Saturday, October 27, 2007

God Unlimited

I love movies, but I've tried very hard not to have my posts here turn into a lot of "What Would Jesus Watch" type comments. However, I'm going to break that rule and suggest that Christians might want to catch Wes Anderson's new flick, The Darjeeling Limited. This is not at all a "Christian movie". (There is adult content and language if that is an issue for you). But the constant thought I had while watching this movie was to ponder what it means to be a Christian in a world in which, through all the struggles, it is possible for all of humanity to view the transcendence and universality of God, but in which the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus remains a singular event.

As for the movie itself, I give it about 4 out of 5 stars, and I believe that (together with Rushmore) it will eventually be my favorite Wes Anderson movie after Bottle Rocket. In fact, I strongly suggest anyone who has not done so watch Bottle Rocket before watching Darjeeling Limited. Maybe no one else sees them this way, but I think of them as the first and second parts of what I hope will become a trilogy. In Bottle Rocket, an astonishingly young Owen Wilson leads two of his friends (including real brother Luke Wilson) on an amazing journey. In Darjeeling Limited a suddenly almost middle-age Owen Wilson (appearing almost like a middle-age Dignan) leads his two cinematic brothers on an equally amazing journey. To close out the circle of threes, our brothers will interact with another trio of friends/brothers in a way that will change their lives.

And now for the fun part for Wes Anderson fans --- yes, a lot of it is there [Wes Anderson spoilers follow]: Tiny metal toys, Mr. Kumar, cutaway sets, Eric Anderson drawings, slow motion, sunglasses, memorable music, lists of things, and the fitting completion of the yellow jump suits/red warm-up suits trilogy. Most importantly, however, we need to remember that when Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were released, a lot of "comedy" in TV and the movies was dominated by cynicism, irony, and generally laughing at making people look like jerks. There was none of that in Wes Anderson. His characters fall in and out of love and back in again (Anthony and Inez; both Max and Herman with Rosemary, who's still in love with her late husband). They live on their dreams (Dignan and Max). When Dignan says to his friends, who are struggling to act normal watching him in prison, "We did it though, didn't we!", criminal that he is, he became one of my favorite characters in all of the movies.

Remember that Jesus was tried as a criminal and crucified, and that not any of his disciples standing around the cross could have understood, at that time, what he meant by "It is finished." The Gospel is the opposite of cynicism. That's why I like Wes Anderson movies.

Friday, October 26, 2007


It is well know that there is pretty good data showing that American Protestant Christians do not come close, on average, to tithing. (Furthermore, there is a general result that denominations whose members have higher incomes actually do worse). Doug and I have wondered if there was a measure of the unrealized potential for social compassion from this gap in giving. Anthony Bradley, at Resurgence, claims to have such a number: $143 billion dollars for all American Christians. Unfortunately, Mr. Bradley doesn't give a source, but the figure looks to me to be just over one percent of GDP. (His assertion that one percent of GDP is 25 billion appears to me to be just wrong ---I wonder if he means one percent of the federal budget).

Has anybody seen specific sources for a number like this? $143 billion seems entirely plausible to me.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Helping Africa

It is frustrating when a really good article doesn't have a free online link. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal described a bipartisan, conservative/liberal coalition working to change U.S. agricultural policy towards cotton. The article has the economic details, but let me just summarize a couple of them. The U.S. spends $3.3 billion per year in cotton subsidies. There is little doubt that domestically this represents a transfer from the middle class to the wealthy. Internationally, the program hurts African cotton farmers. Let's hope that this cross partisan effort in which the U.S. government actually has a chance to do something constructive to promote economic development among the world's poorest citizens succeeds.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thoughts on the Equality of Sin

Nearly two weeks ago my world was rocked. One hellfire and brimstone preacher set up in the free speech zone next to the student union and blasted students and passerby’s for their inequities. Crowds gathered around. Well meaning believers didn’t step foot in the ring for fear of becoming an accessory to the sentiments on display. Those not in the Christian camp had a much larger voice. One student masked as a devil screamed obscenities at the preacher for as long as I was there (the second time) and another person gave a sales pitch for medicinal marijuana. The third time I was there a big bang theorist stepped up to the plate renouncing the existence of God. It was a circus. Like I said, it killed me to watch that as the representation of Christianity.

