Should we be surprised that “young people” make up a substantial amount of coronavirus cases?

I’ve noticed media outlets are reporting that young adults make up a significant share of coronavirus cases with an air of incredulity.

My local paper posted on Facebook that “More than 50% of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts are people under the age of 50.” Very similarly, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette writes that “more than half of Pennsylvania’s confirmed COVID-19 patients are under 50 years old.” The New York Times, for its part, reports that “nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were age 20 to 54.” *

I can’t decide if this is a psyop to get young people to take the epidemic more seriously (as numerous spring-break photos show they should) or genuine surprise. If it’s the latter, I’m not sure if that’s warranted.

In each case, the age ranges in question are massive and not very meaningful without comparison to the age distribution of the general population. For example, in Massachusetts, about 63% of the population is under the age of 50. So if the incidence of coronavirus were age-independent, we might actually expect more cases among people under 50.

I think the issue, then, is that people seem to be assuming prevalence of the virus should be age-dependent to a higher degree than we’re observing. Maybe there’s a good Bayesian case to be made for this null hypothesis; I don’t know. But I feel like laypeople — local papers included — ought to be preceding with the assumption of age-independence, especially because we still don’t have much information.

Also, what’s going on with the under-20 crowd, which makes up 23% of the population but only 2.2% of MA coronavirus cases? Is Gen Z+ holding out on us?

The typo in the y-axis comes from the MA DPH data set, which has decided there are no 19-year-olds in the Bay State.

* This isn’t as egregious as the other two examples. It’s still a huge age range: about 48% of America is between the ages of 20 and 54. But since we’re talking about the severity of symptoms and hospitalizations, it seems much more noteworthy.

Armchair Psych: Why Elizabeth Warren’s Loss Inspires “Fury and Grief”

You may have noticed that Senator Elizabeth Warren has suspended her campaign for president after a disappointing showing in the Democratic primary. You may have also noticed that some people are very upset. A small sample:

I do believe Warren’s loss is particularly painful for her supporters — and not just those in the media. I’m going to bend my rule about not discussing electoral politics on this blog so I can offer an armchair psychologist take on why Elizabeth Warren’s defeat has inspired such “fury and grief.” The usual disclaimers apply, probably more than usual.

#Goals

The first piece of the puzzle is that Warren’s supporters strongly identify with and admire her. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, who are both personally wealthy and powerful but enjoy substantial support from the middle and lower classes, Elizabeth Warren actually has a lot in common with her supporters: white, highly educated professionals.

She is like them, only more so: a veteran of prestigious institutions from Boston to D.C., impeccably credentialed and accomplished, with grandchildren and a $12 million net worth to boot. She is “having it all” made flesh, an avatar of success. This encourages supporters to project themselves onto Warren. Their parasocial relationship makes her loss harder to deal with because it feels like a personal rejection, and in some ways, it is.

Technocracy and its True believers

Understanding Warren and her supporters as ideological technocrats is essential to making sense of their dismay at her poor performance. A technocrat’s authority is legitimized by displaying expertise, of which Warren did plenty. Her frequent allusions to her competence and preparedness — she has “a plan for that!” — are a straightforward appeal to technocratic ethos.

But raw displays of expertise are not the only route toward technocratic legitimacy, and indeed, few will have the occasion to put forth arcane “plans” to remake society and be taken seriously (though that is the dream). Expertise and the authority it grants can also be obtained through association with prestigious institutions.

Within these places, advancement, evaluation, and remuneration of personnel are typically formulaic matters. (For an example, check out the salary schedule for foreign service officers. Another is how public school teachers’ salaries are calculated.) This is a superficial gesture to the ideals of fairness and objectivity. The impersonality and aversion to qualitative data it necessitates are regarded as features, not bugs, of bureaucracy.

The reason this is important isn’t because Elizabeth Warren spent her career in such places. It’s because her supporters have too. These ideas are not only intuitive to them, they are fundamental, ethical truths. Elizabeth Warren deserves the job. She spent a lifetime earning it.

Whether or not the world should work this way is an open question. But to convince yourself this is the only morally valid way it could work, as Warren supporters seem to have, is an error in judgement. In practical terms, it’s a really poor model for understanding how actual voters make decisions about political leadership in a democracy. Presidential hopefuls wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to the Iowa State Fair if the election could be decided by a resume-scanning software.

The technocratic path and its costs

The technocratic path to power is not merely a career plan; it’s a full-blown ideology with ideas about what’s valuable, what constitutes a good life, and who deserves what. But underneath it lies the universal, deeply held human desire for esteem.

