Monday, August 29, 2011

Zero Population

A recent thread at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board mentioned this lovely piece of nostalgia:

The poster apparently shares the same concerns as these hip 80s rebels. Given the centuries old scare of overpopulation that continues even today, it is easy for one to wonder if the Mormon emphasis on childbearing and family life is misguided. Are large Mormon families joining the ranks of the Beckhams as "bad role models and environmentally irresponsible?" Are we not worried about "improving family planning or reducing global inequality?" Do carbon emissions and diminishing resources mean nothing to us? Unfortunately for alarmists, our natural resources are doing just fine. The food supply is not "shrinking away" and the oil is not "depleting."

Economist Bryan Caplan and science writer Matt Ridley have recently taken this Malthusian view and turned it on its head by claiming that increasing population is actually a good thing. Caplan writes,

The case against population is simple: Assume a fixed pie of wealth, and do the math. If every person gets an equal slice, more people imply smaller slices. The flaw in this argument is that people are producers as well as consumers. More sophisticated critics of population appeal to the diminishing marginal product of labor. As long as doubling the number of producers less than doubles total production, more people imply smaller slices. These anti-population arguments have strong intuitive appeal. But they face an awkward fact: During the last two centuries, both population and prosperity exploded. Maybe the world just enjoyed incredibly good luck, but it makes you wonder: Could rising population be a cause of rising prosperity? Yes. Economists’ central discovery about economic growth is that new ideas are more important than labor or capital. The main reason we’re richer than we used to be is that we know more than we used to know. We know how one man can grow food for hundreds. We know how to build flying machines. We know how to build iPhones. Best of all: Once one person discovers a new idea, billions can cheaply adopt it.

Matt Ridley refers to this as "ideas having sex." The way ideas mate, according to Ridley, is exchange. Increased exchange and specialization (i.e. market systems) lead to increased productivity and, consequently, the rise of living standards. "The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000…Despite a doubling of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty...has fallen since the 1950s. The percentage living in such absolute poverty has dropped by more than half to less than 18 percent."[1] In fact, it was labor's shift from the family to the market that made it plausible for couples to consider having less children.[2] As Ridley notes, "Human beings are a species that stops its own population expansions once the division of labour reaches the point at which individuals are all trading goods and services with each other, rather than trying to be self-sufficient. The more interdependent and well-off we become, the more population will stabilise well within the resources of the planet...Most economists are now more worried about the effects of imploding populations than they are about exploding ones."[3] Birth rates worldwide have been falling since the 1960s, with "the raw number of new people added each year...falling since the late 1980s" (this is across all cultures, including Mormons).[4]

As of now, if the entire population were to live within the density equal to that of New York City, we could all live here in Texas. The Economist has estimated that each subsequent billion will take slightly longer to reach and that the global population growth will plateau at about nine billion people in 2050. "A 2003 assessment by the United Nations concurs," writes RealClearScience editor Alex Berezow. "The UN projects, under its medium-growth scenario, that the human population will remain relatively stable at 9 billion until the year 2300." Wheaton business professor Seth Norton has documented the effects of liberalized economic institutions on fertility rates: high economic freedom and the rule of law (thus, higher economic growth) tend to lead to lower fertility rates.[5] Or, as Reason's Ronald Bailey summarizes, "economic freedom actually generates an invisible hand of population control." It was this kind of evidence that convinced business professor and economist Julian Simon decades ago to make a wager with alarmists: "select any raw material you wanted - copper, tin, whatever - and select any date in the future, "any date more than a year away," and Simon would bet that the commodity's price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager."

[Environmentalist Paul] Ehrlich and his colleagues picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price rises: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference; if the prices fell, Ehrlich et alia would pay Simon. Then they sat back and waited. Between 1980 and 1990, the world's population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, without a single exception, the price of each of Ehrlich's selected metals had fallen, and in some cases had dropped through the floor. Chrome, which had sold for $3.90 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.70 in 1990. Tin, which was $8.72 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.88 a decade later. Which is how it came to pass that in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07. A more perfect resolution of the Ehrlich-Simon debate could not be imagined. All of the former's grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about "famines of unbelievable proportions" occurring by 1975, about "hundreds of millions of people starving to death" in the 1970s and '80s, about the world "entering a genuine age of scarcity."

This brings us to the final point, which is made perfectly by Caplan: "Libertarians could celebrate these changes as proof that the problem of overpopulation solves itself whether or not governments do anything about it. But if Julian Simon and the intellectual tradition he inspired were right, libertarians should be experiencing severe cognitive dissonance." We should continue to want children despite our economic success (success which allows us to actually afford more children). One does not have to take the Tiger Mom (Caplan has been called the "Anti-Tiger Mom") approach of "no time, no bucks, no fun." Having children should be encouraged for both social and private benefits, as Caplan has recently argued.[6] Not to mention it appears to be the first commandment given following creation.

