Monday, April 30, 2007

Part 1: Birds and the Bees

I walked into Borders at 4:00 yesterday afternoon with a stack of 60 final exams to grade. One question about my “Jesus Doesn’t Hate You” t-shirt later it was nearly six o’clock and Mark was coming by to pick me up for dinner ( But the mediary conversation was wonderful, answering questions about the t-shirt, the ministry and the Lord’s sunny disposition and kindness.

Half an hour into initial greetings and talk about an upcoming concert they mentioned the development of a Tallahassee plot of land. Apparently some developers scraped over some beautiful rolling hills and plucked a few pines from the earth for a new apartment complex. Then, one of the men said, “We pave paradise to put up a parking lot,” (a reference to an old Joni Mitchell song titled “Big Yellow Taxi”) and that initiated a conversation about what it means to be a good steward. In our book Wise as Serpents Mark and I make reference to the same Joni Mitchell song,

DDT and the spread of malaria
The World Health Organization estimates that over 1 million people die from malaria every year. Most of these deaths occur in Africa among children under the age of 5. What we know is that there exists a relatively safe chemical that is highly effective in malaria control. That chemical is DDT, and it disappeared from the world over several years in the 1970s due to environmental concerns, primarily related to raptor birds.
Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
------------Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Only in the past few years has a principled debate begun over whether the initial environmental concerns were correct or overstated, whether other anti-mosquito strategies such as netting will or will not be equally effective, and whether there might be some compromise level of use that will balance environmental concerns with the potential reduction in deaths. This is the direction taken by the World Health Organization which has approved limited DDT spraying for indoor use.
The point of this example is not to settle the question of DDT control and malaria, although there is no doubt that the opportunity cost is not simply birds and bees but human lives. Rather we wish to point out that as missional Christians become more involved and more intensely involved in local and international humanitarian activities the stakes involved grow beyond those that might be encountered in the familiar one week congregational youth group mission trip. Missional Christians may find themselves sitting at a table with the representatives of the local health
organization, the head of the agricultural producers export committee, the local
representative of a environmental organization, all saying a different version
of “OK, here it is, your choice, it’s them or us”
After making the point that human lives were in jeopardy because we refused to use DDT, this man offered that he was a “Green Christian” and said that we should care as much about all of God’s creation including the squirrels, birds, and trees. The next station of our conversation regarded balance. Where do you draw the line of wanting to preserve nature but letting humans fall by the wayside and alternatively where humans are helped to the detriment of everything around them? He talked about Wendell Berry ( and living simple so that others may simply live.
Wendell Berry believes in rural living and is an advocate of local economy. I'm not wise to all of Berry's literature so I don't know if that means living like the Amish and spinning our own threads but it did sound a lot like he was against the global economy. I'll put him on my reading list and try not to be too biased while reading but the true measure of the question will be opportunity cost: What does God give up by us living this way? What does God gain by us living this way? (Look for Part 2 soon Technology: A Blessing or a Curse?) In other words, how does this represent that part of the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". I'm sure I'll have to mention St. Francis at some point.
I want to close with a few thoughts about one of the things we talked about most in that two hour conversation: global warming. These are just a few notes and by no means comprehensive,
1. Fear tactics are used on all sides Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, and businessmen.
2. Every meteorologist I've ever met has told me that the evidence for global warming is not substantial.
3. Either way you slice the cake about global warming most people tend to agree that we need to be good stewards of the environment. Does this mean that we should all take Navy style showers?
There is a lot more here to really dig into. In some later posts we will also be writing about the nature conservancy, reduced sulfate production, and pollution permits, among other things but I believe this is a good conversation starter.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Displace Me! (Follow Up)

I'd like to add a personal note to Doug's blog on Invisible Children. Doug and I watched the video at the FSU Wesley Foundation. The situation of these children is just gut-wrenching. I think it is particularly so if you are a parent and can in any way imagine your own children being forced to live like this.

