ounces. ...

Finally, the scientists considered bones. As they knew, most animals’ skeletons readily sense when they are being stressed by such things as strenuous weight-bearing exercise and will add extra bone cells to handle that pressure.

Osteocyctes, a type of bone cell, are thought to be the cells that recognize when outside forces are affecting the bone and send out biochemical signals prompting the creation of new bone.

To see if they likewise detect and respond to changes in body weight, the scientists bred a group of mice with unnaturally low levels of osteocytes. Then they again implanted the weighted capsules.

This time, the animals did not drop that added weight. Their bodies did not seem to realize that they had become heavier, presumably because of the low levels of osteocytes, and the animals remained artificially plump.

The implication of this result is that healthy bones seem to sense changes in body mass and then somehow initiate alterations to appetite and eating that can return the body to its previous weight, says John-Olov Jansson, a neuroscientist at the University of Gothenburg who led the study. ...

The possibility could help to explain why sitting for hours is associated with obesity, he continues. When we sit, much of our body weight is supported by cushions rather than bones, leaving our skeletons unaware of how much we actually weigh and whether that amount has changed or should change.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the thigh bone being connected to the potbelly bone

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hillary's revenge on Moscow

For anyone who braves the Russian winter, overcast skies and short, dark days are a depressing reality.

But even those bleak expectations were shattered in December, when Moscow was shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover for all but six minutes.

It was the darkest December in the capital since the city began recording the data, the previous worst having come in 2000, when the sun checked in for a meager three hours. ...

...the dearth of sunlight undoubtedly has contributed to a surge in visits to psychiatrists in Moscow even beyond the expected seasonal rise, the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported.

The reports have unleashed a tide of snarky comment on social media. ...

“Hillary’s revenge,” an American, Steve Lemson, chimed in.
--Matthew Luxmoore, NYT, on the forces of darkness

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Giving military equipment to the police is a good thing

Surprising to me:

Sparked by high-profile confrontations between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, many commentators have criticized the excessive militarization of law enforcement. We investigate whether surplus military-grade equipment acquired by local police departments from the Pentagon has an effect on crime rates. We use temporal variations in US military expenditure and between-counties variation in the odds of receiving a positive amount of military aid to identify the causal effect of militarized policing on crime. We find that (i) military aid reduces street-level crime; (ii) the program is cost-effective; and (iii) there is evidence in favor of a deterrence mechanism.
--Vincenzo Bove and Evelina Gavrilova, "Police Officer on the Frontline or a Soldier? The Effect of Police Militarization on Crime," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

We provide the first local level empirical analysis of the causal effects of providing military equipment to local police. Employing a novel combination of publicly available county-year panel data matched to hand-collected data on citizen complaints, we investigate the effects of acquiring tactical weapons, optics, and vehicles on citizen complaints, assaults on police officers, and offender deaths. For causal identification, we exploit exogenous variation in equipment availability and cost-shifting institutional aspects of the 1033 Program. Our results indicate that these items have generally positive effects: reduced citizen complaints, reduced assaults on officers, increased drug crime arrests, and no increases in offender deaths.
--Matthew Harris, Jinseong Park, Donald Bruce, and Matthew Murray, "Peacekeeping Force: Effects of Providing Tactical Equipment to Local Law Enforcement," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How the classic endowment effect paper was published

One of the most powerful findings of behavioral economics is “loss aversion,” the psychological tendency to feel losses more acutely than gains. As Adam Smith (1759) put it, “Pain … is, in almost all cases, a more pungent sensation than the opposite and correspondent pleasure” (1981, III, ii, 176–77). Although Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1979) and I (1980) had earlier written about this phenomenon, its empirical validity was still very much in question when Kahneman, Jack Knetsch, and I submitted an experimental paper on the subject to the [Journal of Political Economy], later published in 1990.

In the experiment we randomly assigned half the subjects to receive some object (often a coffee mug), with the other half getting nothing. We then conducted a market for the mugs in which both buyers and sellers stated their reservation prices. Since transaction costs were negligible and the objects were randomly assigned, the Coase theorem predicts that roughly half the mugs will change hands so that subjects who value mugs the most end up owning them. Our hypothesis was that fewer than half the mugs would trade because owners would regard a trade as a loss. This hypothesis was strongly supported. In a typical experiment, the expected number of trades was 11 but the empirical average was only 3.4. As predicted by loss aversion, median reservation prices for selling the mug were roughly twice the median prices for buying the mug.