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth... (Genesis 1:28)

UPDATE: Ronald Bailey's latest (Aug. 30, 2011) Reason article reviews the recent data on trade, prosperity, and fertility. In conclusion, he states, "In the modern era, trade liberalization promotes a virtuous cycle that boosts incomes, raising the value of education, resulting in the protection of women’s rights, and eventually inducing a fall in fertility rates." Also, thanks to Tyler Anderson for pointing out Elder Nelson's comments on overpopulation. Mike Gallagher has an informative article over at BBC, while Matt Ridley and Nicholas Eberstadt chime in on reaching the 7 billion mark. A Catholic philosopher weighs in on Caplan's theory, while another stresses fact checking.


1. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 15.

2. For an overview of the effects of capitalism on the family structure, see Steven Horwitz, "Capitalism and the Family," The Freeman 57:6 (July/Aug 2007).

3. Ridley, 2010, 211.

4. Ridley, 2010, 205.

5. Seth Norton, "Population Growth, Economic Freedom, and the Rule of Law," PERC Policy Series PS-24 (Feb. 2002).

6. Caplan's newest book is Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Casting Lots: Revelatory Divination

And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen...And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:24, 26)

This concept of casting lots at times bothers today's Latter-day Saints. Attempts are often made to reconcile the "giving forth of lots" with modern apostolic practices. However, this anachronistic approach to the scriptures distorts the original setting and clouds proper understanding. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said it best: "Only by searching the scriptures, not using them occasionally as quote books, can we begin to understand the implications as well as the declarations of the gospel." New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III explains this strange event in Acts 1 as follows:

This process [i.e. casting lots] for determining God's will was traditional in Judaism (cf. Lev. 16:8; Num. 26:55; Jon. 1:7-8; 1QS 5:3, 6:16), and there is probably no implied criticism of it by Luke, though scholars have often contrasted this story with those which follow Pentecost where the guidance of the Spirit is relied upon. Clearly, Luke thinks the choice here (and so presumably the method) valid for its day - the disciples could not be criticized for not relying on a source of power and discernment they had not yet received. The process was likely the same as we see in 1 Chron. 26:13-14 - stones in some way marked to distinguish them were placed in a container or jar and shaken until one came out, in this case the one that represented Matthias.[1]

What exactly is a lot? "A lot is an object used as a counter in determining a question by chance. To select by lot may include rolling dice or picking straws and the like. The prevailing wisdom was that "the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone" (Prov 16:33). The point is that God was behind the apparent randomness of the lot. For example, Saul was chosen the first king of mythical Israel by lot (1 Sam 14:41-42: the devices for casting lots here are called Urim and Thummim)."[2]

Cultural practices and influences should be explored, not ignored.[3]


1. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 125-126.

2. Bruce J. Malina, John J. Pirch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 26-27. It should be noted that some scholars disagree with the simplistic comparison of the Urim and Thummim to casting lots. TB Yoma 21b states that the Urim and Thummim along with the spirit of prophecy that accompanied them were missing from the Second Temple. The description of the Urim and Thummim found within the biblical texts includes them being "attached to the high priest’s breastplate which hung from his ephod-apron by gemstone buttons on his shoulders (Exodus 28:28-30; Lev. 8:8). With the urim and thummim attached, the breastplate becomes the breastplate of judgment...and the entire ephod becomes a method for accessing the divine will, a method of prophecy (Num. 27:18-21). These biblical sections are customarily assigned to P, which is usually considered second temple. The urim and thummim appear more frequently in the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch than they do in the MT. RofĂ© suggests therefore that several references to them have been expunged from the MT." (Lisbeth S. Fried, "Did the Second Temple High Priests Possess the Urim and Thummim?" The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 7:3, 2007: 4-5)

3. Cultural exploration and research within the biblical writings might help ease one's discoveries of the folk-magicMasonic and other 19th century influences on the early saints and their revelations.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Moderately Intelligent Man of Business

Today, I finally graduated from the University of North Texas College of Business (Department of Management) with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management. After donning the "black robes of a false priesthood," I was officially initiated into the status of UNT alumni by President Rawlins (a fellow Latter-day Saint).[1] The graduation ceremony was mainly for the College of Business, but included the College of Education and College of Information. However, the College of Business outnumbered the others by a significant amount. This makes sense considering that business is the most popular degree plan, accounting for over 20 percent (more than 325,000) of all bachelor's degrees awarded annually in the United States. Sadly, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: Nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that on a national test of writing and reasoning skills, business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than do students in every other major.

Studies have shown business majors to be less intellectually curious than other majors. This lack of study and curiosity apparently leads to more binge-drinking than their fellow students. Advanced business classes also tend to be larger, eliminating the one-on-one experience with professors. Faculty study expectations are on average lower than that of the students themselves. Furthermore, the overuse of group projects in business curriculum stifles individual writing and research. Author Lynn O'Shaughnessy focuses especially on the writing issue:

Employers have repeatedly emphasized that they want to hire college graduates whose talents include writing. Ah, writing. Not something that biz majors are expected to do very often. After all, how can you require extensive writing in business classes when they can be packed with hundreds of students? Nobody would want to grade all those papers. Obviously this is a problem that business schools need to address. In the meantime, if I was an employer who had to choose between a business major and a philosophy major, I'd pick the grad who could write well, and I know who that would likely be.[2]

Even worse, in my department (management) "no strong consensus has emerged about what students ought to learn or how they ought to learn it." Management has been deemed as "too theoretical and amorphous—a potpourri of psychology, economics, game theory, ethics, and international relations." Critics contest that whatever the intellectual merits are of such a broad spectrum, "the presentation of those diverse topics is superficial and scattered."