The representative of Invisible Children gave a complete presentation of the organization's goals, with a follow-up video. The organization has aid-based programs, but the Displace Me! event is promoted more as a motivating event to the U.S. government to "do something" about the problem. What really impressed me about the students in the audience is that they asked several very realistic, logical, and important questions about this latter goal: What can our government do? If the kidnappers are controlled by a madman, how do you negotiate with someone like that? and so forth. Doug had been telling me that there was an audience at FSU for a course on economics and compassion, and it was in listening to the students at the Wesley Foundation that I became convinced that he was correct. I'm hoping this course will run in Spring 2008.

If you have never seen the Invisible Children video, look for a showing in your area.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Displace Me!

On April 28, 2007 Invisible Children, a non profit organization that focuses on the atrocities in Uganda is holding an event dubbed, "Displace Me!". (For Florida residents the event will be held this Saturday at the University of Central Florida) If you don't know about the trouble happening in Uganda that is probably because it hasn't received as much "pub" as Darfur or other crisis regions. This is a brief run down:

Children are being abducted and forced into a militant militia for the LRA (The Lord's Resistance Army), the idea behind it being that they can brainwash these children and turn them into killing machines. Meanwhile they trust that others still have the conscience not to kill them because they are children, despite their training in warfare. It is a very big problem. So rather than stay in their home villages children are displaced into safe zones where they can be protected. They often sleep in bus stations and areas where they are placed side by side with no room. Note that these children are not in a mass grave, they are simply sleeping in the aforementioned conditions.

It seems the primary focus of starting Invisible Children was to inform people about an unpublicized tragedy in Uganda. Mission accomplished. In their first campaign, called "Global Night Commute" Invisible Children engaged 80,000 participants (April 28, 2006) to walk through city streets and sleep out in the road. The Baylor Lariat posted the predicted numbers for participants at "more than 40,000". Many people did not anticipate such success.

The Displace Me! campaign expects to attract even more people than its predecessors as the word spreads about the Ugandan conflict between those involved with the LRA and those part of the current government and the children and adults that suffer as bystanders. The aim of the campaign and the program are as follows,
"To experience this event at its full potential, you will be asked to give up your food and water upon entry. Both will be redistributed later in the evening. Displace Me's simulation aspects, such as the redistribution of food, exist to enhance the overall event experience, as well as your understanding of what life is like for those living in the IDP camps. We encourage you not to bring other food or drink besides the saltine crackers and water bottles if possible.
During the evening you will hear the testimonials of some of those living in the camps, as well as other speakers chosen specifically for their personal connection to Northern Uganda. You will be asked to write letters to your senators and policy makers to encourage American involvement in ending the war and sending the people in the camps home.
The intent of the night is to encourage genuine compassion in the hearts of the participants towards the 1.5 million displaced and to positively impact US foreign policy in relation to Northern Uganda's peace process." (Quotation from Official Displace Me! event page)

Previously, I mentioned that the primary objective of Invisible Children was to inform people around the world about a little known monstrosity in Uganda. At the very end of their explanation of the Displace Me! event they mention that they want to "positively impact US foreign policy in relation to Northern Uganda's peace process." For a better picture of the Ugandan conflict and a bit of its history click on the link to a Yale Herald article titled, 'Invisible children' go unseen in global politics. It's an interview with Yale political science professor and law school lecturer, David Simon.

So now that we're informed what do we do? How exactly do we help the peace process? (I think the reason that this question plagues so many people is because deep down we know that it is worse to be informed and do nothing than it is to be completely ignorant to a problem.) Do we write letters? Donate money? What kind of push can we make to aid the cause? In some later articles we will be discussing the non profit aspects of Invisible Children Inc. as well as some of the marketing and success of the organization. Apart from our blog, if you're interested in what's going on you may be able to attend Displace Me! or see the Invisible Children video podcasts. We also watched a tremendous documentary at the Wesley Foundation a couple of months ago that Geldof did for the BBC about night commuters in Africa. It's very well done. The more I know the more I realize how absolutely wretched it is to stand by. So as much as I'm reporting, I'm also going to do a little searching about what exactly I can do. This is important. If you have any comments about what you are currently doing or about what might be done leave a note.

