Friday, May 16, 2008

Irresistible Revolution Underlines and Scribbles: Part 1 - Underlines

As a Presbyterian, I’m a member of a denomination that has a long and proud history of debate (which is kind of a nice way of saying pushing and shoving) on both theology narrowly defined and on how we are expected to live as followers of Jesus in the world. Presbyterians have been in the heat of these things from the Protestant reformation, through the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the civil rights movement, and today's "culture wars". Today, Presbyterians probably try to take positions on 19 of the 12 things in our society that they should.

In some ways, I have grown weary of this inside the Presbyterian denomination because the debates are so predictable that they simply mirror the external world’s dimension of political liberalism or conservatism: tell me how a Presbyterian believes about abortion and the War in Iraq and I can, with an economically respectable probability of about 95 percent, predict how they will come down on just about any other social issue: fast food boycotts, divestment from companies doing business in Israel, capital gains taxes, and so forth. So I find it interesting when I see Christians who seem to break out of these patterns: Rod Dreher has become famous for his program of “crunchy conservatism”. Likewise, I enjoyed reading the book The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, an unabashedly Evangelical Christian who, as I think he would like to say, wants to turn our view of our labels of other Christians upside down. Shane lives as a part of an intentional Christian community (known as the Potter Street Community) in inner city Philadelphia.

When I read through a book, I tend to use personal coded markings that I have to explain to people. Underlines or sidelines usually means I agree with or have learned something. Notes in my personal scribbled version of an unknown tongue usually indicate where I take issue. So it is a good thing that I finished IR with both many underlines and many scribbles. By itself that is my recommendation for reading the book. This blog is not really the place for a full-fledged book review, so I will just sketch a couple of my underlines and introduce some of my scribbles.

First, I have enormous respect for advocates of social-justice, even when I disagree with some (if not many) of their economic prescriptions, when they are obviously sincere, dedicated, and attempting to live a Christian life of peace and justice far beyond what I would be comfortable doing from my middle-class lifestyle. Shane Claiborne clearly is a person whose entire life is modeled on the sacrificial life of people such as Mother Theresa. Shane and his colleagues are as far away as it is possible to get from my stereotype of the Christian liberal who opposes school choice and globalization while driving his kids to a private school in a Volvo. I can’t in a short space do credit to the wonderful work that the Potter Street folks are doing in living and working in inner-city Philadelphia.

Theologically, Shane equally and correctly critiques the emptiness of some of the mainline (less evangelical) denominations’ worship experiences while raising crucial questions to conservatives, such as “Why should any Christian church ever have a national flag (American, British, Ugandan, whatever) at the front of the sanctuary where the most holy of Christian symbols reside?” Shane challenges our current Christian safe zones on issues such as the anonymity of charity and consumerist life styles in a way that ought to make almost any modern, Western Christian uncomfortable.

On the other hand, my overall criticism of the book is that, in spite of his desire to transcend old political labels, in his political commentary (what I associate with the broader agenda organization “The Simple Way”) Shane is much more comfortable and explicit in criticizing “conservative” rather than “liberal” Christian voices. For example, although he speaks against abortion, his words don’t carry the same sense of personal passion as his criticism of, for example, U.S. foreign policy[1]. While the day to day life that Shane leads boldly mirrors that of Mother Theresa, once he starts to systematize his ideas for what amounts to a prescriptive policy of economics, it starts to sound pretty much like warmed over undergraduate utopian Marxism. He doesn’t seem to connect his reflexive faith in “progressive” economic rhetoric with the fact that “progressive” economic policies are at the root of things like the city government regulations that cause his community so much grief. If you don't understand how wealth is created, you can't really understand how poverty can be eliminated. As an economist, I found this example of the community’s attempt to swear off of “money” both funny and instructive (p. 179):

“In Philly, we have an ongoing dialogue about creating a village of communities, bartering with one another, sharing things we need --- even creating a new currency where people exchange hours of work and are valued not because they have money but because they are willing to contribute to others and offer their time to service. One community may have a plumber but need a gardener; another may have a gardener but need blankets; and yet another may have blankets but need a plumber.”

So, having cast off one of civilization’s oldest inventions, money, Shane envisions returning to a barter economy. But the problem with a barter economy is that bilateral exchange cannot address the so-called “double co-incidence of wants”: the plumber – gardener – blankets problem. So to solve this, Shane proposes creating a “new currency” … that is to say, money. Suffice it to say that I have a new story for my principles of economics lecture on why humans use money.

Finally, let me close on a bothersome point. Irresistible Revolution has the marks of being what I would call “lightly edited” by the publisher, Zondervan. Shane’s strength as an evangelist is in cutting through theological fog with simple, powerful Biblical points. But simplification requires a discipline against distortion and factoids. The Part II of this post will elaborate on this criticism (the “scribbles”).

