Experts vs. everybody else, pt. 71394587236

One of the things I find so interesting about the sociology of religion is the divide between scholars and non-scholars. Take, for example, this part of the introduction to the book of Judges from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version:

Despite the optimistic report in the book of Joshua that Israel conquered Palestine in a brief series of campaigns under a single leader, it is evident from the book of Judges that the process was not quite so simple. Chapter 1 says plainly that many parts of the country were never subjugated, while the rest of the book is largely an account of battles which had to be fought through several generations before the land was securely in Israel’s hands. The enthralling tales the book contains are traditions preserved by various tribes about the exploits of their particular heroes—the “judges” of whom the title speaks. An editor has given the tales a factitious unity by making all the judges national, instead of tribal leaders and by providing for all the events a moral and theological interpretation.

I think many Christians would balk at hearing this, but the editors of this version were committed lifelong Christians, and as far as I can tell, acceptably orthodox; see e.g. Old Testament editor Herbert May’s bio. (I am less confident in my ability to guess how religious Jews would react, although I imagine it is similar.)

Why this divide exists continues to puzzle me. I touched on it here but still don’t have a very confident answer.

Incentives matter, college football edition has a great article about the difficult art of quarterbacking in the modern game that includes a gem from Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman:

Of course, handling NFL offensive concepts tends to be especially hard for quarterbacks who’ve spent their college years in systems that don’t require a ton of processing. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, an NFL quarterback from 1994 to 2007, puts it bluntly: “The majority of quarterbacks coming out of college these days are as football remedial as you could possibly be.”

Schneider sees the same issue from a scouting perspective: “When you look at college football now, it’s harder to evaluate these guys, because the position is so much easier to play. In so many systems, guys are just looking at the sidelines, waiting for the coach to give them a play with minimal options.”

Adds Roman: “Nobody can really figure out [if they can thrive in an NFL offense] until you get your hands on them, ’cause they’re not being trained to do that. They’re being trained to win the next game in college so the college coach can keep his job.”

The Efficient Fantasy Football Draft Hypothesis

Like millions of other people, I play fantasy football. My league has some of the same people each year, but a handful rotate through. We always end up with some people who aren’t very confident in their fantasy skills so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to explain drafting.

What I end up saying is: don’t overthink it. Draft rankings are done by teams of people who understand more about football than you and I ever will, and it’s unlikely we’ll outguess them. Stick with the consensus rankings that already incorporate the relevant information about players instead of trying to find it all out for yourself.

I suppose it’s possible to consistently beat the experts, but I doubt it. Every year the leader boards have some teams with absurd amounts of points, but that’s only one side of the distribution. There are plenty of teams that fare poorly, and most of us are somewhere in the middle. Moreover, consistently beating the experts year after year is a feat rare enough that I’m not familiar with it. (Even if it were possible, most of us don’t have the time or energy to become the Warren Buffett of fantasy football.)


A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have got hold of his fellows’ minds. He can become a leader only if he is prepared to guide people along the paths they want to walk and toward the goal they want to attain. A statesman who antagonizes public opinion is doomed to failure. No matter whether he is an autocrat or an officer of a democracy, the politician must give the people what they wish to get, very much as a businessman must supply the customers with the things they wish to acquire.

– from Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History, p. 187.

Externalizing security costs when the price is zero

Here’s a fact that likely won’t surprise you: Walmart is a heavy user of police resources. Some police departments aren’t happy about it:

…Robert Rohloff, a 34-year police veteran who has to worry about staffing, budgets, and patrolling the busiest commercial district in Tulsa, says there’s nothing funny about Walmart’s impact on public safety. He can’t believe, he says, that a multibillion-dollar corporation isn’t doing more to stop crime. Instead, he says, it offloads the job to the police at taxpayers’ expense. “It’s ridiculous—we are talking about the biggest retailer in the world,” says Rohloff. “I may have half my squad there for hours.”