One Billion Bulbs

I am happy to present for discussion OneBillionBulbs, a website dedicated to convincing people to switch from ordinary incandescent lights to compact fluorescent lights (thanks to Instapundit). The good news and the bad news is that the program and the site operate on two levels: one to appeal to consumers desiring to save money on their electric bills, a second with the annoying “green” color motif hoping that we will all act to go “green” to “help the environment.”

My wife has been promoting our changing over to CFLs, so I decided to see what the numbers and the environmental effects like look. On an inside page (the link is called “Learn About”) the OneBillionBulbs authors provide a capital cost versus operating cost computation. The calculations showing significant savings from CFLs look reasonable, with three cautions.

First, the authors do not use any discounting of future costs and benefits. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow – that is a fundamental observation of economics. I re-ran the site’s numbers using a .96 discount factor and a reasonable assumption that an incandescent bulb lasts one year, and the CFLs easily pass the test even using the discounting. I bring up the issue of discounting mainly because many current “environmental” causes want to advertise themselves as being cost-efficient while ignoring discounting. For example, if you have to pay a several thousand dollar premium today for a fuel-efficient automobile, discounting future fuel cost savings may make a non-trivial difference in its cost effectiveness.

Secondly, while the numbers look reasonable, no mention is made of the sensitivity of the assumptions. A closet light that is very seldom on is going to be a less likely candidate for conversion than one that is burning constantly.

Finally, the website does not figure in value of time. Why is this relevant? It’s relevant because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury and in many locations in the country it is illegal to throw them out with the regular trash. The CFLs must be transported to an appropriate disposal site, which in our town is quite a drive (and a lot of fossil fuel) away. On the other hand, if it is time consuming for someone to change a particular bulb, the time factor may favor CFLs.

The “mercury” issue is symptomatic of why it can be misleading to use single-issue arguments (CFLS, hybrids, organic foods, “carbon neutral”, “no nukes”) to promote the “be green and help the environment” mantra. If the sponsors of OneBillionBulbs want to argue that electric efficiency naturally translates into a reduction of fossil fuel usage in electric power generation, that’s fine. But to answer the question as to whether CFLs actually “help the environment”, let’s look at a “dust to dust” analysis of the raw materials, production, transportation, usage, and disposal effects on the environment with each of the two systems. And, let’s be sure to include health effects, because humans are a part of the environment.

Also, so much in these “go green” campaigns, even from within our churches, seems so self-congratulatory. South Park called it “smug” pollution. I think Jesus would say that if you are “going green” to impress your neighbors or for a sense of self-satisfaction, you already have your reward.

By the way, I think my wife is correct in switching several of our bulbs to CFLs, although I’m not anxious to drive halfway across the county to throw the darn things away.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Econ Humor

The basic concepts of economics seem so simple and intuitive, and yet the "Stand Up Economist" mangles them in a hilarious fashion. See him at

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech

It is only in the past hour or so that I heard about the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech. Details are still very sketchy, and so I have no specific information on my Virginia Tech friends. I am sure that I am joining countless others in praying for the entire Virginia Tech community.

Organ donors

Economists seem to enjoy tweeking conventional wisdom of certain subjects. I personally am happy to talk about the downside of “anti-price-gouging” laws following natural disasters and the inherent imbalance in regulations against insider trading. I will also, just to be cantankerous, argue that there were unrecognized public health benefits to Prohibition. However, even the most libertarian minded economists shy away from market solutions to some topics. One of those is the issue of organ transplants.