One of the things I do as a professor is review work, so because of that I’m very used to a positive review being one that both praises and criticizes the work, so please don’t be surprised when I say this is a productive, challenging book for all Christians working out their salvation with fear and trembling. For those of you with further interest, a colleague of Shane’s e-mailed Doug and me with information on a new DVD series that they have produced:

“Hey if you're a fan of Shane Claiborne and his book, then you should really check out the Another World is Possible DVD series. It's a multimedia project by Shane Claiborne and Jamie Moffett (co-founders of the Simple Way) that emerged in response to their belief that things are not right in the world, and that they don't have to stay that way. There are three DVD's, one on war, one on poverty, and one on creation. You can find out more about them at”

[1] As someone old enough to remember the well meaning but badly mistaken Christians who misrepresented what was really going on inside of the Iron Curtain, I have many reservations about Shane’s views on foreign policy, but that’s a deeply complicated issue that I may save for another blog.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"I Drink Your Milkshake"

I recently re-watched There Will Be Blood on DVD the other evening, and I made notes to myself about what appear to be the religious images and themes in the movie. I have this idea about the threads of oil, water, and blood throughout the movie, and I’ve wanted to write a post about them, but I haven’t been able to get the ideas to gel. (It is an interesting exercise to watch the movie with a Christian view of “water”, and to see the contrasting developments of such symbolism as depicted by “water” itself versus “oil”).

The surprising thing is that I am actually posting today not on the religious elements of the movie but rather on a straightforward microeconomics message: the famous “I Drink Your Milkshake” scene. (Warning: if you really haven’t watched or heard of this scene and don’t wanted to be spoiled, read no further). In this scene, Plainview is explaining drainage drilling to Eli. In brief, drainage drilling occurs because there are often many people with legal property rights (tied to surface land titles) to extract oil from a given field. In other words, underground oil fields do not respect the lines that we draw on the surface of the land as to who has what are called the “mineral rights.” Mineral rights owners with disjoint land title can be producing oil from the same production zone.

The difference between the geological reality and the surface mineral rights was exacerbated by early court decisions that applied the Anglo-Saxon common law “Rule of Capture” (originally developed for things like rabbits that run across land boundaries) to mineral rights. Essentially, what rabbits you capture or kill on your own property are yours. When applied to oil drilling, this meant that whatever oil you could get from a well on your own mineral right belonged to you, regardless of whether it actually came from “underneath” your property. This created a form of poorly defined property rights known as the “common pool” problem. If you have legal right to oil only by virtue of taking it out of a well on your mineral right, then no one person owns the right to the entire field. There is an economic incentive for me to get oil out from under the ground (where nobody owns it) into a storage tank on my property (where I own it). In other words, you want to drink milkshake out of your straw as fast as you can, lest Plainview drink it first. The result is an over-investment in drilling expenses and, it is sometimes argued, damage to the total amount of oil that can be recovered. If you have ever seen pictures of early oil fields in Oklahoma City or California (image above from Wikipedia) with a forest of drilling derricks, this is what is going on.

The solution to the common pool problem, short of a radical change in the common law, is called “unitization” which is an agreement to operate the field as though it was owned by a single person. The proceeds are then split according a bargaining agreement. Some unitization agreements came about voluntarily; in some states (Oklahoma, for example), state governments enacted laws to facilitate non-voluntary unitization. Interested readers can check out Gary Libecap’s survey article on unitization.

By the way, according to, P.T. Anderson did not invent the milkshake story: he found it while doing research into Congressional testimony by some of the real figures in the era covered by the movie.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Charity . . . Just a Click Away

Who remembers what life was like before the internet? While it may not be difficult for some, at 23, the internet has been a reality for me for nearly half of my life. Nearly everyday the internet serves some function in my life. Today I stayed in touch with Mom and backed up files on Google's large web database. Tomorrow I may check out the scores for Playoff Basketball and read articles about the Olympic protests. It's all just a click away for me. And, as wireless becomes more prevalent I have access just about everywhere. In addition to making communication and research easier the internet has by some measure made charity easier. From facebook campaigns and website clicks to search engines and automatic withdrawls we use the internet and other resources to make giving easier. The purpose of this post is to provide a syllabus of the types of giving require not much more than the click of a mouse.

Hunger Site: View themselves as a leader in online activism against global poverty. Started in June of 1999. In the about section of their page Hunger Site states that their "Click Here It's Free" button has, ". . . given 300 million cups of staple food" to needy. This is financed by their sponsors. And really, all you do is click on the button and food will be distributed to those in need through Mercy Corps (America's Second Harvest).

Facebook: If you're on facebook occasionally you receive invitations for groups where a person will state that they will give $1 to Charity X for each person that joins. Facebook, in case you didn't know, is a social network where people can communicate with each other in a variety of ways other than a vanilla email.

Good Search: I just found out about this one thanks to an email from Mary. It has been around since 2005 when, "Ken Ramberg (the former founder of JOBTRAK, now a division of and JJ Ramberg (an MSNBC anchor and the former Director of Marketing at asked themselves a few years ago. After realizing what a fraction of the $8 billion generated annually by search engine advertisers could do if it were directed towards organizations trying to make the world a better place". Just pick your favorite charity and search for something and about a penny will go to that charity. Like some of the people who covered the launch of Good Search said, "This is a business model waiting to happen." If the charity you should give to is not obvious check out Charity Navigator, one of a crop of new agencies that seek to inform the public about the efficiency of the charities that they give their hard earned cash to support.

This is not an exhaustive list. If there are more that were unmentioned please let me know. To me it is just fascinating that charity has become so easy. Now that summer is here I will be posting once weekly on some subject that strikes me. I apologize for my long absence and hope that some of these posts strike your curiosity. Thank you.