Despite my obvious bias toward business, I can see this being a problem. I found organizational behavior worthwhile because of my previous interest in economics, history, philosophy, and so forth. Because of these preexisting interests, I was able to make connections between my personal study and those in the university. I worry that some of my fellow business majors may not benefit from their education in the same manner. Business author Daniel Pink has written extensively on the shift from analytical business thinking ("left-brain") to creative business thinking ("right-brain").[3] While the left-brain material is still necessary, it is not sufficient in today's world. Right-brainers will see much more success as globalization and technology continue to progress. In a recent Telegraph article, he writes,

A few months ago, I was talking to the dean of an American business school. He told me that when alumni return to campus to guest lecture, the current students invariably ask them a version of this question: As you think back on what you learned in B-school, what do you wish you had paid more attention to or had studied more? And invariably the answer is the same. “I’m glad I studied finance and accounting and the quantitative subjects,” the graduates say. “But I wish I had taken all that soft stuff more seriously.” After they left the orderly farm of a case study for the roaring jungle of a real business, it turned out that what seemed superficially soft – organisational behaviour, psychology, people smarts, communication and, yes, empathy – were crucial. Spreadsheets are easy. Spreadsheets never get bored, call in sick, or lose their motivation.

The critiques of business education are valid. However, before the [insert liberal arts degree] majors begin their victory dance or crowing about their more nuanced understanding of the world (yes, you Jane Smiley),[4] it should be pointed out that this decline in business major standards is fairly typical across the board. I often quip that the bachelor degree is the new high school diploma. Given the grade inflation that has taken place over the past several decades, I think it is fair to say that higher education as a whole has suffered. Economist Richard Vedder has found that "some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree." With tuition increasing, Vedder has no problem labeling the push for more college graduates a scam. Vedder explains, "Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole." Apparently, another type of bubble has popped: higher education.

On top of all of this, the extra study of non-business majors does not invest them with any authoritative knowledge regarding business, finance, or economics. While it may be true that businessmen and economists alike are not as accustomed with philosophy, ethics, or literature as they should be, this does not by default mean that the philosophers opining on the state of the economy have any justification for doing so. Business majors may need to crack open the work of Aristotle, but liberal arts majors would do well to be acquainted with Economics 101. Why? Because one advantage of business education is the focus on practical application, even in management. Theory is important, but whether it actually works is critical. Richard Durand, dean of Kogod School of Business at American University, understands this:

Business students also take courses that require the application of quantitative and research methods to make decisions, in fields ranging from accounting and finance to marketing to information technology...The tools they use are every bit as sophisticated and rigorous as those found in scientific labs. They learn how to apply stringent requirements to measure outcomes, which serve them well in their careers. In addition to coursework and co-curricular activities, our students develop professional skills — like team building, leadership, networking, communication and creative thinking — and are taught the value of ethical behavior and the importance of diversity and cross-cultural management. These skills are critical in the workplace and important in life, and developing them requires the ability to bridge theory and practice.

This is why I find the arrogance of complaints such as the following (found at Ask Mormon Girl) to be both annoying and offensive:

What is it about our culture that glorifies these professions [i.e. business, medicine, law] as more appropriate that [sic] the fabled “life of the mind?” Why must the “bookish” Mormons be isolated and few? Do we have no roles within church leadership? Is our resistance to hierarchy and willingness to deal in contradictions and ambiguities too unstable to be useful/productive? ...At what point should I be concerned that maybe Mormon culture isn’t a living human culture? That maybe we are just as conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious as I fear?

"The life of the mind" is at its greatest when applied outside of the mind. As economist Thomas Sowell has argued, "Most of us do not think of brain surgeons or engineers as intellectuals, despite the demanding mental training that each goes through, and virtually no one regards even the most brilliant and successful financial wizard as an intellectual. At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such - not the personal application of ideas, as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures or mechanisms."[5] If one wants to know the validity of a principle, see how it plays out in practice.

As I said elsewhere, the combination of the humanities and the sciences (including business) is a "paradigm [that] recognizes religion and science are not necessarily exclusive, reason and emotion actually complete each other, and the objective and subjective always overlap. In other words, it recognizes that humans (along with their biases) are the ones doing the experiments." This paradigm shift can help all majors maximize their educational pursuits, including a moderately intelligent man of business like myself.


1. I'm sure future posts will address what I consider to be Nibley's unfortunate ignorance of both business and economics. As for now, enjoy some of Nate Oman's comments on the matter.

2. She also makes mention of a recent PayScale annual survey that lists business as the 60th best-paying college degree in starting and mid-career salaries. "It fared worse than such supposedly impractical degrees as history, political science and philosophy."

3. See Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006).

4. Economists Steven Horwitz and Art Carden respond to Smiley in this Forbes article.

5. Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 2-3.