Recall that Elizabeth Warren is an aspirational figure for the upper-middle class, which defines itself by its intellect and is preoccupied with the markings thereof. Her path is their path, the Gramscian march that culminates in power and respect. Her decisive failure to obtain their platonic form, then, calls into question the legitimacy of the rules they’ve been playing by and the immense sacrifices doing so requires.

If giving years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the machine doesn’t buy you unquestioned esteem, what’s the point? You could have relaxed more, could have taken a job that actually paid and bought a house. You could have just pulled a Scott Alexander and exorcised your passions in a blog! But time only goes forward, so the present and future have to justify the past.

Status quo bias and sexism

Last item of note. The portrayal of Warren’s sound defeat as sexism is as predictable as it is unfalsifiable. But for the purposes of this blog post, we’re not really interested in if it’s true so much as the idea that her supporters want it to be true.

As I see it, sexism provides the least challenging explanation for her failure, not intellectually — it requires some serious mental gymnastics to fit her third-place finish in Massachusetts (among Democratic women!) into that narrative — but personally and philosophically.

If someone is rejected for their immutable qualities, those doing the rejecting can be safely dismissed as bigots, and their opinions need not be taken too seriously. It’s not me; it’s you. The rejection of an ethos is different, because it’s not a repudiation of what you happen to be but rather what you choose to be. It’s harder for Warren supporters to swallow because they share her convictions, part of which is that they possess The Truth (which is why they should be in charge of policy and journalism and academia and human resources and…). This is like the ultimate public repudiation of that.

But most of all, the cure for sexism — no doubt some combination of activism; advocacy; TED Talks; and a ubiquitous, memetic media campaign — requires no change on their part. They’re already doing these things; in fact, there are entire industries and departments, staffed by the Warren demographic, devoted to these endeavors. Insofar as their daily lives are concerned, doubling down on sexism being the problem is activism against change.

Smoking and the Hispanic Paradox

In the course of writing last month’s post about U-haul’s no-nicotine policy, I created the following graph:

This visualization didn’t make the final cut, but it’s nonetheless cool. It demonstrates that smoking rates among Hispanics are far less responsive to income than those of other ethnic groups (though even for Hispanics, the relationship between income and smoking rates is statistically significant). I was surprised to find this relationship, but apparently it’s a known factor of the phenomenon called “the Hispanic Paradox” (alternatively known as the “Latino Paradox”).

The paradox is that, on average, American Hispanics live longer than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, even though the former tend to have lower incomes and less education. The causes aren’t entirely understood, but Hispanics’ low smoking rates are thought to be a major contributor.

Source: Center for Disease Control, 2013

Some of the difference in smoking rates can be explained by immigration. Latin American countries tend to have lower smoking rates than the United States. Among those born in the United States, only Mexican-Ameicans seem to retain lower smoking rates and the attendant mortality advantage over non-Hispanic whites. It will be interesting to see if the Paradox ebbs as native-born Hispanics begin to account for more of the Hispanic population.

The Hispanic Paradox illustrates the capricious power of cultural influence on real-world outcomes — and conversely forces us to confront our limited ability to re-engineer the world.

We tend to think of (the physical, policy, social, or economic) environment and choice as the chief determinants of human behavior and outcomes. But we are just as much a product of the commingling of genetics and culture. The paths before us are well-worn by our predecessors, and we would be arrogant to think we can wholly resist their inclinations.

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

In 1930, the economist John Keynes predicted that by the century’s end, technology would have advanced such that citizens in rich countries would be working 15-hour weeks. Ninety years later, it’s safe to say that prediction didn’t materialize. In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber offers an explanation as to why.

According to Graeber, technological advances had indeed obviated much of the necessary work by the late 20th Century. But for cultural and political reasons, we have filled the void with largely pointless drudgery — bullshit jobs, as Graeber terms them.

A bullshit job is not merely unenjoyable. Rather, it’s “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence,” though they’re obliged to pretend otherwise.

They are usually white-collar positions, ranging from corporate lawyers to college administrators to middle managers the world over. Also included are those jobs that exist only to support the “bullshitization” of the economy: the all-night pizza delivers, dog washers, and others whose jobs are only necessary because everyone is too busy working.

At the end of the day, whether or not a job is bullshit is an assessment best left to the employee. According to two surveys conducted in the wake of Graeber’s original essay on the subject, around 40% of (British and Dutch) workers believe their jobs make no meaningful contribution to society. All told, Graeber believes bullshit jobs may comprise over half of all employment.

Meaningless jobs

Here is about where your head should be exploding, because from the mainstream economic perspective, this makes no sense. People and firms are assumed to be utility maximizing, so the idea that companies are hiring droves of pointless workers evokes some serious cognitive dissonance.