The editor handling this paper was George Stigler. He sent us back a rejection letter based on a highly critical referee report from someone Stigler described as a “heavyweight in the field.” The referee said that income effects could explain our results since those who received the mugs had received a windfall relative to those who did not. After taking a few days to calm myself down (a good self-control strategy) I wrote back on behalf of my coauthors (who were both away traveling) explaining why the referee’s comments could not be taken seriously, either theoretically or empirically. First, the marginal propensity to spend windfalls on university insignia coffee mugs must be minuscule. Second, one experiment explicitly tested and rejected this explanation. Stigler wrote back in his usual witty style saying that JPE stands for Journal of Perspicacity and Equity, and he offered to send both my letter and the original referee report to another referee to adjudicate. That referee said that if forced to choose between our view and that of the original referee, he would side with us, which is how the paper came to be accepted.*

*The self-control paper [Thaler and Shefrin (1981)] also involved quite a bit of back and forth with the editor Sam Peltzman, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept it rather than continue to exchange letters. Both papers were published as the last paper in the issue, which I took as a signal that they were considered the paper the editors were most ashamed to publish. It is gratifying that both papers were ranked highly on the list of most-cited papers compiled by the editors for this issue. Perhaps people read the JPE from back to front.
--Richard Thaler, Journal of Political Economy, on the slings and arrows of publishing seminal papers

Sunday, January 7, 2018

White supremacists are into Asian women

The white supremacists on the far right have “yellow fever” — an Asian woman fetish. It’s a confusing mix.

Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, once posted a video of himself with a Filipina he called “my jailbait girlfriend,” the young couple flirting as they sauntered through a megamall in the Philippines. Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, has dated a series of Asian-American women, according to one of his ex-girlfriends. (Mr. Spencer insists that it was before he embraced white nationalism.)

The right-wing agitator Mike Cernovich, the writer John Derbyshire and an alt-right figure named Kyle Chapman (so notorious for swinging a lead-filled stick at Trump opponents at a protest in Berkeley, Calif., that he is now a meme) are all married to women of Asian descent. As a commenter wrote on an alt-right forum, “exclusively” dating Asian women is practically a “white-nationalist rite of passage.” ...

Maybe it makes sense that the alt-right is so confused: On a neo-Nazi news site, a user asked advice on whether he could be a white nationalist if he slept with East Asian women, and he received dozens of spirited responses from both sides.
--Audrea Lim, NYT, on Asians as whites from the right

The New York Times Bits blog reports:
Google on Wednesday released statistics on the makeup of its work force, providing numbers that offer a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.
But wait — just a few paragraphs down, the post notes that non-Hispanic whites are 61 percent of the Google work force, slightly below the national average. (That average, according to 2006-10 numbers, is 67 percent.) Google is thus less white than the typical American company. White men are probably slightly overrepresented; assuming that the 30 percent number it gives for women Google employees worldwide carries over to the U.S. (the article gives no separate number for U.S. women Google employees), white men are 42 percent of the Google work force, and 35 percent of the U.S. work force — not a vast disparity. Indeed, if the goal is “reflecting the demographics of the country” as to race —
Google’s disclosures come amid an escalating debate over the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Although tech is a key driver of the economy and makes products that many Americans use everyday, it does not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country — in terms of sex, age or race.
— Google can only accomplish that by firing well over three-quarters of its Asian employees, and replacing them with blacks and Hispanics (and a few whites, to bring white numbers up from 61 percent to 67 percent). ...

This is part of a phenomenon I have long observed, under the label of “how the Asians became white.” It’s not just that Asians are being treated like whites for purposes of race preferences, with some institutions deliberately setting lower standards (or creating a “plus factor,” which is the same thing) for black and Hispanic applicants than for Asian and white applicants — instead, people sometimes actually call Asians white (mostly unconsciously, I suspect).
--Eugene Volokh, Washington Post, on Asians as whites from the left

Monday, January 1, 2018

The challenge ahead for small cities

Once upon a time, it was obvious what towns and small cities did: they served as central places serving a mainly rural population engaged in agriculture and other natural resource-based activities. The rural population was dispersed because arable land and other resources were dispersed, and so you had lots of small cities dotting the landscape.

Over time, however, agriculture has become ever less important as a share of the economy, and the rural population has correspondingly declined as a determinant of urban location. Nonetheless, many small cities survived and grew by becoming industrial centers, generally specialized in some cluster of industries held together by the Marshallian trinity of information exchange, specialized suppliers, and a pool of labor with specialized skills.

