Sympathy for the Sauds

I’ve always been confused by the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. Its a state with values abhorrent to many Americans, and it seems like we don’t get much practical value out of the alliance.

This essay on Saudi history, politics, and economics by Matt Lakeman makes the situation more comprehensible. I still don’t know that I want the alliance, but I can now see how so many US presidents have continued with it without necessarily being stupid, crazy, or corrupt. In short, they think that most of the realistic alternatives are worse. Some highlights:

Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.

And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.

But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.

Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. 

Dealing with the resource curse is always challenging, and foreign ownership is an additional challenge. How did they manage it?

the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.

Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions.

In addition to carefully negotiating the balance of power with various foreigners, the Sauds have done so with the religious establishment:

Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.

Winning freedom of action has been a long road with many setbacks:

[King] Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.

In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.

The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure…. King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.

The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.

More recently, Crown Prince Salman has consolidated power to the point where he can make modernizing reforms that Wahhabis might have opposed, like allowing women to drive, allowing non-Muslim foreigners to to get tourist visas, allowing music concerts, et c. Lakeman obviously likes these reforms, but at the same time worries that the concentrated power that so far Salman has largely used to enact positive reforms could be abused going forward, and on a larger scale than murdering the occasional dissident.

Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.

I recommend reading the whole thing, here I’m quoting relatively small parts of an article full of interesting detail on the history, economics, and politics of Saudi Arabia. There’s also a section on visiting:

The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.

Religion at its best can protect science from politics at its worst

I choose to believe these tweets are true because I want to write about it. I’m pretty sure they are, but unlike some people, I don’t have “medievalist friends” to verify it and I’m to tired to open Google.

Regardless of whether the “the book preciptated witch hunting” is true, I am in full agreement that much of misinformation is demand driven. Even when motivated by an alterior motive, disinformation has to be wrapped in the candy-coating of something people want to believe is true. For all the talk of disinformation though, the connection to witch hunting and religion is what I find most interesting, particularly in our pandemic times. There’s been a lot of frustration over people’s eagerness to believe non-scientific and pseudo-scientific garbage, but what I find most concerning is how rapidly identities solidified around believing experts and not believing experts. My suspicion is that this is, at least partly, a symptom of becoming a more broadly secular society, where political and scientific beliefs have for many people substituted for faith affiliations as group signifiers and shibboleths.

Religion makes for better and safer group identities than science. Why? Because religion is predominantly interested in untestable assertions whose veracity is entirely orthogonal to the quality of our lives and how we function as a society. This isn’t to say that societies can’t just as easily violently fracture as peacefully congeal around these beliefs, but the “truth” of them is entirely irrelevant. Communities and sub-communities can form Russian nesting dolls all the way up to continents and all the way down to Tilda Swinton, and the truth of the individual sets of religious beliefs won’t matter in the slightest.

Science, on the other hand, is a vastly different story. Groups that form around disbelief in the germ theory of disease or the food safety of the Green Revolution in agriculture will face vastly more limited prospects in the lives of members and their future generations. Groups naturally split into insiders and outsiders– that’s how we solve whole swaths of the collective action problems and Prisoner’s Dilemmas we face everyday.

Science needs religion to stake out territory in the ineffable and claim beliefs as their own. From these beliefs religion can provide people with the tools to tell stories, form bonds, and cultivate trust beyond the limits of kinship and familiarity. Religion needs to thrive so that science can work its way unmolested, and unco-opted, through the unending labryinth of truth-seeking, of learning and unlearning, discarding old truths as evidence mounts. It’s hard enough to accept evidence denying old truths when repuations are built around them (science does, after all, advance “one funeral at a time”). But it’s nearly impossible to discard old truths if they are holding a community together. People will cling to them because there’s too much immediately at stake, and in doing so you become trapped at the sclerotic local maximum of a costly falsehood.