Graeber offers a few complementary explanations for why companies would do this. The easiest one to engage with is the idea that the nature of the economy changed when it underwent financialization. The name of the game is no longer the production of goods or services that people need or want. Instead, many companies are preoccupied with rent-seeking and redistributing wealth in a system Graeber calls “corporate feudalism.” As an example of what this entails, he points out that General Motors now derives most of its profits not from selling cars but from interest collected on auto loans.

The economic role of bullshit jobs in corporate feudalism is to make operations less efficient, which, from an extractive standpoint, is preferable. To borrow an analogy from the book, if you make your money dealing with leaky pipes, do you fix them or do you let them continue to leak?

Like its historical predecessor, corporate feudalism is as much a political system as it is an economic one. Graeber describes it as such:

“In the process [of extracting and redistributing resources], one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies, or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.”

From the micro perspective, then, bullshit jobs serve the political purposes of increasing the prestige of managers and middle managers by adding employees beneath them and ingratiating the middle class with the politics of their bosses. In a more abstract sense, Graeber believes bullshit jobs also preoccupy the masses, who, with time on their hands, could pose a danger to the status quo.

In addition to the financialization of the economy, Graeber attributes the rise of bullshit employment to cultural and political vectors that elevate work to a moral imperative and a rite of passage. He believes we use the misery of the workplace to justify enjoying the fruits of our consumerist culture — meals delivered by GrubHub, Netflix, etc. — which in turn are the only ways we can eke enjoyment out of a life dominated by spiritually numbing make-work.

Work and the misery it often entails, in other words, have become ends in their own rights, not merely means to achieve material subsistence. That explains why we as a society don’t object to the growth of pointless employment and why it can simultaneously be true that most people hate their jobs and derive a sense of dignity and self-worth from them. The result, in Graeber’s words, is that “economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.”

This might not be so terrible if it didn’t inspire such mental, physical, and spiritual anguish. Bullshit jobs are particularly disillusioning for a members of a society that views work as the primary way we leave a mark on the world. They frustrate an innate human desire to provide meaningful service. Interviewees report depression and fantasies of communist revolutions and climate change-induced apocalypses.

Yet when the time comes to offer a solution, Graeber mostly declines — save for a brief endorsement of universal basic income — claiming that the point of the book is not to make policy recommendations but to begin a discussion about what a genuinely free society might look like.

Praise

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is unique in that it takes seriously the widely held suspicion that millions of us are, indeed, wasting vast amounts of our time at our desks. At least for me, this felt really relatable. I’ve held and quit (with nothing else lined up) a bullshit job, my fear of financial precarity eventually overwhelmed by self-loathing.

A lot of academic books are anodyne and, well, boring. This book essentially looks the modern economy in the eye and calls it a lie, so it’s not that. It’s a welcome throwback to a more radical, deontological strain of leftist moral philosophy, and given that even Microsoft Japan is beginning to suspect their workers really only need four hours a day in the office, the book feels especially timely.

Graeber uses data sparingly for a text of this size and register, mostly making his case through historical and philosophical appeals. This probably ends up working better than a more data-driven approach — say the kind favored by an economist — would have, since the book deals with a lot of qualitative information and is an exploratory work.

Freedom from mainstream economic dogma is a big part of what makes this book work. For better or worse, Bullshit Jobs flies in the face of economic axioms like revealed preferences and the rational actor model. In some ways, this is a necessary antidote to the usually unstated presumption that the economy can be meaningfully separated from other domains of social life. Other times, it sounds like the ravings of a boomer anarchist. But in both cases, it’s fun.

Criticism

The book is in large part a restatement of Graeber’s original essay on the subject for Strike!, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Many of the ways in which he expands on the original essay are probably more interesting to him than the reader. This includes a progressively refined definition of bullshit jobs, a typology of the five kinds of bullshit jobs, and dozens of interviews that take up a lot more real estate than necessary.

Similarly, the decision not to dwell on solutions is frustrating to the reader. I get that it’s fun and cathartic to expound on the ills of society, especially if you’ve got something novel to say. But in this case, Graeber knows we’re familiar with his argument — he even reproduced his original essay in the forward to the book! In the five years separating the Strike! essay from the book, couldn’t he have come up with something in the way of a solution?

To the extent that a solution is offered, it’s universal basic income (UBI). Cool. It’s ironic that Graeber spends much of his book assailing consumerism only to arrive at the policy recommendation that most wholly embraces the idea that most people are only valuable to the economy as consumers.

Graeber imagines that having their basic financial needs met will liberate people to do what interests them (or to not work, should they so choose). But we already have large populations that live under similar conditions, and it doesn’t seem like they’re spiritually flourishing. In fact, they seem pretty miserable, probably because they feel alienated from society.

If bullshit jobs are the matrix’s way of reconciling humans’ desire to contribute with their growing redundancy, maybe the solution is simply better bullshit jobs. It would have been interesting to read Graeber’s recommendations on how the status quo could be improved short of a complete re-imagination of the economy.