What determined which industries a small city developed? In some cases particular features of the location and nearby resources were important, but often it was more or less random chance at first, then a sequence in which one industry created conditions that favored another. ...

Obviously, this was a chancy process. Some localized industries created fertile ground for new industries to replace them; others presumably became dead ends. And while a big, diversified city can afford a lot of dead ends, a smaller city can’t. Some small cities got lucky repeatedly, and grew big. Others didn’t; and when a city starts out fairly small and specialized, over a long period there will be a substantial chance that it will lose enough coin flips that it effectively loses any reason to exist.

I’m not saying that there weren’t patterns of success and failure. Small cities were and are more likely to fail if they have miserable winters, more likely to come up with new tricks if they’re college towns and/or destinations for immigrants. Still, if you back up enough, it makes sense to think of urban destinies as a random process of wins and losses in which small cities face a relatively high likelihood of experiencing gambler’s ruin.

Again, it was not always thus: once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out. ...

In the modern economy, which has cut loose from the land, any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance.
--Paul Krugman, NYT, on having the short stack at the table. But see a rebuttal here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Has U.S. median income risen after all?

Despite the large increase in U.S. income inequality, consumption for families at the 25th and 50th percentiles of income has grown steadily over the time period 1960-2015. The number of cars per household with below median income has doubled since 1980 and the number of bedrooms per household has grown 10 percent despite decreases in household size. The finding of zero growth in American real wages since the 1970s is driven in part by the choice of the CPI-U as the price deflator (Broda and Weinstein 2008). Small biases in any price deflator compound over long periods of time. Using a different deflator such as the Personal Consumption Expenditures index (PCE) yields modest growth in real wages and in median household incomes throughout the time period. Accounting for the Hamilton (1998) and Costa (2001) estimates of CPI bias yields estimated wage growth of 1 percent per year during 1975-2015. Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.
--Bruce Sacerdote, "Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages," on the importance of the deflator

What happened to the Napalm Girl?

You may not recognize me now, but you almost certainly know who I am. My name is Kim Phuc, though you likely know me by another name. It is one I never asked for, a name I have spent a lifetime trying to escape: “Napalm Girl.”

You have probably seen my picture a thousand times. Yes, that picture. The image that made the world gasp. Some called it a turning point in the Vietnam War—a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of me in 1972, age 9, running along a puddled roadway in front of an expressionless soldier. I was photographed with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance. ...

Those bombs have caused me immeasurable pain over the course of my life. Forty-five years later I am still receiving treatment for the burns that cover my arms, back and neck. But even worse than the physical pain was the emotional and spiritual pain. For years I bore the crippling weight of anger, bitterness and resentment toward those who caused my suffering. Yet as I look back over a spiritual journey that has spanned more than three decades, I realize the same bombs that caused so much pain and suffering also brought me to a place of great healing. Those bombs led me to Jesus Christ.

My salvation experience occurred on Christmas Eve. It was 1982. I was attending a special worship service at a small church in Vietnam. The pastor, Ho Hieu Ha, delivered a message many Christians would find familiar: Christmas is not about the gifts we carefully wrap and place under a tree. Rather, it is about the gift of Jesus Christ, who was wrapped in human flesh and given to us by God. As the pastor spoke, I knew in my heart that something was shifting inside of me.

A decade removed from the defining tragedy of my life, I still desperately needed peace. I had so much hatred and bitterness in my heart. Yet I was ready for love and joy. I wanted to let go of my pain. I wanted to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death. When Pastor Ho finished speaking, I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say “yes” to Jesus Christ.

When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced my first-ever heartfelt celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I know what it is like to experience terror, to feel despondent, to live in fear. I know how wearying and hopeless life can be sometimes. After years in the spiritual wilderness, I felt the kind of healing that can only come from God. ...

My faith in Jesus Christ is what has enabled me to forgive those who had wronged me—no matter how severe those wrongs were. Faith also inspired me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. It enabled me not only to tolerate those who had wronged me but to love them.
--Kim Phuc Phan Thi, WSJ, on a peace that passes understanding

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bipartisanship used to be seen as a sign of dysfunction

From the end of World War II to roughly the end of the Cold War, American politics and policymaking was markedly different. The Democratic and Republican parties were internally diverse, with distinct factions that often did not agree with each other on fundamental issues. Liberal Northern Democrats, such as Senators Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale, had to contend with conservative Southern Democrats. In the Republican Party, conservative “Regular Republicans” had to contend with liberal Northeastern Republicans, like New York’s Jacob Javits and Massachusetts’s Edward Brooke (the “Rockefeller wing”). To pass anything, parties had to reach across the aisle to find willing partners from the other party—partners that changed depending on the issue.