Nevertheless, regardless of how morally repulsive open markets for transplantable organs seem to me, we as a society stare at a massive imbalance between the demand and supply for healthy organs, which is a classic economic problem of scarcity. The scarcity is so great that direct “compensation schemes” to donors (few dare call them markets) are being actively debated (see the article by Wellington and Whitmire in the most recent Contemporary Economic Problems).

But I don’t want to get into the organ markets debate here (so please, no comments on organ markets). Instead, I would like to highlight two programs that can address some of the gains from alleviating that scarcity without being markets in the traditional sense. One of these was developed with the explicit and active participation of some excellent economists. The other is an illustration of new forms of community springing from the internet. While I believe that each of these institutions ought to pass most Christians moral evaluation, the biggest contributions that Christians can make is to make sure that their organs are available for transplant.

The first program is the New England Program for Kidney Exchange. Kidney exchange addresses situations in which a kidney patient has a willing live donor, but they are not appropriate biological matches. The kidney exchange program uses algorithms to search for another donor/recipient pair with the opposite incompatibility. The NEPKE operates within the favor of the medical community, and their webpage can be viewed here. An interesting feature is the intensive role that economists at Harvard University have played in developing the exchange processes. Scroll down Al Roth’s webpage to find an extensive discussion of how economics played a major role in this project.

Another program has been more controversial. Sally Satel, a national columnist, has herself been through major kidney disease, and has publicized the efforts of a grass root community called (one of her articles in National Review is here). An interesting difference is that matching donors has elicited objections from within the medical community.

I find it hard to see how a Christian could have problems either with NEPKE or with . In fact, the medical professionals’ objections to trouble me a lot. In our book, Doug and I talk about how one of the results of modernity has been to migrate acts of compassion from face to face relationships to more centralized institutions such as the government, insurance companies, and large organizations. We argue that this makes face to face compassion in all areas less culturally plausible. This would certainly seem to be a perfect example. If person X voluntarily, as an act of great compassion, agrees to donate a kidney to person Y, Sally Satel offers a list of arguments as to why that gift is moral and fair. I would go further and say that would seem to me to be an ultimate gift of love that our society should be encouraging. If a particular surgeon is offended, then refusing to participate in the surgery is his private prerogative.

I should also point out that I have seen, without having saved the links, churches using their web pages to seek organ donors for members of their congregation.

To some extent, I can see the side of the story objecting to these communities. If we, as Christians, are willing to donate a kidney to an unknown person on a webpage, why shouldn’t we be willing to donate it to the anonymous person highest on the established kidney donor list? That’s an important question that I’d like to see some comments on from readers. But, if Satel’s account is correct and there have been attempts to actively dissuade others from cooperating with the community lists, then this is a perfect example of the “Big Government/ Big Institutions Know Best” attitude about compassion that is typical of modernity. And it is another example in which the decentralization and dissemination of information on the internet is a threat to monolithic modern institutions.

This is a springboard to another discussion, which is the following: if a cultural neophyte came to American, could he determine whether universities or hospitals or retirement homes with the words Presbyterian or Methodist or Saint or Luther, etc. in the names could be in any way distinguished from their fully government-funded counterparts? I hope to explore this question, especially with regards to universities, in a future post. In the meantime, I just double checked to make sure that I am listed as an organ donor on my driver’s license.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Game Theory and Justice

We've gotten a couple of comments on the tipping question. So here's a bit of elaboration. Game theory is simply a mathematical process of organizing situations of conflict and cooperation. Technically, game theory allows any preferences, but as a practical matter it has historically assumed that the game players (coaches, admirals, or consumers) were selfish. What game theory is very good at is tracking equilibrium notions of interacting incentives. Thus, in a standard game theory model, someone leaves a tip to insure better service from the same server in the future, or to improve his business prospects by impressing other diners, and so forth. The assumptions of the original example in "Who had the Roast Beef?" set up a paradox in which it seemed that there was no game-theoretic reason to leave a tip.