Finally, Graeber is way too bullish on education and wayyyy too hard on finance. His contempt for the latter is biblical; the word “usurious” even makes an appearance. Perhaps Graeber has never needed to borrow money. If he had, he might be more open to the idea that lending money to people is actually a very useful service, even if you charge them for the privilege.

Meanwhile, education is often held in contrast to bullshit employment as some sort of paragon of meaningfulness. I suppose that’s Graeber’s right as an academic. But it feels strange to write an entire book about the phenomenon of pointless white-collar employment and not even discuss the rise of higher education as a cause or effect! In my view, increasing educational attainment is quite plausibly: 1) responsible for the overproduction of elites, which in turn creates the cultural demand for bullshit jobs; and 2) an autoimmune response of the economy to that same surplus of white-collar workers (meaning that school is used to delay their entry into the job market while maintaining their consumer status).

And if you want to talk about feudalism, how does the higher education system escape your wrath? Universities are basically hedge funds at this point, and they are quite guilty of indebting their customers, extracting fees and tolls from them, erecting pointless bureaucracies, and “creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over!” Alas.

Should you read this book?

As indicated, I think you could probably get away with just reading the article that inspired the book. If you think you have a bullshit job, and you’re in need of some catharsis, then I’d say go for it. It will probably feel good to know you aren’t alone in your misery.

Cigarette Daydreams

Last week, U-Haul announced that beginning February 1 of this year it would no longer hire nicotine users in the 21 states that permit employers to take that information into account when hiring. To be clear, this covers use outside of the workplace, and it could affect former smokers who use nicotine patches or similar delivery systems.

If you didn’t hear about this, you have my envy and my respect, as it probably indicates that you’re employed and/or don’t spend hours on Twitter, where the topic was briefly trending.

From what I can tell, the reaction has mostly been cynicism about U-Haul wanting to cut healthcare expenses. I think that’s probably true; smokers can indeed be charged higher premiums than non-smokers under the Affordable Care Act, and presumably U-Haul will cover at least some of this.

But since I spent a small chunk of last year’s blog posts talking about selection effects and signalling (most notably here, here, and here), I feel obliged to point out that selecting against smokers is also an effective way to screen for other undesirable qualities in employees. As smoking rates have plunged, smoking has become an increasingly good proxy for a bunch of socioeconomic factors.

(Pardon the use of 2013 data in the following charts; I happened to have this version of the BRFSS on my laptop, and went with it for convenience. I don’t think there’s a good reason the general idea should have changed much in the interceding years.)

For example, smokers, and to a lesser extent, former smokers, miss more days due to their physical or mental health than non-smokers:

Smokers miss more days
The examples given in the BRFSS codebook of “usual activities” are work, self-care, or recreation.

They’re also more likely to have less education and to have lower incomes:

Educational attainment by smoking status

Income bracket by smoking status

Notably, U-Haul is pitching this as a step in “fostering a culture of wellness”:

“We are deeply invested in the well-being of our Team Members,” said U-Haul Chief of Staff Jessica Lopez in a press release. “Nicotine products are addictive and pose a variety of serious health risks. This policy is a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our Team Members on their health journey.”

So here we have a company policy that is ostensibly for the benefit of employees’ health, but the actual consequences of which will be to save money for the employer and disproportionately preclude the candidacies of many low-SES applicants. Mind you, this is for a job at U-Haul during a period of supposedly record-low unemployment.

I think what bugs me most about this is a feeling (which could be wrong but is at least widespread) that there are diminishing opportunities—especially for low-SES Americans—to participate in the productive side of the economy, which by all indication is something that gives people a sense of meaning and self-respect.

I also can’t shake the feeling that a more powerful or organized constituency would be able to generate some public sympathy in a similar situation. If U-Haul made it policy to deny employment to obese people, presumably to similar effect, there would have been a cascade of outraged NYT opinion pieces and an ACLU lawsuit.

Still more hilarious is the contrast with growing corporate, public, and governmental acceptance (or even endorsement) of marijuana use. A new, publicly announced prohibition on employee use of marijuana would come across as horribly retrograde and likely receive more negative attention.

Smokers, alas, are nearly universally reviled, out of the graces of the upper classes and on the wrong side of demographics.

2019: A short review

With the close of 2019 and the decade, I thought I’d put together a quick highlight reel of the content produced on this blog in the past year. Enjoy the resulting meta-blog post, and if you haven’t already, follow this blog by clicking the button at the bottom of this page.