The unintentional twist is that with regard to crime, most firms and most people “offload the job to the police at taxpayers’ expense” to some degree or another. The problem the article identifies is the very great degree to which Walmart does it. Around 15 years ago Walmart scaled back on staff, intentionally saving money and unintentionally creating an environment more conducive to misdemeanor.

This is a classic problem with zero-price public services: there’s no built-in incentive not to overuse them. Until now retailers have found it most profitable to internalize some of the costs of their own security, estimating the amount they pay deters a greater amount of loss. Walmart has a different calculation, is willing to go minimal on security knowing it can externalize the costs, and is therefore guilty of responding to incentives and taking the policy toward its logical conclusion.

Perhaps, in an abstract way, they should shoulder more of the burden. But existing policy allows for this, so they’re well within their legal rights, and just try to come up with another policy that would pass court challenges that wouldn’t lead to other undesirable consequences, like mom-and-pop stores who don’t have deep pockets having to pay extra. What’s the cut-off?

(There is one possible out, as the article mentions the town of Beech Grove, Indiana, declaring Walmart a public nuisance. This would mean a $2500 fine for every police call. This forced the local Walmart to internalize some of its security costs, but the fact that this is the only instance leads me to believe it wouldn’t be employed on a large scale. I lack the legal background to say more about it; all I can see is the rarity of the measure.)

The takeaway points, none of which are surprising:

  • People (and firms) respond to incentives.
  • Firms face different cost structures.
  • Zero-price resources can be overused.

Koyama on Roman Empire economics

Mark Koyama has just written a great piece about Roman Empire historiography. Specifically, about how historians misunderstand the economic aspects of the Roman Empire, leading them to make erroneous conclusions about the cause of its decline. You can find his piece here.

One of Bryan Caplan’s points in The Myth of the Rational Voter is that what voters think about economics is important because so many questions in politics are or affect economic issues. A similar theme holds here, mutatis mutandis. I also see it in anthropology/archaeology. There are a great many fields of study where economics has explanatory power, but more often than not the people in these fields simply aren’t prepared to use it properly. For example I enjoyed Georges Lefebvre’s French Revolution books for the wealth of historical information, but his Marxist interpretation seemed close, but no cigar.

This is important because our framework for understanding the past reflects our framework for understanding the present. The worse we do with one, the worse we’ll do with the other.

The other part of the law

It’s in the news today that John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, is to be released from the mental hospital:

John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, will be released from a psychiatric hospital after a judge on Wednesday set a series of conditions for him to live with his mother in Virginia.

The 103-page opinion from U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Mr. Hinckley’s doctors have found he has “no signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies,’’ and therefore “presents no danger to himself or to others in the reasonable future if released.’’

Mr. Hinckley may be released as early as Aug. 5, the judge ruled.

The ruling means that 35 years after an attack that severely wounded the president and three others, Mr. Hinckley will be a free man—albeit with restrictions on his travel, communications, work and use of the internet.

Mr. Hinckley, 61, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Over the past 12 years, his doctors and the courts have been gradually loosening his restrictions, over objections from the Justice Department, allowing him to go to Williamsburg, Va., for unsupervised visits with his family more than 80 times.

As previous posts have noted, I’m very interested in the justification of legal penalty as deterrent. It has a lot of explanatory power, especially throughout history before large-scale incarceration centers were feasible. But deterrence only works for rational people. The mentally ill may not be deterred by expected punishment.

As my law&econ professor pointed out, even the mentally ill are not completely random thinkers (i.e. completely irrational), but they have systematic differences from mentally normal people. A system premised on deterrence needs a fallback, a separate way to handle people who don’t respond to incentives in the way others do.

Hinckley’s judge believes Hinckley is no longer dangerous to himself or others and thus should be released. I’m not sure how the other people affected by the shooting feel about this, but we can see the logic from a social standpoint. Executing him or having him die in jail won’t deter mentally ill people from attempting to assassinate future presidents. It costs the public money to incarcerate him, and there’s no social benefit unique to keeping him there. Mentally normal people know they face the main approach in the justice system, not the fallback approach, so it isn’t setting a bad precedent.