Recently, some game theorists have become interested in dropping the assumption of selfishness. This research has focused on altruism (roughly, I enjoy making other people better off) and preferences for equality of outcomes. For a number of complicated reasons, I am not a fan of these models. Instead, not surprisingly, I believe that the better concept is one of "doing the right thing" or biblically, "justice." Hence I asked the second question, "Why wouldn't you leave a tip?"

Once we recognize that the de facto American standard is that diners are paying part of a server's wages, then not to leave a tip is to deny a worker his wages, something explicitly prohibited throughout the Old Testament. To see my point, consider all of the people with whom we interact, many of whom earn less than the server, but for whom we do not leave a tip. The difference cannot be explained by altruism or equality. It may not make sense that we live in a social equilibrium in which the expectation is that customers pay part of a server's wages, but that expectation does not hold for servers in a party of 8 or more with a fixed gratuity, or for checkers at Best Buy, or for diners at restaurants in Europe. But it seems to me to be there.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Who had the roast beef?

Interesting lunchtime conversation and subsequent musings: This question can be addressed from two very different perspectives.

“If you were absolutely by yourself, in a town you had never been in, and would never be in again, would you leave the server a tip?”

When asked in one way, the question is one of game theory, and points to a response of “why would we leave a tip?” When asked in another, it is about giving somebody what they deserve (which has an extensive biblical foundation) and points to a response of “why wouldn’t we leave a tip?” Do we behave like game theorists in part of our lives but not in others? When do we give people more than they deserve?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Couch Surf Replies

Earlier in an article titled, "Be Hospitable" I said that I was waiting for an email from CouchSurf Representatives and when I did receive a reply I would post it on the blog. They did reply back in which they attached my questions within the email. Here I have copy and pasted the email:

Hello Doug,

thank you very much for your inquiry!!

We´d like to invite to become a member of to know how it works and gather the information you want.

please do not hesitate to contact us again if there any other question occurs!

happy travel


I'm an economics major at Florida State University and was looking at your risk reduction strategy and trust metrics and have a couple questions.

1. Have you run a regression analysis on the traits involved in past failures between host and guests? I know they aren't frequent but when they do occur do you record that information for future use?

2. With the voucher trust metric where someone vouches for you is there any penalty involved for the voucher if the "vouchee" breeches some universal behavioral norm such as theft?

I'm really trying to understand where you are coming from and how far you have advanced in this, streamlining the trust metric by making it effective and more consolidated. (Like a QB rating in football?)

Any information you could provide would be fantastic. I love what you are doing at couchsurf and am considering joining.

Doug Norton

So that was the extent of the feedback for that particular email I received earlier in the week, however, there was a much more exciting development in a comment that was made on "Would Adam Smith Surf" by a CouchSurf Representative. It's an interesting comment, however, much like the email I received, Mr. Edelman didn't answer either of the questions posited in my article and doesn't mention the problems surrounding ordinal rankings and the use of scalar rankings in econometrics. I really like the idea of CouchSurf. When a friend told me about it over a month ago I went to the website to see what it was all about. As mentioned in the email that is copied onto the blog I am interested in joining, I just want to know the economic rationale.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ecclesiastes Junior University

Why do we work? – Answer-

Why do we need money? –Answer-

Why do we need food, shelter, and health? –Answer-

Why do we need to survive? –Answer-

Why do we believe we have a purpose? –Answer-

This is called the “Why Game”. No, it is not a technical economic term so I guess you can call it whatever you like. You may even feel led to call it crap, but I believe it zeroes in on the same conclusion as the author of Ecclesiastes.