Now that I have painted the picture; I will confess that I slipped on my words as I witnessed to the people left over in the union. Once the preacher was told to leave the free speech area for another one on Landis Green I started to talk with the big bang guy. More people joined in. Everything was going well, like leading a small bible study and then I slipped. Someone asked me to explain sin. “Easy enough,” I thought. Sin literally means “to miss the mark”. It is to fall short of the life we are called to by God by dishonoring Him or dishonoring each other. Failing to guard each other’s dignity and revere God. Whichever phrase you like. Then he asked me about his sin relative to other sin. The idea I’ve always heard is that sin is the same.

Then, I said something someone had said to me once without thinking about it. A while ago, this person told me that if God is above us and our sin looks like a histogram it’s hard to tell the difference. Our inequities are like micro-machines. I was quickly corrected by someone that said God is all around us. True, I should think before I speak. The curtain is torn and now God is alive in us. Luckily someone else asked a question and bailed me out of having to go deep with the relativity of sin. Then a week later I was waiting for new tires to be put on my car and the relativity of sin hit me. This is what I scribbled down:

Humans assign a relative value to sin, it’s in our nature. The operation of our justice system relies on these relative values. We’re up in arms (as a society) when someone gets out early on parole after committing rape versus stealing a purse. We fear our world has become less safe and we believe we are in danger. I wonder if the reason that God doesn’t seem to assign those relative values is not just because of His wisdom and character but because of the infinite nature of the game God is playing. I don’t mean to say that God is rolling the dice with our life . . .

Mark talked a bit about game theory and life, so I suppose it’s my turn now. Sometimes game theory is just not a good predictor of real life. This infinite game that I referred to in my scribblings is a good example. Economists posit that behavior changes in an infinite game. They cooperate more because they know it’s in their best interest for the future (which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re altruistic). The games however can’t be infinite because the players of the game have a finite number of years on Earth. Then some argue that people could continue to play the game in their afterlife. Mark and I both agree this is a bunch of junk. When I die I don’t think economics is going to play much of a role in my heavenly existence. I won’t be a gamer.

God as a player in the infinite game however seems much more appropriate because He has been, is, and always will be. The reason this would matter is because God ultimately sees things in the long run view and works for the benefit of His creation. To see this we need only look as far as the servant hood of Jesus. Something Jesus also did very well is challenge people. One line in particular sticks out to me:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. -Luke 12:4-5

We're to play like it's an infinite game even though it's finite.

I could get into the justice system and the relative values that we place on some crimes (sin) over others and how we view this as correct because of the finite life we are living but I have to do my homework. Last thing, yesterday, Mark told me something awesome about the relativity. We can't assign the values because the consequences of our own selfishness, for instance, aren't as obvious as the consequences of theft or murder.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Beautiful Mind of Raymond Chandler

Forgive me for coherence problems with this post. It’s basically an unstructured response to one of my guilty TV pleasures, NUMB3RS. It’s a love/hate relationship for me when the brilliant mathematician Charlie Eppes tries to explain some branch of economics. In addition to being an economist, I received my doctorate from Caltech (CalSci in the show). While at Caltech, I first developed an appreciation for the two of the twin subthemes of this episode: game theory and the noir Los Angeles novels of Raymond Chandler.

In my experimental economics class (something else that is a legacy to me from Caltech, specifically from Charles Plott) I have fun demonstrating some cases where game theory does a pretty good job of predicting human behavior. Specifically, game theory predictions are pretty awesome in things like auctions. On the other hand, a lot of research of the past couples of decades has demonstrated areas of human interaction where game theory doesn’t do a great job, usually areas outside of markets. I remember fighting over who did the dishes when I was an undergraduate with three other roommates, but if all of us always acted like gamers, everything would have fallen apart. That seems to be an overarching conclusion of this research. We behave enough like game theory to make a perfect world unobtainable, but enough differently that we’re not in the world of the war of all against all.

I thought a lot about that in tonight’s episode. Charlie was working on a mathematical model of friendship. But when he was explaining the role of game theory, he used examples of lions and jackels in a survival battle. I have no doubt that part of our brain remains capable of those types of animalistic instincts. But isn’t being human in a world after the fall supposed to be about rising above that?

