Did Jesus Exist?

Via Andrew Sullivan, I just read a month-old post by Jerry Coyne about a fight between two academics over the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Coyne comments:

I have been a bit baffled about why this matter evokes such strong feelings, especially among atheists. Since we all admit that there’s no evidence that Jesus was the son of God, did miracles, was resurrected or born of a virgin, and died for our sins, does it really matter so much if he’s based on a historical person? Why does this evoke such strong feelings, and such acrimonious arguments, from atheists?

Perhaps some of our concern comes from this: if we can show that there’s no historical Jesus, then the myth of Christianity tumbles down. That is, it’s no so much about convincing ourselves about the non-historicity of Jesus as convincing Christians.

Regardless of anything else, I don't think Coyne's argument holds water. Surely there can't be too many atheists foolish enough to think they're likely to convince their Christian friends that Jesus didn't exist, no matter what the evidence is or isn't? That would require a pretty severe detachment from reality.

But why even go there? I wasn't aware that this question evokes strong feeling among nonbelievers in the first place. Sure, it evokes strong feelings among academics who study this question. Academics always have strong feelings about the stuff they study. Beyond that, practically any historical question will generate a small band of obsessives who consider it the most important issue ever. I imagine Coyne is keenly plugged into the chat rooms and listservs that host the small band of obsessives on the Jesus question.

But more generally? I've seen no evidence that nonbelievers really care all that much. Did Jesus exist? I'd guess so, just on the grounds that it's more likely for a story like this to be exaggerated after repeated retellings than it is to be made up out of whole cloth. But I don't really care all that much, and I pretty strongly suspect this isn't just ennui on my part. Most of us non-religious types probably don't even think about this stuff much, let alone have strong feelings about it. The ones who do may make a lot of noise, but that doesn't mean there's really all that many of them.

While Will Femia was busy trying to figure out if he could get a picture of tonight's supermoon rising along 42nd Street, I decided that here in Southern California it would be appropriate to get a picture of the supermoon rising over a freeway. In the end, it turned out that the angle was off by a couple of degrees, so I couldn't quite do it with the shape of the San Diego Freeway in my neck of the woods, but it was close!

And here it is a few minutes later, rising over the treetops. It no longer has the lovely red color that the haze near the horizon gave it, but since I'm not shooting from a freeway overpass, it's a little bit sharper. Tradeoffs are everywhere.

Today we have cats flopped on the ground. On the left, Domino enjoys the sunshine while Marian does Sudoku on the porch. On the right, Inkblot looks majestic. As always. Enjoy the weekend, everyone!

In case you're interested, here's the basic Obama jobs record. His first full month in office was February 2009, and employment bottomed out a year later. Since then, employment has increased steadily and is now above the February 2009 level. That's a pretty slow and disappointing level of employment growth, but it is what it is. Employment is now officially higher than it was when Obama took office.

Here's the latest on stalled talks between NATO and Russia regarding a European missile defense system:

Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov, in a sign of the tension between Russia and the United States over the missile defense plans, said during an international conference that a strike by his country might be possible. "A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens," Makarov said.

....Russian officials Thursday showed a computerized version of imaginary strikes by Russian nuclear missiles on imaginary targets on the U.S. East Coast.

This doesn't seem to be attracting a lot of attention, so maybe it's just a minor escalation of the usual bluster. But, um, really? Russia is threatening a preemptive air strike against a NATO base in Poland? And hauling out maps of Russia raining down nukes on New York City? WTF?

Alex Tabarrok links this morning to a VoxEU piece that blames America's low savings rate on our growing level of transfers from young to old. In one way, this makes intuitive sense: the more confident you are that Social Security and Medicare will take care of you in your old age, the less motivated you are to save for old age. The authors then take this further, suggesting that low savings rates have cratered net domestic investment, and therefore economic growth. Maybe. But over the past couple of decades there's been more than enough money available for domestic investment. That hasn't been a problem. The problem has been finding useful real-world things to invest it in.

