Loving Cranks to Death

From the latest Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:

[David] Hume writes that clergy (at least those of radical sects) are inherently dangerous and that if allowed to compete with one another will inspire in their adherents "the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of [their] audience." He concludes that the solution is "to bribe their indolence, by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active, than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures". Hume, an agnostic if not an atheist, takes the position that religion is not a public good but its opposite — a public bad — and that government intervention will avert the pervasive negative externality of religious controversy, which clergy create and that threatens public safety.

My colleague Larry Iannaccone:

Looking at Figure 1, one immediately spots the exceptionally low levels of religiosity in the Scandinavian countries and, conversely, the high level of religiosity in the U.S.  As predicted by [Adam] Smith, these extremes correspond to different market structures.  A single state-run (Lutheran) church dominates the market in every Scandinavian country.  In contrast, the United States enjoys a constitutionally mandated free-for-all in which hundreds of denominations compete and none has special status.

Eliezer a year ago:

With science, I think, people assume that if the information is freely available, it must not be important.  So instead people join cults that have the sense to keep their Great Truths secret. … Sure, scientific openness helps the scientific elite.  They've already been through the initiation rituals.  But for the rest of the planet, science is kept secret a hundred times more effectively by making it freely available, than if its books were guarded in vaults and you had to walk over hot coals to get access.

A '92 health econ paper:

[We] estimate and evaluate the effects of aggregate income, institutional and socio-demographic factors on health care expenditures in the OECD countries. … Data analyzed in this study also show some evidence that public financing of health care services is associated with lower expenditures per capita.

The strongest argument for socialized medicine is the strongest argument for socialized religion, that government provision seems to reduce enthusiasm for and consumption of such things. Western Europe seems to have hit on the clever solution of loving both religion and medicine to death.  Should we consider loving other cranks to death?

Imagine bureaus of palm reading, UFOS, conspiracy theories, etc.  In a few decades they might be run by out-of-date boring bureaucrats following stacks of official protocols.  If the best devotees were distracted seeking promotions in the ossified agency, they might inspire less public enthusiasm.

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  • Will Pearson

    How much advertising of health products and services and religion do you get?

    I suspect that some of the difference is due to how much people with nationalised health care bring it to mind.

    Also doctors are not motivated to make their patients consume more health care.

    So yes if you had nationalised palmistry it would put private palm readers out of business and they wouldn’t be advertising.

  • http://www.joshuafox.com Joshua Fox

    Every year from approximately the 8th through the 10th grades I was forced to sit through something called “Family Living through Sex Education,” colloquially “Sex and Drugs Class.”

    Ever since then I have joked (and maybe it’s not a joke) that there may be no better way to turn teenagers off these things than boring, repetitious, badly-taught school lessons going into even more monotonous detail than even an adolescent would want.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

    Noting Robin’s oft-made point of how much of healthcare spending is superfluous or even actively harmful, I wonder if this reduced demand is responsible for the counterintuitively higher apparent efficiency of government-run healthcare systems?

    Joshua: Along similar lines, how about government-rationed booze for kids starting in high school? Maybe even something reasonably dull and cultured-seeming, like required wine-tasting classes. Anyone think that might actually reduce the frequency of underage drinking outside of said required settings?

  • Dan

    “The strongest argument..” !! Sorry but have to hit you over the head with this but single payer IS more efficient, private health insurance seems to be a total market failure when the government with no competition and incentive can do it for a fraction. When it comes to the execution of the services itself a combination of private and public also seems to be the best ala France of course :). Lots of empirical data to examine as almost every country has a different system for comparison.

    Public services and private services is viewed differently, people that showed up every second day at their public health service demanding the latest pills would be seen as abusers and freeloaders of a vital public service while if it is private it is perfectly OK. The main problem is an externality in my opinion even if I don’t abuse health systems I pay more because health is one of the few personal services requiring the attention of a highly skilled professional which there is always a shortage of. The industry is happy with the situation because they have more income for the same amount of effort.

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    What Dan said.

    “Smaller expenditures” != “Smaller demand.”