On civil rights, for instance, to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson relied on the votes of 25 Republican senators, including all 16 Northeastern Republicans, to end a filibuster by his fellow Southern Democrats. On economic policy, Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1981 relied on the votes of 50 “boll-weevil” conservative Southern Democrats to pass his budget—and later tax cuts—through a Democratic House of Representatives.

To many, this cross-party dealmaking was a sign that American politics was broken. The American Political Science Association called for “responsible” political parties who could present a coherent platform, ostensibly be elected on it, and then implement its planks. Others lamented the seemingly intractable divided government—in which Republicans reliably controlled the presidency and the Democrats controlled the Congress—of the 1970s and 1980s, going so far as to call for four-year House terms so that members of Congress were tied to the presidential ticket. 

Beginning in the early 1990s, however, the political parties started to become more ideologically coherent and competitive, and the result was the broken policymaking we see today.
--Kenneth Baer, The Atlantic, on broken yesterday and broken today

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The hijacking of the word "evangelical"

When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. ... In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. ...

Today, while the name is no longer unfamiliar in my city, its meaning has changed drastically. The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria. The great majority of them simply ask people, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” And those who answer ‘yes’ are counted. More than eighty per cent of such people voted for Donald Trump, and, last week, a similar percentage cast their ballots for Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate race. So, in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically. ...

“Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.” ...

Understanding the religious landscape, however, requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it “big-E Evangelicalism,” which gets much media attention, and a much larger, little-e evangelicalism, which does not. The larger, lower-case evangelicalism is defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs. ... Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete, according to Bebbington. They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it. In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation. And, again, unlike many in mainline Protestantism, evangelicals believe that Jesus truly did exist as the divine Son before he was born, that he actually was born of a virgin, and that he really was raised bodily from the dead.

Do the self-identified white “big-E Evangelicals” of the pollsters hold to these beliefs? Recent studies indicate that many do not. In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. ...

Yet there exists a far larger evangelicalism, both here and around the world, which is not politically aligned. In the U.S., there are millions of evangelicals spread throughout mainline Protestant congregations, as well as in more theologically conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. But, most significantly, the vast majority of the fast-growing Protestant churches in Asia, Latin America, and Africa all share these same beliefs. And in the U.S., while white Evangelicalism is aging and declining, evangelicalism over all is not. ...

Here in New York City, even within Manhattan, I have seen scores of churches begun over the last fifteen years that are fully evangelical by our definition, only a minority of which are white, and which are not aligned with any political party.

In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage. They look, to most eyes, like a strange mixture of liberal and conservative viewpoints, although they themselves see a strong inner consistency between these views. They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules. ...

The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name ["evangelical"], yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever. Some predict that younger evangelicals will not only reject the name but also become more secular. That is not what I have been seeing here in New York City. And studies by the Pew Research Center and others indicate that religious denominations that have become more friendly to secularism are shrinking precipitously, while the evangelical churches that resist dilution in their theological beliefs and practices are holding their own or growing. And if evangelicals—or whatever they will call themselves­—continue to become more multiethnic in leadership and confound the left-right political categories, they may continue to do so.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Chinese student puzzled by Western idealism

The doctrines that shape the worldviews and cultural assumptions at elite Western institutions like Cambridge, Stanford, and Goldman Sachs have become almost religious. Nevertheless, I hope that the perspective of a candid Chinese atheist can be of some instruction to them. ...

One [Stanford GSB] class was about strategy. It focused on how corporate mottos and logos could inspire employees. Many of the students had worked for nonprofits or health care or tech companies, all of which had mottos about changing the world, saving lives, saving the planet, etc. The professor seemed to like these mottos. I told him that at Goldman our motto was “be long-term greedy.” The professor couldn’t understand this motto or why it was inspiring. I explained to him that everyone else in the market was short-term greedy and, as a result, we took all their money. Since traders like money, this was inspiring. He asked if perhaps there was another motto or logo that my other classmates might connect with. I told him about the black swan I kept on my desk as a reminder that low probability events happen with high frequency. He didn’t like that motto either and decided to call on another student, who had worked at Pfizer. Their motto was “all people deserve to live healthy lives.” The professor thought this was much better. I didn’t understand how it would motivate employees, but this was exactly why I had come to Stanford: to learn the key lessons of interpersonal communication and leadership.