In any case, the whole piece lost me when the authors reported on the results of a simulation that looks at transfers from young to old and forecasts "how long it takes for the economy to reach 'game over' — the point where current policy can no longer be maintained":

The policy is simple. The government takes (using whatever language it wants) a fixed amount each period from the young and hands it to the old, independent of the state of the economy, given by the size of the capital stock and the level of multifactor productivity. When the hit on the young exceeds their earnings, the game is over, with the government either extracting all the income of the young and terminating the economy or switching to a new policy regime, which leaves the young with something to eat.

Our simulations, based on an “overlapping generations” model calibrated to the US economy, produce an average duration to game over of roughly one century, with a 35% chance of reaching the fiscal limit in roughly 30 years.

Say what? Their simulation projects a 35% chance that by 2042 the U.S. government will be confiscating 100% of the income of the non-elderly? This suggests to me less that the U.S. is facing a crisis and more that they might want to recalibrate their simulation.

In any case, whenever I hear this stuff, I always think back to Dean Baker reminding me that net national savings is always equal to the trade surplus. It's an accounting identity. So if we're running a big trade deficit — and we are — then either we run a big federal budget deficit or we have very low private savings. Or both. There's no way around it.

Everything in an economy is related to everything else, so there are no simple answers here. From a macro point of view, I think our key long-term policy problem is addressing the trade deficit, and since OPEC is a big and growing chunk of that, that means reducing our reliance on foreign oil. From a more prosaic budgetary point of view, our intergenerational problem can be summed up in one word: healthcare. If we rein in the growth of healthcare spending, we'll be OK. If we don't — well, there's really no "don't" here. Eventually, we'll have no choice, and that's going to happen long before any kind of generational Armageddon overtakes us.

So: focus on domestic energy production, especially renewable resources. Rein in the trade deficit. And focus like a laser on reining in healthcare spending. That's the right way to look at this stuff.

I was going to write a post last night promising not to make too big a deal out of today's job numbers, no matter what they turned out to be, but I forgot. But I promise anyway.

As it happens, new jobs clocked in at 115,000 last month, only 25,000 above the number needed to keep up with population growth. The headline unemployment rate went down to 8.1%, but only because discouraged workers are leaving the labor force, so they aren't counted in the official jobless numbers anymore. All in all, a pretty anemic report. My usual chart showing net new jobs is below.

On the bright side, employment numbers for February and March were revised upward by 53,000. This doesn't change anything dramatically, but it's certainly better than nothing. Bottom line: it's only one month, but it sure looks like we're living through an economy that just can't quite pull itself into a serious recovery. Since the start of 2011, average net job growth has been 75,000 per month, with only a few months rising above that figure. That's just not enough to make up for the staggering job losses of the Great Recession anytime soon.

The title of Jim Manzi's new book, Uncontrolled, is a play on words. In its first sense, it's about the difficulty of controlling for confounding factors when you perform a statistical analysis. If you're comparing charter schools to public schools, for example, you need to control for things like income and prior test scores in order to make sure you're really looking at the effect of just the schools themselves, not being fooled by the fact that one might have had a better group of students to begin with. Unfortunately, as Manzi points out, no matter how many things you control for, it's almost impossible to know if you've really controlled for everything.

The problem is what Manzi calls "causal density." If you're studying the orbit of a planet, you can pretty much assume there's only one important cause of the planet's movement: gravity. Causal density is low. In medicine, there are more things to worry about, but a lot of problems are still tractable. Causal density is moderate. But in human affairs, there are lots of causes of everything, there are causes of the causes, and the causes often interact in complex ways. Causal density is very high, which means it's very hard to make sure you've accounted for everything. No matter how sophisticated your statistical tools are, it's always possible that something you haven't thought of is lurking in the background and throwing off your results.