Top Posts in 2019

The top five most-read blog posts of 2019 were all written in the same year. (That sounds self-evident, but it’s not—some of my older essays remain stubbornly popular, even if I consider them somewhat embarrassing in hindsight.) Here’s the list, with [2019] view counts:

  1. The Kids Are All Right (98)
  2. Summer Vacation to the Southwest (75)
  3. What Colleges Sell (58)
  4. “IRL Impressions” (50)
  5. Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans (48)

It’s hard to infer much from this list, but if I had to guess, it would be an endorsement of graphs and photos—both of which do well on social media and thus bring people to the site. Speaking of which…

Favorite Data Visualizations of 2019

Last year I really leaned into adding data visualizations to these blog posts. This was mostly motivated by a desire to get better at R and statistics. Here are my favorites from this past year, in no particular order:

religious nones

This one is from Kicking Away the Ladder? The rich-world’s flight from religion is one of the defining phenomena of our era. The relationship between religious affiliation and fertility rates, which became one of my favorite topics this year, makes it even more interesting. Also, I think the blue confidence band is pretty.

MGM revenueMarijuana revenue

Both of these graphs are from State of Sin, which looked into the revenue generated by the newly legalized casinos and pot shops across Massachusetts at the end of fiscal year 2019. Mostly, I just think the gap between the state’s expectations and reality is funny. It’s also nice to look at local data. (The MGM casino is two blocks from my apartment.)

One of the cool things I learned from chatting with readers is that the dearth of pot shops across Massachusetts, combined with the ease of growing marijuana in one’s own home, has actually stimulated the “illegal” marijuana market.

abortion any reason

This graph, from Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans, displays the differences (or lack thereof) in men’s and women’s views on whether abortion should be legally attainable for any reason. This is probably my favorite graph of the year, for a few reasons: it contradicts a popular assumption about public opinion, and it effectively and aesthetically displays information. As a bonus, I even managed to throw it and the accompanying essay together while the topic was still hot (during the rash of abortion bans in the summer).

Conservative have more kids

Finally, this year-old graph shows the differences in mean number of children had by men and women of various political persuasions. As I’ve mentioned, I think this is one of the most important political quirks out there. This graph is from The Kids Are All Right, which set an unattainably high bar for essay names.

Improving readership?

As you saw above, there isn’t a tremendous readership at this blog. That’s okay with me, as this is just for fun, but more is obviously preferable! That said, it does seem like this blog has hit its stride in some sense. The site had more views this year than in any other, despite me having only written nine blog posts. That’s efficiency, bay-bee.

Views and posts of eddiethoughts.jpeg
New aesthetic courtesy of ggplot2. Thoughts?

The fact that the blog is doing better by most metrics on a per-post basis leads me to believe that simply writing more would go a long way. Since I, uh, parted ways with my previous employer a little over two weeks ago, I suppose that’s more feasible at the moment than it has been for the last three years.

per post statistics

I’m also up for covering topics that are more interesting to readers, as long as they’re aligned with what I usually write about. (This isn’t about to become a wellness blog or something.) If you have suggestions or requests, get in touch! Use the contact form on the about page or leave a reply below.

Here’s to the new year.

Kicking Away the Ladder?

A report from the Pew Center is the latest to document America’s rapidly declining religiosity. Pew’s numbers show a 12-point decrease in the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christians between 2009 and 2019, while those describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” have risen from 17% to 26%.

These findings are mirrored in the General Social Survey, which has been asking respondents about their religious affiliation since 1972.

religious nones
Shaded area represents 95% confidence interval

The demographic surge of the religiously unaffiliated is a story of treatment effects triumphing over selection effects. A little context will help explain.

Natural selection seems to decidedly favor the religious. As the social psychologist Ara Norenzayan details in Big Gods (an excellent if at times slow book), religious societies, specifically those that follow omnipotent, moralizing “Big Gods,” have historically been able to outcompete others. To summarize Norenzayan’s findings, this is due to three factors, the first two of which are increased trust and greater social stability, both made possible by supernatural monitors (gods) that have allowed societies to scale by “building moral communities of strangers.”

In recent history, some societies (think Scandinavia and Japan) have been able to “kick away the ladder” of religion, replicating the monitoring effects of Big Gods through trusted civic institutions—police, courts, and others that allow for anonymous actors to cooperate in the same way religion used to. But there’s one other important advantage of religious societies that secular societies haven‘t been able to engineer: above-replacement fertility rates.

Fertility by Religion
I’ve restricted my search to 30 – 45-year-olds to try to account for the fact that older Americans are on average more religious and have more children. Huge confidence interval for Jewish women reflect low sample sizes.

