Religious Texts as Political Documents

Happy Rosh Hashanah. A couple of posts back, I suggested that professor Shalom Goldman’s interpretation of the Torah in a political sense “is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran.” Yesterday, Jill Jacobs had a post making her own argument that “The Torah is political, rabbis can be too.”

The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society. It is political because it forms the basis for a social contract. It is political because it concerns itself with relations among human beings as much as with relations between human beings and God. It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is a document meant to be lived….

Rabbis must bring the thousands of years of accumulated Jewish wisdom to bear on these issues. This is what it means to be a religious leader. A religious leader does not stick to “safe” topics like Jewish unity and ritual practice (though these have their place, too). A religious leader takes ethical stands on the hard issues of the moment — and does so with integrity, with a strong basis in his or her religious tradition, and out of love and a passion for creating a more just world.

I certainly will not deny that there are political accounts and political principles in the Torah, the Old Testament more generally, or even the New Testament. Moses wasn’t just codifying a religion, he was creating the laws for a new nation. Solomon’s proverbs of wisdom often suggested how a king ought to behave. Even Paul had advice about how believers were to regard the ruler and the legal system.

But the fact that these texts make political points does not mean that there is only one political position justifiable under their terms (and Jacobs certainly acknowledges this). Furthermore, while Jacobs is arguing that religious people ought to be able to explain their views to one another in terms of their religious sacred texts, this will not hold in a pluralistic society. If I make the argument that, say, traffic lights are bad and give my reason as “because the Bible tells me so,” this: a) gives you almost no information about what the Bible actually says; b) does not connect the Biblical text to my own view in a coherent way; c) does not explain why others who hold the Bible in the same esteem as myself do not feel the same way with regard to traffic lights; d) does not persuade those with different views of the Bible to advocate my traffic light position. In sum, at best it can persuade those who already agree with me about the Bible to agree with me about traffic lights. This is an important element of rhetoric–connecting with the audience in some way to get them to agree with you on something else.* However, do we really want religious leaders trying to get their parishioners to agree with them politically?

Evidence suggests that the answer is no:

In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44 percent felt that way.

Rosh Hashanah, or any religious holiday, should be time for unity in a community (sorry for the nursery rhyme), not for advocating political division.


* I leave aside here the argument from Rawlsian liberalism in a pluralistic society, which recommends that we find ways to justify our political views in terms of “public reason” without referring to “comprehensive doctrines,” aka, religions.


Casinos as Institutions

In the previous post I gave a very simple–not to say uncontroversial or entirely accurate–definition of an institution: an actor who codifies constraints upon his/her/its own behavior. This post provides two related examples of what I mean, taken from games.

One clear example of an actor placing explicit and clear constraints upon himself is the dealer at a blackjack table. While the rules can vary, the basic version is that the dealer has two cards, one of which is face down. Of the many potential variations, one simple example to consider is whether or not the dealer hits on 17. According to Wikipedia, a dealer who hits on 17 decreases the house edge by about 0.2 percent. Over the long run this is not a trivial sum when you consider the average revenue of a casino. Thus, it is more common for the dealer to stand when his cards total 17.

Either way, though, the dealer’s rules are literally written on the table. His behavior is codified there for all players to see. This can influence there calculus not only of whether to enter the game, but of what decisions to make once they are playing; a dealer who stands on 17 encourages players to make riskier bets when their own total is less than 17. It is this marginal increase in risk that leads to the casino’s higher profit under the stand-on-17 rule. The key thing to notice here is that the institutions restraints on its own behavior affect the behavior of other players.

Don’t these self imposed rules make it easier to cheat? Of course they do. Even when cheating is difficult (some casinos use as many as eight decks of cards to discourage counting), there will be some people who are smart enough, bold enough, and greedy enough to try it. And none of that is to criticize them–I’m not even entirely comfortable calling it cheating, but even so it is entirely rational.

This is where the second element of institutions, at least political ones, comes into play. Once they have imposed constraints on themselves they become predictable. In order to keep from getting screwed by people who find loopholes in the rules, casinos need some way to make cheating less likely. Enforcement often takes the form of brawny guys with brass knuckles. More generally, our government and others around the world maintain police and militaries to impose constraints on domestic and international actors who might try to take advantage of their predictability.