For the bulk of the book of Ecclesiastes the author asks the question “why?” and it often develops the feel of an IB TOK (Theory of Knowledge) course; somebody gets fed up with the philosophical argument of the day and sounds off, “It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re all food for worms.” But the weird part about this sentiment is that it can be found in The Bible. Astounding! The word “meaningless” appears 36 times in a search on Bible Gateway, all but one of those included is from Ecclesiastes (the other one is from Job). At the very end, the author springs a trap on us, “Ah-hah”, and his point comes swooping to the fore:

“. . . Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:13

This is to say, the whole duty of man is to love God and to love his neighbor. In that duty we can find meaning. So as Mark points out in “Ecclesiastes U.” our happiness (as viewed by the author of Ecclesiastes) and our demonstrating love to others has little to do with whether we attend the Ivy League or (what some Ivy Leaguers view as) the Inconsequential League. Instead, we find meaning in doing God’s work. There are dueling econometricians on this subject of elite colleges but an indicator often overlooked as being beneficial is close contact. If a student seeks out a faculty member to nurture their talents this is a better indicator of success than them going to a school of any price tag. In later articles we will tackle specifics of education, but the following will be broad strokes, an overview of how we can serve our fellow man.

Education is probably the greatest vehicle for social mobility available today in America and one of the most overlooked areas of compassion. There is no shortage of written material about the failures of education and how we ought to change our institutions, but very little has been written about this incredible benefit of close contact, and I don’t mean reduced class sizes. So, issues of teacher certification, salary, public v. private school, school choice, vouchers, discipline, principal involvement, diversity, funding and all the surrounding issues are not on tap in this article. What I’m more curious about is apprenticeship and mentoring.

A friend of mine cringes when they hear John Mayer’s new song, Waiting on the World to Change. She’s right, let’s not wait on the world to change. Let’s volunteer and be a mentor of some kind. Let’s hope that Teach for America and other educational ideas can have some positive impact but let’s realize too that we can, right now, with minimal red tape, go out and make someone’s educational experience more positively significant. It is good to want to change the education system, maybe someday I’ll be in a position to really make some changes, but instead of simply waiting for the world to change I will be buying a car soon and signing up for Big Brother, Big Sister. Couch Surfing would dub this Adventure Economics because I have no idea where this sign up will lead me to, but I know it will be good.

Missal Gap

On the editorial page of Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal (no link available) Google executive Sheryl Sandberg discusses what she calls “The Charity Gap,” the difference between what Americans donate to non-profit organizations and how much of that actually ends up benefiting the disadvantaged. This goes beyond simply the issue of administrative costs. It is more foundational: non-profit is not synonymous with helping the traditional list of the poor, widows, orphans, and sojourners. I don’t want to get into a broad based debate about whether this is good or bad. I just want to note the distinction: my children are out of the K-12 system, but I can selflessly and generously donate money to a school foundation or other youth organization that helps middle class kids do all kinds of neat things. I don’t think that this is wrong, but it is what it is.

What I want to put out for discussion is that the data discussed by Ms. Sandberg suggest that “less than 20 cents of every dollar given to religious organizations funds programs for the economically disadvantaged.” I can look at this in two ways. On the one hand, running a church, for example, involves a lot of fixed costs: without the building, the heating, the tables, the Associate Pastor, the janitorial services, the kitchen, and so forth, there could be no possibility of the program for serving hot meals to the homeless. Furthermore, churches do have calls other than charitable activity. It’s clear to me that corporate worship, for example, is a central requirement of Christian life, and providing a place for that worship is one demand on church resources.

On the other hand, it is possible that North American churches, regardless of theological sensibility, have grown too inward looking, whether it is a “liberal” mainline church involved in an “pipe organ race” with the church across the street, or a “conservative” evangelical church that is building more and more space for things like “Christian aerobics” that largely serve their existing membership.

So I’ll leave it at this. If you were on a church board and you found that 20 percent of your church budget was going to demonstrably variable costs of programs for the disadvantaged, would you think that this was a good thing or a “Charity Gap”?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Would Adam Smith Surf?