The religiously unaffiliated reproduce at notably lower rates—so much so that, even as I’m writing a blog post about their astronomical demographic growth in America, the Pew Center projects they will decline as a share of the global population, from 16% to 13% between 2010 and 2050.

shrinking religiously unaffiliated.png

Followers of Big Gods, especially those of fundamentalist branches of religion, tend to have more children. Note: this is mirrored by the liberal-conservative fertility gap, and both are fueled in part by divergent views on reproduction.

To give you a sloppy illustration, consider the graph below, which I constructed using national-level data from 55 countries that appear in the 2012 Win-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism and Gapminder total fertility rate data from the same year. Nearly every country with an above-replacement fertility rate has a majority-religious population by quite a large margin.

more religion more babies
Horizontal line represents “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman. Vertical line represents median religious society in the data set.

In a personal email quoted by Norenzayan in Big Gods, a colleague confides that despite reviewing all available data and case studies back to early Greece and India, he was unable to find a single example of a secular society maintaining a birth rate higher than two children per women for even a century. France, Germany, Japan, and quite a few other countries are trying—and failing—to address this problem with a variety of subsidies. Thus far, there is no secular substitute for religion’s fertility premium.

So with forces of nature solidly in support of religion, why is it rapidly losing ground across the rich world? It turns out there are countervailing secularizing forces that, it feels safe to say, have grown powerful enough to chip away at the natural demographic advantage of the religious. Unlike the selection effects that propel religiosity, these are treatment effects, meaning they’re driven by exposure to certain conditions. In addition to the aforementioned creation of secular civic institutions, those conditions include education, rising incomes, and the general removal of existential threat (of the “where is my food coming from” variety, anyway).

Notably, somewhere around 78% of all “religious nones” are “converts,” if you will, meaning they were born into a religion and ceased to identify with it over time.

While there is some observable increase of religious unaffiliation within generations, the flight from religiosity is largely driven by generational replacement. In other words, it’s not like longtime worshipers have suddenly lost faith en masse—it’s that their grandchildren aren’t interested, and older generations are losing ground demographically. This fits the pattern of other paradigmatic shifts in public opinion, and to me, suggests there’s an element of timing involved, that conditional secularization may be contingent upon one’s formative environment.

The question that remains to be seen is whether or not the secularizing rich world can support itself. Our economies, infrastructure, and social welfare systems are reliant on people, and a large population that doesn’t reproduce will age with dramatic consequences (see Baby Boomers). In the long run, this is probably one of the most consequential political issues out there.

Summer Vacation to the Southwest

As we did last year, my girlfriend and I took a trip this mid-August. Seizing the opportunity presented by a friend’s wedding in Denver, we decided on a week-long road-and-camping trip, working our way south to the Grand Canyon with stops at Gunnison National Forest, Mesa Verde, and Page, AZ along the way.

Before we begin, a tip of the cap to Megan, whose tolerance for and skill in trip-planning greatly exceed my own. Some brief descriptions and reflections follow — but I’ll try to let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

*

Gunnison National Forest

Our trip began with a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver to Gunnison National Forest. After failing to secure a Fiat for Italy, I was adamant about renting an on-theme car. And so we navigated the serpentine Route 285 in a Jeep Sahara (admittedly a car with more amenities than I had pictured).

The drive was scenic, thanks to the Rocky Mountain Range. The Rockies are immense, way bigger than anything we have in Massachusetts. At one point, 10,000 feet up, we were craning our necks to view still-higher peaks. The valleys between the mountains were dotted by ranches and yellowing rolls of hay.

When we arrived at Gunnison, we set up the tent and went for a hike. The cool thing about this particular location was that, aside from the presence of small, sparse clearings and a dirt trail, we were basically alone in the woods. We didn’t register or pay anyone; we just drove into the forest and set up camp. Sadly, we didn’t have the fortitude to fully enjoy the free-wheeling atmosphere. After hearing a mountain lion (or something) roar at dusk, we retreated to the car for the night.

One last thing I’ll say is that I was struck by how much trust this kind of camping requires: campers leave their gear unattended; the state doesn’t try to absolve itself of liability with a waiver; no one is monitored to enforce rules. The imperfect analogue that comes to mind is ski resorts, where people leave expensive gear unlocked and unattended, yet theft doesn’t really seem to be a problem. In both cases, I suspect a kind of sub-cultural solidarity is at play.

Mesa Verde

“Technically, it’s not a mesa, it’s a cuesta.” This seeming piece of pedantry was reiterated to us a couple of times by park staff. It is significant, though, because the south-facing slope of Mesa Verde’s plateau was responsible for the agricultural fertility that, for a while, allowed the Pueblo Indians to thrive there.

Mesa Verde is covered in cedar trees, including many that were burnt in one of the wild fires to which the site is apparently prone. Their white husks cover the mesa, creating an ethereal scene made more so by the prevalence of large, unflinching crows.