I know there’s a tendency to focus on shared social media clips of preachers advocating against vaccines and masks and what not. But I don’t think that’s religion competing with science. I think that’s ostensibly religious leaders giving up on their faith to sell what they see people buying. Yesterday they were selling God, today they’re selling disinformation. Not because God is disinformation, but because they are seeing more demand for disinformation than God.

I don’t have a faith to sell anyone, and I certainly don’t have a policy solution in my back pocket (though I can only assume the answer starts with crypto and ends with profit). But I do think that if we are going to keep science safe from the short-term vicissitudes of our petty political identities, we will have to better resist the urge to call ourselves, our group, pro-science. It inevitably creates an anti-science opposition, cornering people into rallying around ideas that benefit no one in the long run. And we also have to have more faith in our faiths. If you don’t hold that your beliefs, and the community you’ve built around them, are appealing enough on their own merits, then you’re not really a believer. You’re not a scientist either. You’re a salesman, and one with a bad product at that.

Mises’s Bureaucracy, a Recap

My favorite two economists are Ludwig Von Mises and Milton Friedman. They might consider one another from very different schools of thought, though there is reason to think that they are not so different. As an undergraduate student, I liked them both, but I became more empirics-minded in graduate school and as a young assistant professor.

As I progressed through graduate school and conducted empirical research, my opinions and policy prescriptions changed and were refined from what they once were. In graduate school, I didn’t study Austrian Economics, though it was certainly in the water at George Mason University. Recently, as an assistant professor with a few years under my belt, I picked up Bureaucracy (1944) and read it as a matter of leisure.

One word:

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Give the Gift of Cooking and Murder-Bears

What is the point of reading non-fiction?

Hopefully it is entertaining, and you feel like you are learning something, though usually it is hard to recall much of a book a year after you read it. The best you can usually hope for is that it makes you look at the world differently. But how often does a book actually clearly change what you do?

While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of books that changed how I think, Tim Ferriss’ books stand out for actually changing how I act. It was after reading The 4 Hour Body that I finally starting going to the gym every week, and it was after reading The 4 Hour Chef that I started to really cook.

Giving anything fitness-related as a gift can be dicey, so of the two I’d recommend The 4 Hour Chef as a gift. Its huge, its pretty, and its not just a book of recipes (though it has lots of them)- it is what made me think I no longer need recipes.

If instead you’d rather forget about big self-improvement books and just go for fun/entertaining, my best recommendation you’ve probably never heard of is Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed.

As a said as part of a review of my favorite non-fiction last year, its funny but not just funny. Its not just trying to highlight the craziest stories, its also full of lessons about how to read potentially confusing passages. “Murder-Bears” is a reference to the end of 2 Kings ch 2:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys

How Will Rich Country Fertility Ever Get Back Above Replacement?

For population to be steady or rising, the average women needs to have at least two kids. In almost every rich country- including the United States, all of Europe, and all of East Asia- this isn’t happening. In the extreme case of South Korea, where total fertility averages about one child per woman, the population will fall by half each generation. If this were to go on for 10 generations, South Korea would go from a country of 50 million people- larger than any US state- to one of 50 thousand people, far smaller than any US state. This sounds crazy and I don’t expect it will actually happen- but I can’t say what exactly will stop it from happening.

Global population growth has fallen from a peak of 2.1% per year to the current 1%, and is expected to fall to 0 by 2100. The remaining population growth will happen in poor countries, then stop for the same reasons it did in rich countries- the demographic transition from poverty, argicultural work, and high infant mortality to high incomes, high education, and low infant mortality. As the graph below shows, higher income is an incredibly strong predictor of low fertility- and so if economic growth continues, we should expect fertility to continue falling. But where does it stop?