I realize that there is a certain fun in mapping game theoretic principles into certain Biblical, usually Old Testament stories (check out the work of Steven Brams). But, unless you adopt modeling conventions that cause game theory to explain everything, as opposed to nothing, how do you explain: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ? Or how about “No greater love has a man but that he lays down his life for his friends” ? Or how about when laying down your life is not just a statement but an actual sacrifice by a sinless man? Or how about the early Christians who risked everything to follow the new Way? As you readers could tell from our previous posts, Doug and I are working on a project regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. I think part of our challenge is: how do we distinguish when standard economic tools such as game theory are useful and when do we say that they are complete junk (this is a family friendly blog). And the boundary between the two may be very important,.

And now for some more personal, less religious, thoughts. In the end of the episode, Charlie Eppes claims to have gone beyond his formal models to find transcendence in friendship. We see that he is reading Romeo and Juliet….and about love. At what point did economists drive love out of the world?

And this is where the second theme of this episode --- the references to Raymond Chandler ---- comes into my post. The script tagged Chandler as the novelist of murderers and blackmailers --- the jackels Charlie Eppes is modeling using game theory. There certainly are countless writers who can explain love better than Raymond Chandler. Usually, Philip Marlowe is all about duty, honor and courage, almost never about love. And there is indeed a lot of murder and blackmail. But in one glorious book, one of the greatest American novels, The Long Goodbye, Chandler creates a drama built around friendship. In this novel Marlowe finds, experiences, and then loses the friendship of Terry Lennox, who seems to be one of the few friends that we see in his life. Chandler novels were never made into “buddy cop” movies for Hot Fuzz to parody.

If Charlie Eppes ever wanted to see the transcendence of friendship, he only needs to abandon his formal models to read The Long Goodbye by the very same Raymond Chandler that his father associated with blackmail and murder.

[Beyond Here Be Spoilers]

If you’ve ever not had a friend, or have lost a friend, I dare you to read the last paragraphs of The Long Goodbye and not have it rip your insides out:

He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, and then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.

There is no game theory for this.

*Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, (New York: Ballantine Books, Seventh Printing 1978, originally published 1953).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

You Are Too Intelligent to Believe in God

I hope I got your attention. For those who don't recognize it, my title today is purportedly the infamous quote from Ayn Rand to a young William F. Buckley, Jr.. The purpose is that the Wall Street Journal today ran an article entitled "Capitalist Heroes" by David Kelley (no free link available) which contains a proposition a) with which I agree completely, and b) made my heart heavy all the way in to work. The proposition is that many people read Atlas Shrugged as simply a rip-roaring condemnation of socialism, when in fact the heart and soul (pardon the pun) of Rand's work is her philosophical system of selfishness, her idealization of living for one's self, and, although Kelley didn't use the term, I presume her atheism.

I am one of the people that Kelley must think of as a lost cause. I appreciated reading Rand's works about her childhood and her theories of education. I loved the depiction of the collectivist toadies in The Fountainhead. I am probably one of the few people who actually likes the "so awful its good" movie version in which Gary Cooper, of all people, explains on screen why he destroyed the housing complex because the decor was changed without his permission. But the clarity with which Kelley identified this fun stuff with Rand's moral system just got to me. Ayn Rand is the antithesis of what Doug and I are trying to do with this blog, which is to "combine biblical scholarship and deft economics to enable the faithful to be 'as wise as serpents'". If you have to be Peter Keating to be a Christian, or if you have to be John Galt to study markets, I want off this train.

I was turning over in my head bringing this up with Doug while I was walking into the building. But I didn't get the chance immediately because as soon as I arrived Doug asked "Did you see the e-mail I sent you last night?" I asked Doug if he minded me reprinting it, and here's what he sent me late the night before:

"The Kingdom of God is like …a market economy? How does a country grow? The Kingdom of God expands like a country would but God's economy doesn't trust in the dollar but the currency of spiritual fruits. What are the spiritual fruits? Love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self control.

Okay, so here goes.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Luke 10:2

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:3-7

There is a purpose to the sequencing of these attributes. They move from monastic believers to distributors of these spiritual fruits. God calls us ultimately to love finally. Love is the greatest of all spiritual fruits and demands selflessness.