To simplify the casino example and connect it to government, let us consider a very basic and common game: Matching Pennies. Readers not familiar with game theory can find a treatment of it in Osborne (2004: 19-20, 111-112, 136-137) or at Wikipedia, where it is described as the two-strategy equivalent of Rock, Paper, Scissors. There are two players, which we will call Government and Citizen, two actions (heads or tails), and four possible outcomes. If they show the same side of their coins, the government takes the citizen’s penny. If they show different sides of their coins, the citizen takes the government’s penny. These outcomes are shown in the following table:

The Matching Pennies Game

Predictability in this game means losing. Whichever player I am, if I know what you are going to do I get to choose the action that will give me the highest payoff. However, the game is typically played simultaneously. When it is played this way there is no best pure strategy in which you always do one thing or the other. As Osborne will tell you, the best thing to do is just flip your coin and let it land randomly on heads or tails. If both players do this and the coins are fair (50/50 odds of heads/tails), over the long run both will break even.

But say you have two types of governments: autocrats and populists. Autocrats really like the strong personality of Abraham Lincoln, so they always show the head of their coin. Populists feel more strongly about the e pluribus unum message on the tail side of the coin, and always show it. Either one is predictable, and a citizen or foreign government playing against the government can choose the outcome because the government is predictable. This is what I meant by an institution codifying its own behavior.

Say the government is an autocratic institution that always shows heads. How will it be able to continue pursuing its favored course of action and keep from losing its penny in every iteration of the game? It could change the rules, start randomizing its actions, or maybe just poke the other player in the eye. Empirically, we observe all of these outcomes in different scenarios. This extends the argument of the previous post in two ways:

  1. A political institution is an actor who codifies constraints on their own actions in a way that reveals their preferences AND
  2. contrains the other players’ actions in such a way as to lead to the institution’s preferred set of outcomes.

Institutions and Behavior

The Duke Political Science Department is not organized around the traditional disciplinary subfields of comparative, international relations, and American. While we do retain political theory, political economy, and political methodology, the three research areas above are re-arranged (with varying levels of correspondence) into security, peace, and conflict studies; political institutions; and political behavior. This has been a positive transformation both for the department and for myself as a new student, but I have had the lingering question, “isn’t it all about behavior?” (And I don’t mean this as a subfield chauvinist–my first field is SPC and the second is methods–but it may reflect my guidance by professors at my previous university.)

Last night in class with Guillermo Trejo we came one step closer to solving this conundrum. We put forth the tentative definition of an institution as “an actor who codifies constraints upon his/her/its own behavior.” This could apply to a state’s constitution, a subnational group’s manifesto, or the UN charter. It may need further refinement to avoid overgeneralization, but for now it seems helpful.

Today I came across this example, which helps point to the role of narrative, theology, and hermeneutics in defining religious institutions:

Goldman grew up in New York City as an orthodox Jew for whom religion was a central focal point of everyday life. He saw religion as a communal force and a public issue, and he has spent a career following those principles.

He teaches through tales. In his courses, he uses the great stories of the Bible and the Quran to illustrate the ways and beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims. His master’s thesis compared the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.

(The Hebrew version is more about power and international relations, Goldman reports. The Quran presents a more strictly religious version of events.)

A religion’s stories — like Moses, and the Garden of Eden — are good teaching tools because they’re well-told and compelling, and thus, broadly influential, Goldman says.

“These texts govern behavior for many people,” he says. “So the way these stories are told influences behavior.

I will leave it to readers to reflect upon and argue for or against any of the points I’m making here (either the definition of an institution as self-restrained behavior, or the role of religious rhetoric in defining its own institutions). It does seem to me, however, that Goldman’s interpretation of the Hebrew account of Solomon and Sheba as political and the Quranic account as religious is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran. For more on this point, see the poorly-titled writings of Ibn Warraq.

Responding to the New York Times

I’m still reflecting on the role Turkey will play in Abbas’s application for Palestinian UN membership. In a more general context, here is the New York Times today trying to have it both ways on Turkey:

Some Turkish officials worry that the crisis with Israel will end up hurting the relationship with Washington; others believe that Turkey is bent on supplanting Israel as the junior partner of the United States in the Middle East.

The bigger challenges seem to be within Turkey. Although Turkey has opened new embassies across Africa and Latin America, its diplomatic staff remains small, and the Foreign Ministry is trying to hire 100 new employees per year. Mr. Kiniklioglu, the party official, estimated that no more than 20 people were devising foreign policy.

The implication seems to be either that the Turkish foreign policy establishment is small (true) and thus ineffective (hardly) or that elites are steering the ship with little regard for the will of the Turkish people. This has been a common refrain in the “who lost Turkey?” crowd.

As Ryan Kennedy and I argue in a forthcoming paper, Turkey has not run away from the US and the EU since the AKP took power. Rather, the AKP’s increasingly autonomous foreign policy moves are a natural outgrowth of the country’s unique geopolitical role and are in accord with Turkish public opinion.

Here are three graphics to that effect, based on surveys from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which we presented to SETA-DC during an earlier stage of our research:

Is Turkey's Axis Shifting?