2019 TFR from Population Reference Bureau vs 2019 PPP-adjusted GDP Per Capita fron World Bank

Some have theorized a “J-curve” relationship, where once incomes get high enough, fertility will start rising again. You can see this idea in “Stage 5” of Max Roser’s picture of the demopgraphic transition here:

This makes sense to me in theory. As countries get richer, desired fertility (the number of kids each woman wants to have) has fallen, but realized fertility (the number of kids each woman actually has) has fallen faster. In a typical rich country women would like to have 2-2.5 kids, but actually ends up having about 1.5. There are many reasons for this, but some are clearly economic- the high cost of goods and services that are desired by rich-country parents, like child care, education, and spacious housing near high-paying jobs. Perhaps in a rich enough country all these could be obtained with a single income (maybe even from a part-time job). But it seems we aren’t there yet. Even zooming in on higher-income countries, higher incomes still seem to lead to lower fertility.

TFR vs GDP Per Capita in countries with GDP Per Capita over 30k/yr

The only rich countries with fertility above replacement are Panama and the Seychelles (barely meeting my 30k/yr definition of rich), Kuwait (right at replacement with 2.2 kids per woman), and Israel- the biggest outlier, with 3 children per woman at a 42k/yr GDP. This hints that pro-fertility religious culture could be one way to stay at or above replacement. But in most countries, rising wealth seems to drive a decline in religiousity along with fertility. Will this trend eventually come to Israel? Or will it reverse in other countries, as more “pro-fertility” beliefs and cultures (religious or otherwise) get selected for?

To do one more crazy extrapolation like the disappearance of South Korea, the number of Mormons is currently growing by over 50% per generation from a base of 6 million while the rest of the US is shrinking. If these trends continue (and setting aside immigration), in at most 10 generations the US will be majority-Mormon. Again, I don’t actually expect this, but I don’t know whether it will be falling Mormon fertility, non-Mormon fertility somehow rising back above replacement, or something else entirely that changes our path.

What would a secular pro-fertility culture look like? For my generation, I see two big things that make people hold back from having kids: a desire to consume experiences like travel and nightlife that are harder with kids, and demanding careers. I see more potential for change on the career front. Remote work means that more quality jobs will be available outside of expensive city centers. Remote work, along with other technological and cultural changes, could make it easier to work part-time or to re-enter the work force after a break. Improving educational productivity so that getting better-education doesn’t have to mean more years of school would be a game-changer; in the short run I think people will spend even more time in school but I see green shoots on the horizon.

Looking within the US, we are just beginning to see what looks like the “J-curve” happening. Since about the year 2000, women with advanced degrees began to have more children than those with only undergraduate education (though still fewer than those with no college, and still below replacement):

From Hazan and Zoabi 2015, “Do Highly Educated Women Choose Smaller Families?”

We see a similar change with income. In 1980 women from richer households clearly had fewer children, but by 2010 this is no longer true:

Fertility of married white women, from Bar et al. 2018, “Why did rich families increase their fertility? Inequality and marketization of child care”

The authors of the papers that produced the two graphs above argue that this change is due to “marketization”, the increasing ability to spend money to get childcare and other goods and services that make it easier to take care of kids. If this is true, it could bode well for getting back to replacement- markets first figure out how to make more excellent daycare and kid-related gadgets, then figure out how to make them cheap enough for wide adoption.

Does Cohabitation Predict Divorce?

My article, coauthored with Sarah Kerrigan and published last week, tries to answer the question. In short, the answer seems to be yes- cohabitation before marriage is associated with a 4.6 percentage point increase in the rate of marital dissolution. This is in line with much of the previous literature, which notes one big exception- choosing right (or getting lucky) the first time: “cohabitation had a significant negative association with marital stability, except when the cohabitation was with the eventual marriage partner”.

But we found some even more interesting facts while digging through the National Survey of Family Growth.

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Reading Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels

Sarah Ruden is an scholar of ancient literature who has translated classic works such as The Aeneid. Her new book is an English translation of the 4 first books of the Bible’s New Testament, the Gospels.

If you buy a standard Bible, there is usually only a 2-page preface to a 500+ page book. Ruden’s introduction and glossary takes up closer to 50 of the first pages. I would pay just to read the introduction. Ruden describes what it was like, as a professional translator of classics, to approach the Gospels. A reader who is already familiar with the Bible will learn as much from this introduction as from the translation itself. It’s rare to hear the Gospels discussed simply as books instead of as weapons wielded by all sides of the culture wars. I found it interesting to learn about how the Gospels, stylistically, compare to other ancient texts.