Manzi's background is in business analysis, and he spent much of his career trying to use these tools to help businesses figure out how to improve their operations. Are you better off opening new stores in malls or on street corners? Will you pick up more new customers if you offer them a dollar off or if you offer them a 2-for-1 deal? Businesses, he writes, "have sunk vast resources into trying to develop useful, reliable predictions for behavior in the absence of experiments. In doing so, they have run into the same problems and hit the same dead ends. I know, because I spent years doing it."

So what's the solution? This is the second sense of uncontrolled. The answer, Manzi says, is allowing businesses to perform lots of random experiments. Go wild, because you never know what might work. But there's one catch: Although trial and error should be king, you should also insist that every experiment be performed rigorously enough that you can glean useful information from the results.

I'm enough of a geek that I found this the most arresting part of the book. Although Manzi's right about the difficulty of multivariable analysis in the social sciences, in the end I don't think it's quite as futile as he makes it out to be. Add to that the fact that the only studies he finds reliable all support conservative interventions (charter schools, broken-windows policing, work requirements for welfare), and you might feel like he's loading the dice a little too heavily in favor of his own ideological convictions. And this feeling only increases in the last chapter, where he recommends several policies that have nothing to do with random experimentation at all.

But put that aside. Manzi's a conservative, so it's only natural that he's put his thumb on the right side of the scale. I'd probably do the same if it were my book. Instead, focus on his most interesting idea: federalism with accountability. He wants the federal government to offer states more waivers to try out variations on social programs, but only as long as they conduct well-structured random field trials (RFTs) while they're doing it:

The federal government has certain specific roles under the waivers approach. It enforces whatever rules are in place at any given time. It guarantees consistent, reliable information: results of consistently executed RFTs when possible, and general statistical information when experiments are not feasible…The federal government would be metaphorically "making a market" in policy improvements.

There are plenty of things to argue about here, including the scope of the waivers and the rigorousness of the federal government's oversight. But it's unquestionably an interesting idea. Manzi claims that these kinds of experiments have become routine in the business world (a decade ago he founded a software company to help businesses do just that), and he recommends a goal of running 10,000 social policy RFTs per year. Why so many? Partly, he says, because the vast majority of experiments don't work, so you need lots of them to find any winners, and partly because you need to make rigorous experimentation ingrained in the culture of governing, and the only way to do that is to make it routine.

And if these experiments start showing that liberal ideas work, too, as they almost certainly will? I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, it's a provocative proposal, and a reality-based challenge to Manzi's fellow conservatives.

I was idling away a few minutes yesterday waiting for technical difficulties to be cleared up on a conference call, and by chance Michael O'Hare was on the same call, also idling away. "Did you read the Times forum about arts funding?" he asked while we waited. "Huh?" I responded brightly. Turns out the New York Times put up one of its "Room for Debate" roundtables a couple of days ago about how to fund the arts in America, and Mike was pretty unhappy about it. "It's all about supply side," he said, "and nothing about" — what? I never found out because at that moment our technical difficulties got cleared up and the conference call started.

But he threatened to blog about it, and today he did. The problem, he says, is that these conversations always end up being solely about high art, something that "deepens a division between art for the educated and rich and art for everyone":

Identfying “the arts” as what highbrow institutions offer also makes the whole conversation about the supply side, being nice to artists and arts institutions. Most arts funding gives money to arts presenters and, indirectly, offers art to art consumers. But if you give a concert that a dozen university music professors, a few critics, a charitable funder, and some composers and musicians absolutely kvell over, what have you really done for art, or for that matter for society, if nobody else comes to hear it?

