Archive for December, 2007

The Thirteenth Apostle

December 21, 2007

My copy of April DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle has arrived! I’m something like two-thirds of the way through it.

The book contains the clearest exposition I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen them all) of Gnostic cosmology, at least Sethian Gnostic cosmology. It’s a difficult subject for us outsiders, filled as it is with numerology and multiple heavens and oddly-named Archons and Aeons and other beings. But Professor DeConick explains it very well; a must for understanding the Gospel of Judas and related texts. From what I’d seen before, from the likes of of the National Geographic team, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels and Karen King (much as I respect all of them), the big lecture in the middle section of the GoJ was still a complete mysterious muddle to me; now it seems clear. Or at least not completely opaque. That without making any judgments as to who is correct about the translation and interpretation.

She also begins with a crisp little exposition of some of the other early non-orthodox/apostolic Christian groups. Fun factoid: the Montanists were like proto-Seventh-Day-Adventists/Jehovah’s Witnesses—they were formed with the expectation of an imminent millennium (like this!), and were known for itenerent door-to-door preachers.

On to the judgmental part!  ADC lays out her main thesis—that the original NG translation is deeply flawed, and that a correct translation is deeply deeply anti-Judas (not to mention anti-apostolic-Christian)—concisely and thoroughly.  Her best arguments are based on simple Coptic grammar—on the relationships of verbs and prepositions and things.  I of course can’t evaluate those arguments at all, but I could at least understand if someone argued back.

Professor DeConick’s other, non-grammatical, arguments against the NG translation are based on Sethian cosmology, hence the necessity of the afore-mentioned introduction.  Those seem very convincing to me too, but again I have difficulty evaluating them myself.  I can certainly see that she has built a consistent case in which all the the surviving text of the GoJ fits nicely, something I can’t say for the NG interpretation or Pagels and King’s variant.  But certainly one who knew more than I do might be able to argue that she’s wrong, starting with the assumption that the author was in fact Sethian.

I’ve seen no substantive argument against DeConick’s position.  Certainly the responses by Marvin Meyer and the NG team (let alone this screed) don’t count as substantive.  I would very much like to see a real debate on this, and I hope there will be one.  But until then I’m with Bad Judas.

I’ll write more on what Professor DeC has to say about the detailed interpretation of the GoJ, which is quite fascinating, after I finish her book.

Scientific Research, Japanese-style

December 21, 2007

I just heard an item on the BBC about Japan’s proposed “whaling mission” in the name of Scientific Research. This scientific mission was to kill a bunch of whales—and I am not making this up—to determine whether there are enough whales that they can kill them. And here I thought it was research into Cetacean Tastiness.

The Tall Tax

December 19, 2007

I’ve skimmed Greg Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl’s “Tall Tax” paper , which has just been getting attention, most (but not all) of it sorta negative. The claim is that, based on what is apparently the prevalent Utilitarian theory of “optimal taxation,” (due mostly to 1996 Nobel laureates William Vickrey and James Mirrlees) we should tax tall people more than short people.

In all that follows, bear in mind I know nothing at all about economics and that nothing I say on the subject is to be trusted.  That said, here’s the argument, as I understand it.

  • We want to design a tax system to maximize “utility,” which I think of as something akin to the sum the happinesses of all the individual taxees.
  • Each individual has a certain amount of “wages” from external sources, and chooses to work at a certain level of productivity, or “labor effort”. Actual income is the product of wages and labor effort.
  • An individual’s Utility is a function only of after-tax income, or “consumption,” and labor effort. It’s increasing in income and decreasing in labor effort; i.e. we want to make lots of money by doing as little as possible.
  • The government can’t observe (and hence tax based upon) wages or labor effort, only income and other externally visible features, such as in this case height.
  • (This part that is based on observed data, not on the Vickrey-Mirrlees framework) Tall people make more money than short people, correcting for all other factors.

Based on that, it follows that tall people should be taxed more than short. Intuitively, short people have to work harder than tall people for the same amount of income, and giving them a tax break at the expense of the tall increases their utility more than it decreases that of the tall.

Now Mankiw, a former chair of the current administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, certainly doesn’t really approve of this sort of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” idea. Indeed,

Before proceeding, a note about our own (the authors’) interpretation of the results. One of us takes from this reductio ad absurdum the lesson that the modern approach to optimal taxation, such as the Vickrey-Mirrlees model, poorly matches people’s intuitive notions of fairness in taxation and should be reconsidered orreplaced. The other sees it as clarifying the scope of the framework, which nevertheless remains valuable for the most important questions it was originally designed to address. The paper presents both interpretations and invites readers to make their own judgments.

I agree with the second  view, presumably Weinzierl’s. Like any model, the Vickrey-Mirrlees framework ignores many things, and is valid only in a certain regime. (I am reminded of the economist’s analysis of dairy production: “Assume a spherical cow of uniform density…”).  In this case an obvious thing the model ignores is the sense of “fairness” that is deeply ingrained into the human psyche.  It may not be rational, but it’s there.  Perhaps it could be included in the V-M framework by making the utility function depend on relative tax rates, or in some other way.  Or not, and some other framework would be needed to analyze it effectively, I don’t know.  But that’s no reason to think the framework doesn’t work perfectly well in many applications.