Doug has raised some important questions about the stability of trust institutions in the context of the hospitality of couchsurfing (see his posts below). The obvious issues there are those of the safety and comfort of both the hosts and the guests. As I thought over some of the issues Doug was raising about how couchsurfing could design an ideal trust metric, I realized, as Doug said, that no system is foolproof to committed sociopaths. But this is not unique to couchsurfing. The marketplace is an example of both self interest and trust. A lot of people think of Adam Smith as the person who promoted the idea that everyone in a market is greedy. In fact, his most famous quote simply states that we do not require altruistic behavior from other people in order to benefit from the market.

We all understand this. We go into the car dealer showroom knowing that the dealer is out to make a buck, and is unlikely to throw much our way out of the goodness of his heart. Yet, we know that we have the possibility of getting a deal that makes us better off. But the market is also a trust institution in the sense that we revisit dealers whom we trust will not pull a bait-and-switch trick on us (a bait-and-switch tactic is where a seller advertises an item at a very attractive price, only to have the sales people find out that the item is out of stock and steer customers to a more expensive product). Large impersonal retail corporations require a significant amount of identification to pay by check; our local barber may accept one from us on face value. Adam Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (perhaps made even more familiar today by P.J. O’Rourke’s book on Adam Smith) addresses the innate values of duty and compassion in human beings, the same human beings who address the market in a coldly maximizing way. However, in yet a third loop in the puzzle, we recognize that trust in the market is backed up by the coercive force of government in the form of weights and measures regulations, common law, civil law, and criminal law. Even with all of this, people do write hot checks and businesses do pull bait and switch schemes, yet with such low frequency that the marketplace survives.

It is not automatic that institutions have to survive strategic behavior. How many office coffee or water clubs have been disbanded because people drink but don’t pay? The early apostles had to revamp their original charitable institutions because of numerous complaints. A fantastic example of a new institution that appears to have conquered enough of the problems of trust to survive is eBay. That’s really the model for what couchsurfing has to do.

So where is Jesus in all of this? As wandering preachers, it is probable that Jesus and his disciples did a lot of couchsurfing. Interestingly, in sending out the disciples Jesus instructed them to find a house of “worthy” people (Matthew 10). Was there some local trust metric already at work? Looking beyond the first century context of Jesus and his disciples, what do we expect that Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God would look like in these contexts for today? That is a very complicated question, for some later post. In the meantime, I look forward to finding out what Doug hears from his inquiries.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Ecclesiastes U.

Russ, one of our graduate students, forwarded to me a link to a New York Times article on one of my favorite subjects: the pressure on middle class students to go to an appropriately elite private college. For full disclosure, among me and my close family I have plenty of connections to both public and private universities. I appreciate the strengths of each. I do believe that from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the case for having to go to an elite university for a good education is vastly overstated relative to the costs (you can find dueling econometricians who will argue exactly what the effects are on lifetime consumption). What I wanted to emphasize here is the pressure that these highschoolers feel. Is this coming from parents, teachers, or peers? What does this say about our economic values? Has this become a "designer brand" issue? And, in a question I will repeat frequently is this blog, is there any evidence that Christian parents look any different than the general population in this regard?

Having said this, I don't buy into attempts to pigeonhole specific checklists of Christian behavior. I don't think Jesus would either. Doug and I have kicked around the following question: Suppose somebody just outright gave us a classic Jaguar... should we keep it, or should we sell it and give the money to the poor. My reading of both the Wisdom literature and Jesus teaching is that there is no yes or no answer to that question, or to the question as to whether Christians as such should promote a less tournament-based approach to college choice. However simple we claim our lifestyle to be, we run the risk of self promotion, and Jesus would tell us that what we have done for ourselves is not enough, there is always more. However, I hope that Christian parents advising their kids would contemplate the "why" the arguments they are making. The evidence that an elite college substantially affects your lifetime income continues to be debated. The evidence that it makes you a better or more joyful person is non-existent.