    We spend more that the rest of the planet on health care not b/c of greater demand, but because of a unique market structure.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I’m reading Medicine and Culture, a book that compares medical practices in the US, France, Britain, and Germany. Not only do practices vary quite a bit, there isn’t even agreement about what the diseases and other problems are.

    Nonetheless, longevity is pretty similar.

    If you can afford it and have a problem that seems intractable where you’re living, maybe you should try other countries.

    I’m wondering why rather different practices and theories converge to similar outcomes. It seems like there should be a stabilizing force.

  • josh

    Hasn’t worked for education.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Josh beat me to the point, although in my case it’s more of a question. Would our wasteful education spending be worse if it wasn’t socialized? There’s good reasons though to think medical spending would be more like religion than like Josh’s conception of our public education spending: examining the other countries with socialized medicine -from what I’ve read they do spend a lot less than us on medicine.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Fitting the same pattern: The War on Drugs.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Imagine bureaus of palm reading, UFOS, conspiracy theories, etc. In a few decades they might be run by out-of-date boring bureaucrats following stacks of official protocols. If the best devotees were distracted seeking promotions in the ossified agency, they might inspire less public enthusiasm.

    This only really works, if that is not revealed to be the official reason. So you’d need some plausible sounding justification for the bureaucracies – research, probably.

    I see a better sucess for the UFO agency, rather than the palm reading one. The UFO groups are very specific and motivated, while those who go to palm readers would just transfer to some other fringe tradition once their own became dull.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Come to think – what would get rid of palm-reading even faster than government bureaucracy would be (the pretense of) scientific acceptance, but with complicated computer programs and calculus needed to do palm-reading the “professional” way.

    Come to think twice, the same goes for most religious claims.

  • Doug S.

    Come to think – what would get rid of palm-reading even faster than government bureaucracy would be (the pretense of) scientific acceptance, but with complicated computer programs and calculus needed to do palm-reading the “professional” way.

    Well, it hasn’t killed technical analysis for picking stocks yet…

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e551b9414f8833 Psy-Kosh

    Stuart: I’m not _ENTIRELY_ sure it is required that that not be the official revealed reason. I’m actually not sure what would happen if simply they fully publicly admitted the intent. Didn’t hide it at all.

    Eliezer: I’m not sure. I _think_ what would happen is that you’d end up with fewer palm readers, but more people believing in palm reading. ie, it would “look like” something real. (ie, has complex specific details, has a definite “right way” etc etc…)

  • Jeremy Abbot

    Imagine bureaus of palm reading, UFOS, conspiracy theories, etc. In a few decades they might be run by out-of-date boring bureaucrats following stacks of official protocols. If the best devotees were distracted seeking promotions in the ossified agency, they might inspire less public enthusiasm.

    Most people consider singularitarians to be cranks as well. Glass houses, stone throwing, etc.

    Of course, it’s hard to imagine LESS enthusiasm for the singularity. Haw haw!

  • http://changegrow.com James Andrix

    I think there is a view among some american christians that state religion does compromise the integrity of the faith and that this is responsible for the moral decay of Europe.

    Eliezer:
    Come to think twice, the same goes for most religious claims.
    Sounds like academia. There’s a lot of (I think) tacked on complexity to the discussion of say, philosophy. It’s not math, but it serves the function of alienating ‘normal’ people from the topic.
    But you can also get a lot of that complexity in the tomes and traditions of the religion itself. Few catholics read the catechism.

    There are already unpopular high-bar aspects to religion. I’m not sure how to establish that only someone who believes and understands everything in the big-book is part of the group. Especially not from outside.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    How much waste is there in palm reading?
    UFOs and conspiracy theories seem to me to be a different category. In particular conspiracy theories, given that conspiracies do exist and governments do engage in them.
    You may have reached for groups that there’s widespread consensus among rationalists that they’re irrational, but I think the list you ended up with is less wasteful private sector irrationalisms than groups the rationalist community feels most comfortable feeling superior to.

    I think Eliezer with “war on drugs” is probably closer to looking at largest sectors of waste that may dissipate under government mandate and management.

    Premarital and extramarital dating, housing, clothing, and vehicles may be other examples (worth creative examination and experimentation).