Turkish public's opinion of various int'l actors over time

Is AKP anti-Western?

Turkish public's opinion of int'l actors, by political party

Is AKP pro-Islamist?

Turkish public's opinion of int'l actors, by political party

Obviously our paper (which I will link to when it is published) carries out a more rigorous and in-depth analysis, but a simple visual inspection of these graphs (credit for which goes to Ryan) will show that there is broad consensus among the Turkish public about foreign policy direction. If this is really the result of just 20 elites, they’re awfully good.

What is a “special interest”?

“How do you know a politician is lying?” goes the old joke. “Because his mouth is moving.”

Hans Noel, of Georgetown University, has a better answer:

How do you know a politician is being dishonest? He blames something on “special  interests.”

What is a special interest? Why, it is an interest opposed to the “general interest” or  collective will. But see items #2 and #3 above: There ain’t no such thing.

Special interests are labor and business. They are environmentalists and developers. They are pro-life and pro-choice activists. They are gays and they are fundamentalist Christians. They are you. They are me. It is hard to think of any political outcome that does not satisfy some interests and oppose others….

Yet the point remains: interests are just interests. They are not so special. The founders understood this. James Madison, in Federalist 10, worried extensively about the threats of “faction,” by which he did mean something like special interests. But Madison also understood that this was a natural feature of politics: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” Madison wrote. Rather than insisting that no politician ever bend to the will of a faction, Madison advocated a system, our system, in which factions were set against each other. In a large and diverse republic, with a separation of powers, no one faction could control all of government without being checked by other factions.

This is point eight of a very good ten-point article here.

Another useful heuristic for judging a candidate’s political rhetoric is to ask yourself, “why does he/she want this job?” File this under “things to keep in mind in 2012.”

Statistics Links

If you came to this post from Twitter, please just admit that you are a nerd. And once you’ve accepted that, subscribe to the RSS feed–you’ll be right at home here.

Source: The Browser

In today’s Browser, David Spiegelhalter says while discussing the book Damned Lies and Statistics,

There is a nice quote from Joel Best that “all statistics are social products, the results of people’s efforts”. He says you should always ask, “Why was this statistic created?” Certainly statistics are constructed from things that people have chosen to measure and define, and the numbers that come out of those studies often take on a life of their own.

Best uses the lovely phrase “number laundering”, when the origins of numbers are forgotten. They get so bandied around that nobody knows where they came from.

Ali Benazir also has an interesting post asking, “What are the chances that you would be born?” Life is improbable. Given that the highly improbable has already occurred, you should be emboldened to do the impossible.

Lessons from Moneyball

[If you haven't read/seen it, consider this a low-level SPOILER ALERT for the entire post. Sorry for the length, I didn't have time to be more concise.]

The movie was very good. It is, of course, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis, but somehow seeing it in the new format allowed me to simplify some of the lessons from the story. Some of them are similar to elements of pragmatist philosophy. A more review-like piece may come, but I couldn’t shake these four thoughts as I watched:

1. Re-define the problem.

moneyballThere is a somewhat tense but entertaining scene early on in which Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is discussing with his team of scouts how to deal with the loss of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. When Beane asks the head scout what the problem is, the scout gives the straightforward and predictable answer that they need to replace those three players. Wrong. Another scout takes a somewhat more abstract approach and says they need to replace a certain number of hits, runs, etc. Maybe, but how can Oakland do so with their meager budget? Beane, along with the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), says that they can’t make up for Giambi et al on a one-to-one basis. They need to recreate the effect of these three players, by getting three new players whose on-base percentage averages the same as the three lost players. By redefining the problem, they come up with a new roadmap to success–one that is achievable given their constraints.

2. Combine information in new ways.

On-base percentage was, according to Lewis, an under-appreciated statistic in the early part of this century and before. The information required to calculate it was certainly available, but because it was not a common summary statistic it was ignored by the people whose decisions matter. Bill James had of course argued for its importance in the 70′s but he was outside the traditional realm of baseball thinking and thus largely ignored (which is of course a theme of the book: traditional versus information-driven practices).

The disdain for James (and, by association, Beane and Brand) and his dismissal as a “statistics guy” completely misses the point of statistics. This is partly the fault of statisticians and analysts themselves, who often accept the portrayal of their work as mystical since it gives them a sense of prestige or self-importance. In reality the work of taking data and summarizing it into more useful forms (which I take to be the essence of statistics, whether it’s used to create infographics, stock reports, or academic papers) can be done while maintaining transparency and correspondence to reality. A batting average is never seen in reality: it takes multiple attempts and must be observed over time. On-base percentage represents the player’s chance of getting a step closer to scoring position than batting average does. By taking a measurement of input that is one step closer to the output they care about–runs, which lead to wins–Beane and Brand got a better indicator of a player’s ability to help the team with wins. This is statistics at its finest.