On top of this, I don’t know much about presidential security but from my time in DC I know it’s incredibly thorough. It would shock me if any president were ever seriously in danger again. If, counterfactually, there were a snowball’s chance in hell somebody could assassinate a 21st century president, I’d imagine it would be some kind of suicide attacker who wouldn’t be deterred by anything the legal system could threaten.

Residual claimancy in the tribal era

Here’s an interesting bit of social organizational wisdom reflected in Numbers 5:5-8 (RSV):

5 And the Lord said to Moses, 6 “Say to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that men commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person is guilty, 7 he shall confess his sin which he has committed; and he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it, and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. 8 But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him.

The most common form of keeping order for most of human history was to have tribal or clan groups avenge infractions of a known code of conduct done to their members. It’s more famous in the breach than in the observance, but the threat of having a small war over infractions was incentive not to commit them in the first place, making antisocial behavior less likely on the margin.

This threat is (obviously) less effective when the offended party has no kin to avenge him. This is the wisdom embodied in the passage: ensuring there will always be somebody interested in seeing the penalty exacted. As a bonus this system protects the most vulnerable, i.e. turns the juiciest targets into the least appealing.

Few would argue this system is ideal, true, but the ancients had far fewer feasible alternatives than we have. Given their constraints, this is a clever feature.

Excerpts from BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation

Here are a few passages I found interesting in Jason BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation. Overall I recommend it highly, especially for Christians but also for people who aren’t Christian but who are still interested in what the Bible says, e.g. people interested in the Western intellectual tradition, of which the Bible is an essential text.

I. The fundamental problem of Biblical translation:

Since the passages of the Bible can be fit together to form many different interpretations and theologies, we must be aware of how easy it is to reverse the process, and read those interpretations and theologies back into the individual passages. It is perfectly legitimate for those various interpretations to be made and maintained on the basis of a biblical text that does not preclude them. What is not legitimate is changing the Bible so that it agrees with only one interpretation, that is, changing it from the basis of interpretation into a product of interpretation. (pp. 61-62)

II. Sola scriptura has pros and cons:

Although a few Protestant biblical scholars participated in the [New American Bible] translation, it is largely the work of Catholic scholars and received the sanction of the Catholic church. One might assume a distinctly Catholic bias in the finished product. But ideologically the Catholic church is under less pressure to find all of its doctrines in the Bible than is the case with Protestant denominations, and this fact, combined with the vast resources of Catholic biblical scholarship, seems to have worked to the NAB’s advantage. (p. 34)

III. Hebrews 1:8 is rendered in the King James Version as “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.” Many other translations follow this pattern. BeDuhn says it should rightly be translated with “…God is your throne, for ever and ever…” These two footnotes were interesting:

1. It should be noted that the author of Hebrews is familiar with, and does use, vocative forms of nouns, such as kurie, “O Lord,” just two verses later, in 1:10. So he or she could have used a vocative form of “God” in 1:8 to make direct address perfectly clear, if that is what was intended.

2. Rolf Furuli, in his book The Role of Theology and Bais in Bible Translation, reaches the same conclusion: “Thus, in this passage the theology of the translator is the decisive factor in the translation” (Furuli, page 47). (p. 101)

Note: “he or she” in footnote 1 is not mere courtesy. There is some inconclusive scholarly speculation that the unnamed author of the Letter to the Hebrews was a woman.

IV. The most controversial chapter of Truth in Translation concerns John 1:1, rendered in the KJV as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” BeDuhn credits the New World Translation (the official translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) as the only one under review to translate it accurately: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” [Emphasis is mine.] I’m not a Greek scholar so I am not equipped to judge the grammatical part of his argument, but his case is reasonable overall.

If John had wanted to say “the Word was God,” as so many English translations have it, he could have very easily done so by simply adding the definite article “the” (ho) to the word “god” (theos), making it “the god” and therefore “God.” He could simply have written ho logos ēn ho theos (word-for-word: “the word was the god”), or ho logos ho theos ēn (word-for-word: “the word the god was”). But he didn’t. If John didn’t, why do the translators?