  • http://transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

    Great post. It seems that America is then doomed by the effectiveness of its own free market in religion… freedom of religion unleashed the power of memetic natural selection to optimize mind viruses… *shudders*

  • mjgeddes

    >Should we consider loving other cranks to death?

    All I ask for is my own office, title and a couple hundred grand per year. Too much to ask? Come on Obama, how about some international hand-outs? I think some additional government ‘bail-outs’ are in order for ‘individual innovators’ willing to ‘think outside the square’ to ‘combat recession going forward’, and I can think of no better candidates than these blog readers.

  • Cyan

    In Iceland, belief in elves is widespread, government sanctioned, and not notably on the wane…

    Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people”—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it.

    A tangential observation from this article on Iceland’s financial collapse.

    More here.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Has expenditure per-pupil on higher education increased faster than on K-12?

  • josh

    TGGP,

    Almost certainly, but there isn’t a whole lot of room for growth in k-12. Besides, isn’t the theory that government provision should reduce the enthusiasm for the product. In this case, the government provides 12 full years and a substantial portion of higher education and yet we continue to demand more and more.

    I love Robin’s attempts at synthesizing, but I’m not sure you can predict that memeplexes with such different cultural niches will react similarly.

  • http://www.transhumangoodness.com Roko

    “All I ask for is my own office, title and a couple hundred grand per year.”

    – haha! I love it when people have a healthy sense of self-depreciating humor. You almost sounded… British there

  • Eric

    If people continue to demand more and more education, but care less and less about the content of that education, is their enthusiasm meaningful?

    Demanding universal pre-K while undermining the grade signals (through grade inflation) is absurd. People care more about the signals — both “I care about kids; we need more school” and “My kid is getting As” — than they do about the amount of actual learning that occurs.

    I think we’d find it important to have the palmreaders around if they were part of the government — we just wouldn’t care what they said.

  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    soulless automaton:
    Along similar lines, how about government-rationed booze for kids starting in high school? Maybe even something reasonably dull and cultured-seeming, like required wine-tasting classes. Anyone think that might actually reduce the frequency of underage drinking outside of said required settings?

    I don’t have a reference at hand, but it’s been my understanding that parents who give their teens reasonable amounts of alcohol together with, say, family meals, tend to end up with kids who use alcohol responsibly. Which should be a no-brainer, once you think about it…

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Come to think – what would get rid of palm-reading even faster than government bureaucracy would be (the pretense of) scientific acceptance, but with complicated computer programs and calculus needed to do palm-reading the “professional” way.

    That kind of thing gets automated– and astrologers are quite happy to use computer programs.

    I don’t know if there’s a demand for horoscopes done by hand.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    The approach Mankiw seems to favor to reduce prevalence of economically wasteful, crankish behavior is consumption/luxury taxing (SUV driving could be considered crankish behavior too).

    Although it occurs to me that it might be politically easier to have government provide popular crankish goods than to have it tax them.

    Perhaps consumption taxing would work if we focused on the small enough subset of the crankish waste that could garner sufficient public acquiesence. For example, consumption taxing private tuition and tutoring for families in the top x% of wealth and/or income. (2%? 5%?) Consumption taxing private physician usage to the same degree, also perhaps with means testing.

  • frelkins

    @TGGP

    k-12

    We have to be honest here. As the government has tossed cash at various education programs, such as creating the Dept. of Education, No Child Left Behind, etc. etc., the national US graduation rate has not improved very much at all. The issue is of course hard to discern since everybody’s fudging.

    In the Carter years, the national average rate (http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/p20-314/p20-314.pdf) seems to have been about 65%? (the report jacks up figures by counting people who get a GED later, which is clearly cheating); (http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_baeo.htm) in 1998, 71%; No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001 & signed I think in 2002; the latest figures I can find are from (http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?submeasure=36&year=2006&level=nation&mode=graph&state=0) 2006 citing a 68% national average rate. (I would have made those clickable links, since actual evidence improves a discussion, but typepad seems to be no longer accepting comments that contain links. typepad so completely sux!!!!)

    So maybe for a while tossing money at poor Southern public schools via the creation of the Dep’t of Education worked, but not much since then appears to have done diddly.