The most famous site at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace, a 700-year-old, 150-room compound built under a rock shelf. Barring some minor restoration by the National Park Service, it’s held up remarkably well to its mysterious abandonment — unfinished building projects on site suggest the Puebloans left in a hurry, and may have intended to return.

Cliff Palace is unquestionably wonderful, a fitting monument to one of America’s oldest cultures. I get the sense that at the time of its abandonment, the Cliff Palace dwelling would have represented the pinnacle of regional architectural and technological development. At the same time, you have to remember that it was finished around 1,300 AD — not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things.

Page, AZ (Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon)

Even though they border each other, Arizona and Colorado have very different terrains. While Colorado is mountains, plateaus, and ranches, Arizona looks like someone did an OK job of terraforming Mars. It’s red and dry, the occasional outcropping rising from the expanse.

We found Antelope Canyon by Googling “things to do in Arizona.” It looked pretty, and besides, we needed something to break up the drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon. Antelope Canyon was carved by floods that, over time, eroded the sandstone into a narrow, winding series of passages. It still floods every once in a while, according to our tour guide.

We found Wahweap Campground, and thus Lake Powell, by necessity, the result of another Google search. But it should have been a destination in its own right. Situated on the border with Utah, Lake Powell is what you might call the Southwest’s answer to the beach. The water was fresh, clear, and warm.

The Grand Canyon

After years of wanting to go to the Grand Canyon, I was not disappointed. Everything you’ve heard about the Grand Canyon is true. In fact, it’s understated. Its beauty is freakish, prehistoric. From the top, it dominates the landscape — it is the landscape. But looking down on the Canyon only gives you a feel for its magnitude. To really appreciate it, you have to venture down.

Our hike in and out of the Grand Canyon is a tale of unforced error and dogged perseverance. We started our descent at 10:00 am, beginning at the Southern Rim and heading to Bright Angel, a campsite ten horizontal miles and some 7,000 vertical feet away, with about 20 pounds each of camping gear. We’d planned for a three-day voyage: 10 miles the first day, halfway back the second, and the final leg very early in the morning on the third day.

Things didn’t really go as planned, due to a combination of errors and bad luck. The play-by-play is pretty funny, but this post is already too long. So to summarize:

  1. We started way too late the first day. Ten sounds like an early start. It’s not. It’s not recommended that you hike between 11 am and 4 pm because of the mid-day heat. We didn’t arrive at Bright Angel until 7:00 at night.
  2. We didn’t pack right. We brought too much we didn’t need and virtually nothing in the way of snacks (just eight apples). All the food we did bring was dehydrated, and needed to be boiled to eat.
  3. Our cooking fuel spilled in my backpack. This caused us to have to make the trip back in a single day. A ten-mile uphill hike motivated by necessity wasn’t quite what we’d bargained for.

We made it back to the trailhead at night, guided by flashlight. Per Meg’s Fitbit, we climbed the equivalent of 408 flights of stairs that day. There were definitely points along the way when I thought we might not make it. I’ll never forget eating our last two apples while we struggled to hide from the sun on the edge of a switchback.

State of Sin

States are becoming increasingly permissive of various “sinful” economic activities and goods — those understood to be harmful for consumers — allured, at least in part, by the promise of tax revenue they represent. This has certainly been part of the rationale in my home state of Massachusetts, where within the last year the first full casino — MGM Springfield, located a few blocks from my apartment — and recreational marijuana dispensaries opened. Since the fiscal year just ended, now seems like a good time to assess how things are going in that regard.

First, the casino: Before opening its doors, MGM Springfield told state regulators it expected $418 million in gambling revenue over its first full twelve months of operation — $34.8 million per month. According to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s June 2019 report, it hasn’t come within $7 million of that mark yet.

MGM revenue

Since September, its first full month of operation, the casino has generated nearly $223 million in gambling revenue. The state’s take is a quarter of that, about $55.7 million. That’s two-thirds of what was estimated. MGM Springfield’s President attributes its lower-than-expected revenue to a poor projection of the casino’s clientele — fewer “high rollers” from the Boston area and more from up and down the I-91 corridor.

The introduction of new avenues for gambling is well known to cannibalize existing revenue sources. So add to MGM Springfield’s list of woes that the much flashier Wynn Casino recently opened in Everett, MA, a quick trip from Boston, and that neighboring East Windsor, CT is opening another casino next year.

casinos

Massachusetts’ venture into marijuana has been slightly more successful. Sales were supposed to begin in July 2018, the start of the fiscal year, but were delayed until November. Still, the State Revenue Commissioner estimated Massachusetts would collect between $44 million and $82 million from the combined 17% tax (Massachusetts’ normal 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax) over fiscal year 2019. If my math is right, that works out to an expected range of about $32 million to $60 million in sales every month for the remaining eight months of the fiscal year, a threshold met for the first time in May, according to sales data from the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

Marijuana revenue

As of June 26, the last time the data were updated, marijuana sales totaled $176 million, which would put tax revenue somewhere around $22 million this fiscal year. Not bad, but not a great show either — and a bit surprising to me, given the traffic I’ve had to wade through passing a dispensary on my way to work. Furthermore, the state is probably constrained in its ability to raise the excise tax on marijuana, since that could push buyers back into the informal market. And as more states in the region legalize, there’s a good chance sales will drop off somewhat.