Ruben’s enthusiasm for listening to the voices of ancient writers is contagious. She makes it all sound so interesting that anyone, regardless of their previous stance on god (the lowercase g is her idea of what the ancients would write), will want to keep reading. Speaking as someone who has already read the New Testament, I have never been more excited to read the Gospels as I was after finishing Ruden’s introduction. Ruden promises to deliver to modern readers the voices of the ancient writers, with as much accuracy as possible.

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Church Attendance and Covid

Today is the last Sunday of 2020. The disruption to employment and rise of remote work might be the bigger story of 2020. However, for a significant fraction of Americans, 2020 is also the year their ability to meet as an in-person church was curtailed. Gathering in a room with many people singing is an efficient means of spreading the virus. For some, church has been an online-only experience since March.

Social scientists are interested in religiosity. Christian devotion has often been measured by asking how many times a person goes to church.

My colleagues who study the economics of religion will have an important issue to study. How does the switch to online church in 2020 affect Christian engagement in the future? How will this affect our ability to track long-term trends on religiosity?

If it is true that large gatherings are safe in a year from now, it will be interesting to compare in-person church attendance in 2022 to 2019. If it turns out that attendance has decreased, then we would need to see a break in the trend to conclude that Covid is the cause. Here’s a graph of church attendance in an article from B.C. (Before Covid).

A book that was published in the 1950s made it sound like, even then, people who attended church weekly were in the minority. Joy Davidman published Smoke on the Mountain in 1953.

The inspiration for this post was reading this line about “remote” church experiences:

Others, instead of stirring their stumps, listen in comfortable living rooms to a sermon on the radio, arguing that it is “just the same.” They have forgotten that one of the first necessities of a Christian life is a congregation…

Overall, Davidman is disappointed in how few of her American countrymen attend church. Early in life, she was a militant atheist. She’s a Christian at the time of writing, but still somewhat militant.

Davidman frowns on radio church, when in-person church was available. However, virtual church today is closer to the traditional visual church experience. Going forward, it will be important to consider whether people who use the internet for church experiences should get counted.

Here are some examples of what churches have been up to, virtually:

Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL 

Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA 

Nativity, a Catholic church in Burke, VA 

Larger churches have been podcasting and Youtube-ing for years. One of the top productions is Bethel Church of Redding, CA. They even already had their own Bethel.tv ecosystem, so shutting down in-person services for Covid probably coincided with an increase in viewership for them.

Least Hypocritical Artist: Rich Mullins

I’m creating a new award: Least Hypocritical Artist Award. Rich Mullins is the winner.

The most human and not-overly-polished collection of works by Rich Mullins can be found here. You have to order it as a CD. I do not know of any digital platforms selling it. I bought a used copy for less than $3.

Since I have a CD player in my kitchen (left there by prior home owner) I have been listening to this album all week. Rich Mullins is a tremendously talented musician. These album tracks are live concert performances with jokes and introductions. Maybe I appreciate it especially this month because concerts and public gatherings cancelled for Covid. A DVD of a live concert is also included with the CD.

Because of social media, artists are getting in trouble when they say something that doesn’t fit the polished image their managers try to cultivate. Public figures disappoint sometimes. The spectacular fall of Jerry Falwell last month is an example of someone who presented a certain image to the world that turned out to be false.

Rich Mullins claimed to be a Christian, but he didn’t claim to be perfect. Rich Mullins put his whole heart and life out there. No surprises. You can’t disappoint your fans if you never tried to hide anything. Mullins was a bit self-deprecating in public but radically generous in his private life. He followed the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived very simply despite his modest professional success.

Mullins tragically died in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1997, when I was still too young to fully appreciate him. You can find his best selling albums and you can buy his popular songs on iTunes. This album is the best one that I have found for getting to know the man.