Friday, April 16, 2010

Bible Stories Part 1: Genesis

Sensibly, the Council of Nicea decided to put the most famous book in the Bible at the front. If they had started off with something like Joel, people could well have been put off.

The Biblical creation myth may be unusual in being quite straightforward. There are no ravens dropping rocks into the ocean, gods spitting out their semen or wars with the titans. There's just God, who makes stuff, in a particular order, is happy with it, then has a rest. Of course, God has made the first of many misjudgements with regards to his favourite creatures. It's never clear whether God is struggling to understand humanity or whether he's wilfully ignoring how his creations really think.

The story of the fall is obviously much debated, but the story of Cain and Abel is itself rather mysterious. It's not clear why God rejects Cain's offering, prompting him to murder his brother. My guess was that it is a myth related to struggles between arable farmers and herders, something that the wikipedia article confirms may be the case. Certainly there is a continued emphasis on livestock herding/farming over arable, and on animals over crops in sacrifice. Cain and Abel is just the first of a number of little stories that seem half-formed. They leave you wondering whether there's context we're missing, there are/were alternate versions, it would have made sense to people at the time, or whether the story or event was always a fragment.

Genesis itself is a series of tales that seem remarkably amoral. They're a bit like the tales of Ancient Greeks (the ones without mythical beasts), but without the flair. You get a few principles - don't murder your brother, don't sleep with other people's wives, be generous to guests and most of all, look after your family (but your daughters are less important than guests), and most of all, do what God says - but on the whole that's not what it's about.

The concluding story of Joseph is definitely the most complete and conventionally structured narrative. Joseph is also a rare sympathetic character in the first few books of the Bible. It's no wonder the story got translated into the most divine of art-forms, the musical. An interesting little tidbit from the story of Joseph is that he didn't just dole out food during the famine, he made Egyptians pay for it, so that by the end of the seven years the people of Egypt had sold all their lands and possessions, and were left as slaves to the Pharaoh.

In Genesis you start to see some of the characteristics of God that are less commonly remarked upon. We all know he's a mighty god, a jealous god, but he's also a very forgetful god. Despite insisting on all manner of signs of the covenant between himself and the descendants of Abraham, he still needs to be regularly reminded of what he promised. I get the feeling that had he not made the rainbow as a reminder of his promise never to destroy life on earth again, he really would forget. I suppose at least in this case he knows his problems, like the person who leaves post-it notes everywhere. He also has a bit of an obsession with foreskins.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quick Book Reviews #1

Posting some old stuff here to get a bit of momentum

The Economic Naturalist: Why economics explains almost everything by Robert H Frank
Robert Frank has found the most economical way to write a book, which is to copy a load of his students' essays. The Economic Naturalist is a great introduction to the basic principles of economics, from the basic proposition that a person does something if the perceived benefits outweigh the costs to tragedies of the commons to marketplace signals. From experience, Frank's argument that economics is taught badly - with too few practical applications and too little attention to the basics - is true. If you want an easy to read, and easy to dip in and out of, economics primer, this is a good choice.
Having studied some economics, I was familiar with large parts of the book, but it gave me a better grounding and some portions - particularly the section on discount pricing - were interesting and largely new to me.

On the downside, it's also a good illustration of some problems with basic economics. The answer to the question "can economics explain everything?" appears to be yes, as long as you expand "economics" to include just anything else you think is relevant. At least one of the answers in the book doesn't actually invoke any economics, while others beg the question. Sometimes it seems like the economics is explaining the easy bit.
Quite a few of the answers given in the book are also very dubious, and almost all are unsupported by any empirical research or evaluation of alternative explanations. Saying that economics is an excellent way of quickly generating plausible hypotheses about things is less catchy but a lot more plausible than that it explains everything. How accurate these hypotheses are is open to question.

Collapse: why societies choose to succeed or fail by Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond is a biologist-cum-anthropologist-cum-scientifically-minded-historian/archaeologist and Collapse is his attempt to demonstrate that environmental factors can and do cause societies to collapse, and to learn some lessons from this. Diamond's a good, and persuasive author, but still I wasn't massively struck by this book. Maybe I'm not a good audience for it, as I don't take much persuading. Even so, Diamond's scientific instincts to pile on the evidence, from every kind of nologist could try the patience. There's a similar issue with Guns, Germs and Steel, where the last third largely goes over evidence when you've already been convinced by the first two thirds.