The culprit appears to be the King James translators. As I said before, these translators were much more familiar and comfortable with their Latin Vulgate than they were with the Greek New Testament. They were used to understanding passages based on reading them in Latin, and this worked its way into their reading of the same passages in Greek. Latin has no articles, either definite or indefinite. So the definite noun “God” and the indefinite noun “god” look precisely the same in Latin, and in John 1:1-2 one would see three occurrences of what appeared to be the same word, rather than the two distinct forms used in Greek. Whether a Latin noun is definite or indefinite is determined solely by context, and that means it is open to interpretation. The interpretation of John 1:1-2 that is now found in most English translations was well entrenched in the thinking of the King James translators based on a millennium of reading only the Latin, and overpowered their close attention to the more subtle wording of the Greek. After the fact — after the King James translation was the dominant version and etched in the minds of English-speaking Bible readers — various arguments were put forward to support the KJV translation of John 1:1c as “the Word was God,” and to justify its repetition in more recent, and presumably more accurate translations. But none of these arguments withstands close scrutiny. (pp. 115-116)

BeDuhn later writes that he thinks the best translation would be “…and the Word was divine.” Perhaps this phrase will find its way onto the page at some point. Another sample from the same section:

The translators of the KJV, NRSV, NIV, NAB, NASB, AB, TEV, and LB all approached the text of John 1:1 already believing certain things about the Word, certain creedal simplifications of John’s characterization of the Word, and made sure that the translation came out in accordance with their beliefs. Their bias was strengthened by the cultural dominance of the familiar KJV translation which, ringing in their ears, caused them to see “God” where John was speaking more subtly of “a god” or “a divine being.” Ironically, some of these same scholars are quick to charge the NW translation with “doctrinal bias” for translating the verse literally, free of KJV influence, following the most obvious sense of the Greek. It may very well be that the NW translators came to the task of translating John 1:1 with as much bias as the other translators did. It just so happens that their bias corresponds in this case to a more accurate translation of the Greek. (pp. 124-125)

One last sample from this chapter, and possibly the only time in the book where BeDuhn waxes interpretive:

When one says “the Word was divine” a qualitative statement is being made, as Harner suggests. The Word has the character appropriate to a divine being, in other words, it is assigned to the god category. Of course, once you make the move of saying the Word belongs to that categeory, you have to count up how many gods Christians are willing to have, and start to do some philosophical hair-splitting about what exactly you mean by “god.” As Christians chewed on this problem in the decades and centuries after John, some of them developed the idea of the Trinity, and you can see how a line can be drawn from John 1:1 to the later Trinity explanation as a logical development. But John himself has not formulated a Trinity concept in his gospel. Instead, he uses more fluid, ambiguous, mystical language of oneness, without letting himself get held down to technical definitions. (p. 130)

V. In the chapter on “the Holy Spirit”, which he cautions should several times be translated “a holy spirit”, he writes:

…Some things that would be handled with “which” in English, because they are not persons, are referred to with the equivalent of “who/whom” in Greek because the nouns that name them are either “masculine” or “feminine.” But even though the ‘personal” category is larger in Greek than in English, the “Holy Spirit” is referred to be a “neuter” noun in Greek. Consequently, it is never spoken of with personal pronouns in Greek. It is a “which,” not a “who.” It is an “it,” not a “he.”