What the arts most need is a demanding, competent, large audience, and supply-side programs aren’t very good for this; in fact, they are quite liable to capture by élites who use the arts to maintain their status. The research on this is long-standing and solid: the most important correlate of consumption of highbrow art [i.e., the demand side] is parental introduction to museums, theater, and concerts in childhood. Not much government can do about that, but the second is introduction to the arts in schools, especially hands-on learning, and the history of the last twenty years has been to trash this entire enterprise as a frill we “can’t afford”, along with physical education and sports for everyone.  Why the things that make life worth living — art and health — are frills or optional in a sane, rich society, and why Venezuela can afford a national network of youth orchestras and we can’t, are mystifying, but here we are.

Partly this is due to budget constraints, and partly it's due to our current national obsession with spending every hour of every school day drilling kids in the two or three subjects that will show up on high-stakes tests throughout the year. And it's a shame. I don't want to romanticize the past — the music teacher who came into my sixth-grade class once a week with an autoharp didn't do much to inspire a love of music in me, and that was back in the supposed golden age — but who knows? She might have inspired some of the other kids. And there were probably plenty of other music teachers who were a lot better than she was.

I don't agree with Mike about everything arts related, and I don't kid myself that we're ever going back to the age where we all sat around and enjoyed live performances by our friends and neighbors. That happened in the past not because we appreciated art more, but because good performances were simply too hard to come by. Still, art is fundamental to human culture, and our schools should do a better job of teaching our kids about it, even if it means taking half an hour away from filling in bubbles on a test sheet. And they should teach art in a language that kids understand. Learning to appreciate high art is fine, but that's a lot more likely to happen naturally if you learn something about art you actually enjoy first. If that means comic books and Britney Spears, fine.

In any case, click the link for much more. Mike has spent a big chunk of his career studying arts policy, and he has a lot to say about it. He even has something to say about paying $120 million for an Edvard Munch drawing: "It properly exposes the whole culture of fine arts to ridicule as a game of poseurs, ignorant speculators, and predators that has nothing whatever to do with what paintings are about, or what art does for us, and that it should be a front page story as a serious event does a little bit to damage the quality of everyone’s engagement with art."

So what really happened in the case of the Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng? A week ago he walked into the American embassy in Beijing asking for asylum, and then, following a week of tense negotiations, he departed after the Chinese government promised he could return home and continue his education. But the deal apparently fell apart almost instantly. "Only hours later," says Paul Richter in the LA Times, "he began to complain that he had been pressured to remain in China." U.S. diplomats, Richter reports, were "stunned at the turn of events," while Bob Fu, a friend of Chen's, said the United States "has abandoned Mr. Chen." For his part, Chen now says his "fervent hope" is to leave China on Hillary Clinton's plane. So what happened? Did the Americans sell him out?

This just doesn't seem very likely, even if you think the worst of the Obama administration. As Robert Wright says:

The Obama folks may be cynical, but they're smart enough to have known that if Chen walked into a bait-and-switch, that would be a big problem not just for him but for them. It doesn't make sense, even in Machiavellian terms, that they'd have wanted to seriously mislead him.

That sounds right to me. Even if you look at this in the most cynical political way, Obama would have known perfectly well that he couldn't sell out Chen without the entire world knowing about it immediately. And that, of course, would open him up to exactly the kind of opportunistic jeering that Mitt Romney so drearily delivered on cue today ("This is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration").

But if that's not it, what did happen? Wright points us to some speculation from Walter Russell Mead

At some point one or more internal police officials either got to his wife or got to Chen after he'd left the embassy and told him in the most bloodcurdling and alarming way that he was under threat, that they would be watching and waiting, and that his wife and family would meet very unpleasant fates once the security forces got him back out of Beijing. And they would have told him in a very chilling way that he was not to tell anyone about this little conversation....After that kind of talk, a weary and blind man, much more worried about the safety of his family than about anything that would happen to him, might well change his mind about staying in China -- and might also need to give a good reason for the change of mind without mentioning any recent encounters with the security forces. This is a completely speculative theory with no evidence, and other explanations are possible. But it fits the known facts.

Maybe. In any case, it's the most plausible story I've heard so far. Stay tuned.