On the other hand, sales of marijuana are clearly ramping up as more stores open, and making projections about a brand new industry can’t be easy. I think people more knowledgeable about the regulatory rollout would also contend that Massachusetts bureaucrats are at least partly responsible for the relatively poor sales. The first shops were concentrated in low-population areas of the state, and the closest one to Boston didn’t open until March. Still, the state was off on this one, too. (I thought I was the only one to notice this, but I guess not.)

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A few admittedly tangential reflections on this: The positive spin on the commercialization of marijuana and the proliferation of casinos is that the state is growing more respectful of individual autonomy, abandoning harmful and ultimately unsuccessful prohibitive policy and allowing market forces to dictate what forms of entertainment are viable. If the state should make a few bucks in the process, all the better. Right?

Well, maybe. My natural sympathies lie with the above assessment, but the state’s financial incentive complicates the picture — especially insofar as new sin taxes are attractive alternatives to the prospect of raising traditional taxes.

Taxing the consumption of vices is a markedly regressive form of revenue generation. The most salient example of this is tobacco: its use is more common among those with less education and those below the poverty line, and among smokers, those populations suffer greater negative health effects. But it’s also broadly true that the majority of profits derived from the sale of vices tend to be concentrated among a relatively small group of “power users.” The top tenth of drinkers consume half of all alcohol sold in the United States, for example. I don’t have any data on this at the moment, but if I had to guess, the pathological consumption of vices is probably negatively correlated with the propensity to vote.

The cynical take, therefore, is that the newfound permissiveness of the state is a financially motivated abdication of the state’s most fundamental obligations, a mutually beneficial pact between “limbic capitalists” and politicians.

Ironically, sin taxes have notable limitations as revenue-raisers. For one, unlike other taxes, sin taxes are supposed to accomplish two contradictory goals: curbing consumption and raising revenue. Attention to the former usually requires that tax rates be imposed at higher than revenue-maximizing points. This can also encourage regulators, as with alcohol and tobacco, to tax on a per-unit basis, tying revenue growth to consumption patterns. While they may be tempting stop-gaps, sin taxes are not a long-term budgetary fix, and analysis of their social costs and fiscal benefits should bear that in mind.

“IRL Impressions”

I have, perhaps belatedly, entered the point in life at which I no longer have standing weekend plans to drink with friends. Not coincidentally, I’ve been doing more in the way the contemplative and outdoors-y. A few weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went for a hike on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Credit where it’s due: we got the idea from MassLive’s list of the best hikes in Massachusetts. We’ve tepidly declared our intention to hit them all this spring and summer.)

We opted for the mountain’s most direct root, looking for a challenge. But despite being advertised as strenuous, the trail was mostly tame, its steepest segments obviated by the installation of stone steps. We had a pleasant, if not effortless, ascent, punctuated by this or that detour to examine our surroundings.

After an hour or so, we reached the summit. Monument Mountain isn’t very tall. At a little over 500 meters, it’s about half the height of Massachusetts’ tallest peak, Mount Greylock. But that bit of relativity is less salient when you’re looking down on soaring hawks and the slow-motion lives of the humans below.

It was a beautiful day, and we weren’t the only ones out. In the background, two young women were taking turns photographing each other for the ‘Gram, the perfect receipt of an afternoon well spent. “I’m gonna do some sunglasses on, then do some sunglasses off,” one said. I immediately wrote down the quote in a text to Megan, who laughed.

Every now and again, something like this makes me think about the growing importance of online media — in business, culture, love, politics, and other areas of life. Social media is a mixed bag, but the advantages of scale it offers are pretty much uncontested. I wonder if we’ll reach a point at which the significance of online life — where 10 million can attend a concert and content can be redistributed in perpetuity at low marginal costs — eclipses that of our offline lives. If awareness is a necessary component of significance, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.

A few months ago, my company hired a consultant to help us attract sponsorship for an event. As part of their information-gathering, the consultant asked us what the “IRL impressions” of the event would be — a term that mimics social media analytics and that both parties eventually decided probably meant “attendance.” This struck me as at once amusing and depressing: the internet’s centrality is such that it must now be specified when we’re talking about the real — no, physical — world.