On the communication and leadership front, I came to the GSB knowing I was not good and hoped to get better. My favorite class was called “Interpersonal Dynamics” or, as students referred to it, “Touchy Feely.” In “Touchy Feely,” students get very candid feedback on how their words and actions affect others in a small group that meets several hours per week for a whole quarter.

We talked about microaggressions and feelings and empathy and listening. Sometimes in class the professor would say things to me like “Puzhong, when Mary said that, I could see you were really feeling something,” or “Puzhong, I could see in your eyes that Peter’s story affected you.” And I would tell them I didn’t feel anything. I was quite confused.

One of the papers we studied mentioned that subjects are often not conscious of their own feelings when fully immersed in a situation. But body indicators such as heart rate would show whether the person is experiencing strong emotions. I thought that I generally didn’t have a lot of emotions and decided that this might be a good way for me to discover my hidden emotions that the professor kept asking about.

So I bought a heart rate monitor and checked my resting heart rate. Right around 78. And when the professor said to me in class “Puzhong, I can see that story brought up some emotions in you,” I rolled up my sleeve and checked my heart rate. It was about 77. And so I said, “nope, no emotion.” The experiment seemed to confirm my prior belief: my heart rate hardly moved, even when I was criticized, though it did jump when I became excited or laughed.

This didn’t land well on some of my classmates. They felt I was not treating these matters with the seriousness that they deserved. The professor was very angry. My takeaway was that my interpersonal skills were so bad that I could easily offend people unintentionally, so I concluded that after graduation I should do something that involved as little human interaction as possible.

Therefore, I decided I needed to return to work in financial markets rather than attempting something else. I went to the career service office and told them that my primary goal after the MBA was to make money. I told them that $500,000 sounded like a good number. They were very confused, though, as they said their goal was to help me find my passion and my calling. I told them that my calling was to make money for my family. They were trying to be helpful, but in my case, their advice didn’t turn out to be very helpful.
--Puzhong Yao, American Affairs, on a man without ideals. HT: Marginal Revolution

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Ticketmaster and scalpers help artists

And then there are those much-unloved “service fees” that vendors like Ticketmaster add. In New York, they average 21 percent of the ticket price but, as we heard earlier, they can reach 100 percent of face value.
[Economist Eric] BUDISH: Something that’s not widely understood is that these service fees often — part of them goes back to the venue. ... So Ticketmaster takes all the P.R. hit for these egregious service fees. But actually a lot of that money spreads its way around the rest of the food chain. 
[Head of music at Ticketmaster North America David] MARCUS: It’s actually historically kind of part of Ticketmaster’s business model to take on the burden of that negative sentiment. ... We would say it in the hallways: the reason that we’re successful as we are is because we take those bullets on behalf of the venue, the artists, the promoter.
[Stephen] DUBNER: OK, so let’s back up a bit here — the real scalping is going on between who and whom? 
[Scalper Ken] LOWSON: Well, promoters and teams sell directly to brokers. You know, and then those brokers and list them on the marketplace. You know, for a team owner, it’s their ticket. And for a promoter, it’s their ticket, it’s not the artist’s ticket. I don’t know another industry that intentionally advertises one price to intentionally hold it, and resell it secretly.
DUBNER: Yeah, but what we’re told is that artists are typically not getting any of that additional markup. Are you saying that’s not the case, that they are getting some of that markup? 
LOWSON:Well, maybe it’s something like that. But their managers are hired to make them the most money. And in the end, you know, if you’re taking a guaranteed amount that’s higher than the revenue from the tickets. It’s like a pre-scalp. 
DUBNER:I just want to make sure I understand it. So it’s not that the artists are, per se, getting a cut — let’s say a ticket sells for $100 on the primary, gets marked up to $500 right? It’s not like the artist is getting any of that additional $400, it’s that the guarantee that their manager negotiates for them is based on a ticket sale price somewhere in between $100 and $500, is that what you’re saying? 
LOWSON: Well, they’re negotiating with, you know, a promoter which is for a flat amount per show. There’s 50 shows on the tour, “we want $50 million.”
--Freakonomics Radio on who's making really money on service fees and scalping