Collapse is interesting in some ways. For example, Diamond doesn't come down on the side of either top-down or bottom-up solutions. They both have their places. What's particularly important is that people can't escape the results of their actions. He is positive about the potential for corporations, with appropriate pressure, to be environmentally responsible. Also, did you know Vikings were afflicted by goat-scorn? Or, more seriously, that despite being starved (literally) for agricultural and hunting resources, Greenland Norse didn't eat fish.

One quote I was particularly taken by is about how the Japanese, who had big problems with deforestation, solved their problems with the resources at hand. That is an important lesson, that you can't rely on the development or invention of new resources. It brings up the role of technology, which Diamond is very skeptical of. After increasing our environmental impact for centuries (millenia even), what are the chances technological developments will suddenly start reducing it? At the very least, we need to have a strong degree of skepticism about the impacts of more environmentally safe technologies, particularly when they involve large-scale implementation costs. At the same time, technological change is one of the strongest forces in our society. Can we not treat it as a resource, which can be directed in different ways, albeit to somewhat uncertain outcomes?

Diamond emphasises that little is inevitable, and societies choose their path. He is "cautiously optimistic" about our prospects for dealing with environmental problems, but I can't help feeling that you can't write a successful book if you're not. In particular, it's not clear to what degree key decision-makers can isolate themselves from negative changes - if nothing else, because many of those changes happen slowly. We also suffer from a serious problem of "creeping normalcy", which makes it hard to deal with gradual and stochastic (variable, climate-style) changes. Fortunately, right at the back there's a picture of Jared Diamond looking incredibly friendly and curmudgeonly, to comfort you if you're feeling a bit depressed by it all.

Watchmen, story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Seeing that the film is out, I thought "it's about time I read the graphic novel", although I couldn't read it in public because then everyone would think I wasn't cool. I won't add much to everything else that's been written about this comic, but it certainly is an acute and extraordinary piece of work. I'm not sure about the odd thing - I'm not sure the climax fits perfectly and there's a parallel comic story that's I don't entirely get. Some characters are more interesting than others, but that's inevitable when some of them are so interesting.

Amazon has the first few pages to read here.

If you've any interest in super heroes, popular culture, mutually assured destruction, morality, society, people, or just about anything else, then you should probably read Watchmen.

Postscript: I was talking to Mark the other week about the difference between the ending of the Watchmen film and comic. On the one hand, the ending of the film is significantly less mental. But on the other, it does significantly change the connotations of the ending. Which is more appropriate I couldn't say.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

rags to rags, riches to riches

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, but haven't got round to it until now.

Last month The Guardian reported the finding of an OECD study that the UK has the worst social mobility of the dozen OECD countries for which data was available.

In economics, the basic measure of social mobility is how much someone's income is determined by the income of their parents, after controlling for certain variables. That's certainly not a perfect measure - for example it misses changes in income within people's lives - but it's hard enough to measure as it is. The OECD report also looks at the education, and its relationships with income.

This graph shows how much the income of parents determines the income of their children. The higher the score, the less social mobility there is. In crude terms, the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor. Most people wouldn't need persuading this is a bad thing. The UK is alongside Italy and the US in the difficulty poor children face getting richer, and the ease with which rich children stay rich. (Technically speaking, because of the limited accuracy of the measurements, we probably can't assert any real distinction between them.)

There are a few things I'd like to know more about. First is the influence of intra-generational inequality. The report does talk about this, and I think finds that inequality reduces mobility, but I didn't read it closely enough to understand exactly how, or how they accounted for this. Second, what is the effect of immigration? Migrant status is factored in in some way, but there's no discussion of how it might affect the findings. It may be of note that countries like the US and France have relatively high levels of immigration, Austria and Norway low. Thirdly, how does the size and heterogeneity of the US affect its figures? Eg. do people in poor states stay where they are, rather than making the (comparatively) distant move to a richer state to earn more money?

Those provisos aside, what struck me about this report was the same as other international studies of social mobility I've seen. It's a conventional view that the US is a land where anyone can make it big, that it is full of rags to riches (and riches to rags) stories, and more socially fluid than Europe. The actual evidence suggests otherwise. If you're born into a poor family in the US you're more than twice as likely to stay poor than someone in Denmark, or Canada. If you're born into a rich family, you're more likely to stay rich.

I'd like to have some useful insights for the UK, but unfortunately I don't. The report finds certain educational policies, plus redistributive and income support policies to strongly enhance mobility. If you're interested, have a skim of it yourself.