On his blog, Mankiw says “It seems to me that if you are going to reject a logical inference from a model, you have to explain why. That is not so easy for a height tax, which is precisely the point of the paper.” He’s right about explaining why you have to explain  rejecting inferences from a model, but (I think) wrong about that not being easy for a height tax.


December 17, 2007

Re the op-ed I mentioned in the previous post: what Freedman says about commas in the eighteenth century is obviously true, as even the quickest glance at any document from that era will confirm.  Here‘s a contemporary (1781) example having nothing to do with guns or the constitution.  I really hope the Supreme Court knows better than to heed comma placement.

A Well-Regulated Militia, …

December 17, 2007

I have to agree with Eugene Volokh’s take on Adam Freedman’s NY Times op-ed piece, but it does give me a chance to rant a bit about the Second Amendment and its discontents.

An argument that may be implicit in Volokh’s post, and is at least half-explicit in Instapundit’s post on the same article, is that the framers wanted to ensure that the People would be able to overthrow, or at least resist, the government if such should become necessary.  That’s a standard argument among anti-gun-control partisans, and it’s one I’ve never really believed.  (I’m pretty sure George Washington wouldn’t have believed it either.)  What I DO believe is that the founders didn’t trust large standing armies, which could in their experience all too easily become instruments of tyranny.  Hence the reliance on the militias, hence “a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state.”

We of course no longer feel that way about standing armies.  The Recent Unpleasantness Between the Sections and subsequent unpleasantnesses have changed our minds pretty completely.  The assumptions that went into the framing of the Second Amendment are no longer at all applicable.  This creates a bit of a challenge for interpreting it, if I can understate the case a bit.

While I’m on the topic, I’ll also mention that I think the framing of the debate about the Second Amendment as one of “Individual” vs “Collective” rights has been a brilliant strategy by the anti-gun-control forces.  I don’t buy that framework either, and I don’t think it has much to do with the way the framers thought about it, but once the argument is framed that way the Individual Rights case really does seem stronger.

Again with Judas

December 16, 2007

I just said that the National Geographic translators did not say that the Gospel of Judas meant anything for understanding the historical Jesus.  I’m not sure I could say that for the NG’s publicists.  The hype at the time, and during the TV show, stopped a little short of saying the GoJ had implications of the historical Judas, but it sure wanted you to think it might.

Judas and conservatives

December 16, 2007

More on the Gospel of Judas:

I’m slightly mystified by the way conservative scholars and bloggers–like these–seem so pleased with April DeConick’s new take on the Gospel of Judas.  Hers is really no more friendly (or unfriendly) to orthodox Christianity than the NG’s team, and she herself is no conservative.  Both interpretations assume (or conclude, whichever) that it was written by someone hostile to orthodox/apostolic/proto-standard/whatever Christianity, and neither makes any claim that it has any bearing whatever on the historical events of Jesus’s life.  The two explanations I can think of are that (i) conservatives were really freaked at the idea of a Good Judas, and (ii) The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend.

The Gospel of Judas

December 16, 2007

I eagerly await my copy of April DeConick‘s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. I could wait until I’ve actually read it to write about it, but that would be cheating.

Professor DeConick’s main claims, publicized most prominently in the NY Times, are that the National Geographic’s Judas-fest was deeply flawed, that their procedures (limiting access to their own group of translators, basically) are antithetical to good scholarship, and that a better translation casts Judas not as a hero but as a demon (literally). I find her pretty convincing, even without seeing all the details.

Even in National Geographic’s original translation (the “critical edition” is apparently a little closer to DeConick’s) it’s really not clear to ignorant amateurs like me WTF the thing is about. Much of the text itself is missing, and even if it were complete (or filled in by not-necessarily-trustworthy guesswork) only an expert could possibly understand the loopy (to me!) cosmology that fills most of it, and which is deeply couched in the language of Sethian gnostics or whoever wrote it.

Going back and looking at the text itself, trying to ignore the commentary, I was surprised how little there was, even in the NG translation, that really unambiguously lauds Judas as a hero. Some of DeConick’s interpretive points make sense even without assuming her translation. Most obviously, the NG team interpreted “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me” as Jesus’s assurance that Judas would be superior to the other disciples.  But in context (such context as remains, anyway), “exceeds” would better be interpreted as “exceeds in wickedness,” as Jesus has just been saying how dreadful the disciples are.  And it’s difficult for me to see how “sacrificing” in this text could possibly be interpreted in any positive way.

I’m a CPDL contributor now

December 16, 2007

I’ve submitted all my Billings scores to the CPDL. Years of guilt about using all that free stuff without contributing anything in return are now assuaged!