This is a case, then, where the importance of the principle of following the primary, ordinary, generally recognized meaning of the Greek when translating becomes clear. To take a word that everywhere else would be translated “which” or “that,” and arbitrarily change it to “who” or “whom” when it happens to be used of “the holy spirit,” is a kind of special pleading. In other words, it is a biased way to translate. And because this arbitrary change cannot be justified linguistically, it is also inaccurate. (p. 140)

And further:

…Since the KJV program followed by most modern translations capitalizes “Spirit” only when a reference to the “Holy Spirit” is understood, any appearch of a capitalized “Spirit” implies “Holy Spirit.” An issue of accuracy, therefore, is whether the original Greek suggests that the “Holy Spirit” is meant when the word “spirit” appears. The decision to capitalize “Spirit” when the references is thought to be to the “Holy Spirit” gives license to the biased insertion of the “Holy Spirit” into dozens of passages of the Bible where it does not belong. (pp. 143-144)

VI. After commending the New World Translation and the New American Bible as the most accurate of the translations compared:

I have pondered why these two translations, of all those considered, turned out to be the least biased. … [A]t the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, I think one common element the two denominations behind these translations share is their freedom from what I call the Protestant’s Burden. By coining this phrase, I don’t mean to be critical of Protestantism. … I use this expression simply to make an observation about one aspect of Protestantism that puts added pressure on translators from its ranks.

You see, Protestant forms of Christianity, following the motto of sola scriptura, insist that all legitimate Christian beliefs (and practices) must be found in, or at least based on, the Bible. That’s a very clear and admirable principle. The problem is that Protestant Christianity was not born in a historical vacuum, and does not go back directly to the time that the Bible was written. Protestantism was and is a reformation of an already fully developed form of Christianity: Catholicism. When the Protestant Reformation occurred just five hundred years ago, it did not reinvent Christianity from scratch, but carried over many of the doctrines that had developed within Catholicism over the course of the previous thousand years and more. In this sense, one might argue that the Protestant Reformation is incomplete, that it did not fully realize the high ideals that were set for it.

For the doctrines that Protestantism inherited to be considered true, they had to be found in the Bible. And precisely because they were considered true already, there was and is tremendous pressure to read those truths back into the Bible, whether or not they are actually there. Translation and interpretation are seen as working hand in hand, and as practically indistinguishable, because Protestant Christians don’t like to imagine themselves building too much beyond what the Bible spells out for itself. So even if most if not all of the ideas and concepts held by modern Protestant Christians can be found, at least implied, somewhere in the Bible, there is a pressure (conscious or unconscious) to build up those ideas and concepts within the biblical text, to paraphrase or expand on what the Bible does say in the direction of what modern readers want and need it to say. (pp. 163-164)

Catholicism avoids this pressure by accepting church tradition as legitimate, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses avoid this pressure by representing a more radical break from previous traditions, allowing them to take “a fresh approach to the text, with far less presumption than that found in many of the Protestant translations” (p. 165) There is, of course, their use of “Jehovah” 237 times in the New Testament—where the Greek has it zero times—but that at least is jarringly obvious to the reader.

VII. Only at the end does BeDuhn explain why he chose the passages he did:

I could only consider a small number of samples in this book. Another set of samples might yield some different configuration of results. But the selection of passages has not been arbitrary. It has been driven mostly by an idea of where one is most likely to find bias, namely, those passages which are frequently cited as having great theological importance, the verses that are claimed as key foundations for the commitments of belief held by the very people making the translations. Choosing precisely those passages where theology has most at stake might seem deliberately provocative and controversial. But that is exactly where bias is most likely to interfere with translation. Biblical passages that make statements about the nature and character of Jesus or the Holy Spirit are much more likely to have beliefs read into them than are the passages that mention what Jesus and his disciples had for lunch. (p. 166)

The facts of life, political edition

The New York Times has a great piece by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels about how support for a candidate and support for the candidate’s policy preferences don’t necessarily align. It’s specifically about Bernie Sanders, but the principles are universal. Sample:

Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That is one key reason contemporary American politics is so polarized: The electoral penalty for candidates taking extreme positions is quite modest because voters in the political center do not reliably support the candidates closest to them on the issues. (Mitt Romney is just the most recent presidential candidate to lose despite being perceived by most voters as closer to their ideological views than his opponent on a spectrum running from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”)

People who study public choice and political science (or at least take them seriously) often seem glum or snarky to others, if personal experiences on social media are any indication, but facts are facts. From the inside it seems incredibly important for anybody who cares about good governance to acknowledge these basic points about the system we have.