    Robin’ suggesting that the more the government does, the less the public consumes. This may indeed apply to k-12 education – the more the government tosses at it, the less the public graduates? No Child Left Behind may have lowered the gradation rate?

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    Clever argument. But is it true that private health services have the same appeal as private knowledge?

    People have always been suspicious and jealous of secret elite societies, not just religious ones. Consider Skull & Bones, Free Masons, Knights Templar, &c.

    But I can’t think of any comparable suspicion of how people spend money on medicine. Most would say that’s a quite sensible way to spend disposable income, no?

  • Grant

    Robin may have the causation backwards: socialization of a thing might come from lack of enthusiasm for it. If most residents of a country are apathetic towards religion, who cares what the national religion is? If most people don’t like to spend a lot of money on health care, who cares about government rationing of health services?

    Robin really hasn’t convinced me that our over-consumption of health care is irrational. Given the large information asymmetries in the market, isn’t it safer to over-consumer than under-consume? Given that most health care is subsidized by the government or employer-provided insurance, isn’t over-consuming a safe strategy? The consumer is rarely paying all the costs, after all.

    Dan, I think you’ve got it backwards. Private resource consumption does impose costs on others also wanting to consume, but the payer (the insurer in the case of health care) pays those costs, so there is no externality. “Abusing” (I put that word in quotes because most people are perfectly happy to convince themselves they aren’t over-consuming a common good) public services is generally an externality because the cost of being stigmatized an abuser (if that even happens) is generally less than what ones gains by abusing. A better barrier to over-consumption is probably both stigmas and private costs. Of course there are a lot more things going on in health care that influence the market.

    Besides, the problem is the rising costs of health care, not necessarily over-consumption. We over-consume junk food, but it doesn’t get more expensive, Economics of scale generally means over-consuming something makes the unit cost lower, not higher.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    We may overconsume on airline safety, troop safety -in general safety from vivid rather than mundane dangers.

  • Floccina

    1. Life in the USA would be more boring if we got rid of such things and thought they have not in Scandinavia, they may be replaced by something worse. BTW I had some friends from Finnland and said that Finnland was very boring.
    2. Also people can opt out of this stuff and save a bundle. Nortin Hadler’s book “The last Well person” by Nortin Hadler shows one what healthcare to opt out of save big on healthcare.

  • Grant

    HA, good points. It does make sense to over-consume safety from vivid dangers, because it takes less cognitive resources to identify them. But we still seem to over-do it don’t we?

    Most people seem to think we’d over-consume airline safety (especially relatively to automotive safety) even if the FAA wasn’t around to make people over-consume. Some of that may be explainable as limited information, because some people don’t realize how safe flying is. But I’d bet most people who fly realize that it is almost ridiculously safe (at least in the USA).

    I’m not sure if we really over-consume troop safety, or if we just like to claim we do.

    Health is a very mundane danger, though.

  • Dan

    Nancy: Yes, that is true, treatments can be radically different yet effective, the preference can very well be explained by culture as well as costs. I red an article in the NYT recently about the difference in treatment of childhood cancer like leukemia in the UK and US. (Both treatments is effective and scientifically proven).

    Grant: Insurance is funded by premiums… Everybody still pays more, where do you think the insurer gets the money to pay the inflated costs! You!

    I briefly addressed economics of scale in my previous post, it is almost non existent with Doctors, patients requires the constant attention of one of the most highly skilled professionals on the planet(other highly skilled professionals like scientist and engineers never have any contact with the consumers paying their salaries). With hamburgers the price will temporarily spike and serve as a signal to ramp up production. Medical schools is almost completely inelastic when it comes to “production” of doctors. Their incentives is almost completely meritocratic and quality orientated, 99% of the population is already excluded by simple entry requirements alone.

    So we are over consuming a resource where the supply is almost completely inelastic over the short term.

  • Brian Macker

    I can’t believe an economist doesn’t understand the effects of third party payers, doctors guilds, medicare and medicaid on the system. No, according to Robin, it’s due to suppression of prices in socialist countries due to some enthusiasm factor.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Posts like this are why I love OB.

    🙂