We are to be distributors of these gifts. Would anyone trade an item identical to the one they will get in return? No. Likewise we must live out our faith so we have the unique and uncompromised message of Christ. Nothing else will grow God's Kingdom better. We must give them something they will value: the fruits. Like the man that sold everything to buy the precious pearls. We need workers in the field. We need distributors. We need Christianity to be lived out.

Our House is built on nothing less than Jesus' love and righteousness."

I have never studied The Master enough to know what she thought about coincidences, but my guess is she was a complete materialist. I've long since left this behind. Are you too intelligent to think that God can intervene in small scale human interactions such as we call coincidences? If so, I think it is your God that is to small. Are you too intelligent to believe in God? I know that Doug is wise far beyond anything I ever saw in the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Very Bad Things

I think I've been avoiding making a new post because this was the topic I set out and it's so depressing.

In a world in which we hear of so many problem situations in Africa (Darfur, the kidnapping of the Invisible Children, AIDs, etc.) the situation in Zimbawe almost gets overlooked. A recent report by Tren, Ncube, Urbach, and Bate from Africa Fighting Malaria is stunning. (BTW, Ncube is the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The following are their opening sentences:

Zimbabwe's healthcare system has collapsed. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world. Dead bodies accumulate in hospital mortuaries or are buried hastily and surreptitiously in rural areas by poverty stricken families. The most recent estimates suggest that between 3,000 and 3,500 die every week from HIV-related diseases, although some believe the numbers are significantly higher.

I could quote more, but I don't know where to begin: are you more shocked that real per-capita GDP was lower in 2004 than it was in 1980, or that unemployment may be something like 80 percent, or that in a politically motivated campaign targeting the houses of the urban poor and even orphanages, bulldozing has left an estimated 700,000 people homeless? This article makes only passing reference to the well known violent land redistribution policies that tanked Zimbabwe's food productivity.

The point is we know what is causing all of this. It is a wretched government that has shredded the concept of private property and government support for stable markets. In my principles of economics class I read from a well known "conservative" economist and a well known "liberal" economist on the keys to economic development. I point out that the lists are relatively the same, we just see different levels of emphasis. Either list would see that the situation in Zimbabwe is a field experiment in how to destroy a nation's economy.

The question is, beyond prayer for the people of Zimbabwe, what can we do? The authors suggest ratcheting up international sanctions against the leadership. They also believe that the key to change in Zimbabwe lies in in South Africa, whose leadership on this issue has been disappointing to say the least. The authors suggest that South Africa be pressured to engage the problem of Mugabe, going so far as to suggest that the World Cup be removed from South Africa in 2010 if they don't. I think that using sports events to pressure for political change can be carried too far, but I agree that millions of Christians around the world worked for and celebrated the regime changes in South Africa. It's time for the current South African leaders to show similar courage and leadership for their own neighbors.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Take the Sword, Leave the Cannoli

This post is a request for knowledge and wisdom from the readers. I had the unusual experience of reading a passage in Luke that I don't remember ever reading before. I don't think that I've ever heard a sermon on this passage. In fact, this passage seems contradictory to another story that Christians are fond of quoting. The verses in question are Luke 22: 35-38. The following is from the English Standard Version:

And he said to them, "When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said "Nothing." He said to them, "But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'. For what was written about me has its fulfillment". And they said, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." And he said to them, "It is enough."

I believe that Jesus had perfect knowledge about the events leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. I believe that he knew that his disciples would travel much beyond the safe bubble of their local communities, and do so with Jesus "numbered with the transgressors." After all, I have always heard that Thomas traveled to India and perhaps even farther. It seems logical that times would be tougher for the disciples under these circumstances.

However, if you follow this argument to one conclusion, it suggests that the "take no money, take no knapsack" part of the Gospel that IS so popular for Christians to quote is restricted by its confinement to the relatively safe time and place of Jesus rural ministry. But, if outside this box Jesus tells you Take the Money, Take the Knapsack, Take the Sword, then does this imply that other parts of the "Kingdom" preaching are also so limited? Does this imply a distinctly different Christian behavior within a Christian community as compared to interacting with a more dangerous world?

Your thoughts are definitely welcome.