3. Be clear in your thinking.

Let’s be honest, the part about statistics that scares people is the numbers. This is true even (especially?) for academics, whose research can sometimes benefit from quantification. There are two dimensions to quantification. One is turning real phenomena into numbers. We call this measurement. Peter Brand did this by breaking up the baseball field into a grid and indicating where the ball actually went rather than simply counting “hit,” “run,” or “ground rule double”–again, a better measurement allowed for more precise quantification of reality.

The second dimension of quantification is that it allows your thinking to be falsifiable. Your equation either works or it doesn’t. While you can argue about whether a given equation or mathematical process was appropriate to apply in a given situation, you cannot argue whether hits divided by at-bats equals batting average or not. A statistical model is simply a combination of multiple statistics into a form that gives us some sort of indicator to predict the phenomenon we care about, putting the first two points above together. But what makes it useful is that it can be tested. If your model doesn’t work under certain circumstances, you need to be clear about this rather than just hand-waving and saying “well of course it doesn’t predict the number of wins in a season with a lot of rainy days.” If some factor that matters is not included in your model, be clear about it or you will be ignored or mocked.

4. Know how to explain your views.

Another of my favorite set of scenes in the movie is when Beane and Brand have to explain to players why they should take more walks. Sure it doesn’t excite the fans, but it gets them closer to something fans care about more: winning. They don’t sit ballplayers down and explain to them how the model predicts that on-base percentage corresponds more closely with runs and wins than batting average. Despite the benefits of clear thinking, we also have to know when and how to use less precise wording in order to convey meaning to end-users. This is the second lesson above put into action.

Perhaps the most useful lesson, though, was that you also need to know when not to explain yourself. When firing a player, Beane tells Brand to just give it to him straight. In a way this is the same lesson, about being respectful to the person you’re informing, but it is applied differently. This is another way of explaining the lesson that statistics is a rhetorical practice.

Whether or not you care about any of these lessons, Moneyball is still a great movie and well worth your time. If you have any other takeaways from it, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Questions on Palestinian Statehood

(And not very many answers.) 

According to Reuters, Mahmoud Abbas is going to formally request full UN membership for Palestine today.

What does Abbas have to lose? Not much. This is a perfect win-win for him and the Palestinians more generally. If they get statehood, they win. If they don’t get statehood, they can claim that the international community is biased, and again they win.

How will Arab states react? It’s hard to say. Just going off of intuition and experience, I think Jordan will support it (they have a large population of displaced Palestinians, so public opinion favors it and the elites will favor it so they can re-displace the Palestinians in the near future) and Saudi Arabia will support it because they want to remain a leader in Arab public opinion, especially with Egypt in transition and the need to keep Iran out of the driver’s seat. The other countries have so much going on domestically that it’s hard to say. And to be honest I haven’t been staying on top of the news this week, so I could be very wrong even on these two–put links in the comments if I am.

Why has the US already committed to a veto? I’m not sure. Obviously the role of the Israel lobby is huge. But my guess is that they were trying to keep this from coming to a floor vote–since the US is a permanent member of the Security Council, they have a lot of power (I’m not sure if a SC veto will matter if this comes to a general vote–any UN people out there?). However, this leads to two further questions.

Is this a credible commitment? I hope not. This is a unique window of opportunity, and it seems unreasonable to make a public commitment to vote one way or the other.

How does this affect the peace process? For me, this is the most interesting question. For decades, the buzzword has been “two-state solution” and now that that is reasonably possible (you can disagree with me on its reasonability or plausibility), both Israel and the US have reneged. Internationally, this looks bad. We can argue about whether Palestine needs sovereignty before they can meet the demands placed on them or vice versa, but ultimately a veto leaves the US without much cachet in Palestine and perhaps the Arab world more generally. To be totally cynical for a moment, how does it look if we refuse statehood to an enduring democratic nationalist movement? It’s like saying “we want democracy in the Middle East, but only if it comes at the barrel of a gun–our guns.”

And a final question, from a Palestinian

“Why should the United States remain the main broker in the peace talks if they are so biased?”

Reality Check on Speed Limits

Alex Tabbarok, making sense:

Higher speed limits are often safer because what is worse than speed is variable speed, some people driving fast and some driving slow. When the speed limit is set too low you get lots of people who safely break the law and a few law-abiders who make the roads more dangerous.

This is at once counterintuitive and very reasonable. More good stuff, including the perverse incentives of the police, here.