Sunday, August 15, 2010

Freakonomics and the Rebellious Son

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall lay hold of him and bring him out unto the elders of his city…

They shall say unto the elders “Our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” And all the men of his city shall stone him that he die… (Devarim 21:18–21)

There are certain issues currently on the country's social agenda, such as conversion or the case of foreign workers, in which the official Rabbinic establishment is arguably stricter than the plain text of the book they claim to represent.

But it's not always been this way. On one particular issue – the story of the rebellious son that appears in this week's parasha – the opposite is true. Despite the text suggesting adolescent delinquents be capitally punished, the Rabbis of the Talmud – guided by a moral vision of what the text should mean – offered different interpretations to make it more palatable.

Firstly they suggest mitigating circumstances for the law, explaining that such a child – who at a young age is already stealing ('a glutton and a drunkard') – is on a slippery slope that ultimately leads to murder. Better to kill him now – the Rabbis initially argue – while he is relatively innocent, than to be forced to kill him later, when he is guilty.

The Rabbis then go one step further, radically re-reading the entire text in order to make it totally irrelevant in practice.

I wrote about this latter
radical Rabbinic re-reading last year. But as the story comes round again, its worth focusing on the first approach, which seemingly contradicts any possibility of Teshuva (changing one's ways), or deterministically judges an individual's future based on his current behavior.

Surprisingly, this logic isn’t a far cry from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's argument in Freakonomics that the sharp decline in the rate of crime across America can be traced back to the legalization of abortion.

controversially claim that: "As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal…studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade – poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get – were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren't being born."

In other words, unwanted children are more likely to become troubled adolescents, prone to crime and drug use.

Legalized abortion led to less ‘un-wantedness’, and as a result, approximately twenty years later, legalized abortion has led to less crime.

Dubner and Levitt don’t say that all poor unwanted kids end up as criminals. What they do say is that kids who in addition to being poor and unwanted, also fall into bad company, are pretty likely to become murderers.

Not everyone agrees with this. But the Talmudic Rabbis seem to. They explain the identity of this rebellious son by contextualizing the story with the two stories immediately preceding it.

The first (verses 12-14) explains that a Jewish soldier can marry a non-Jewish woman (eshet yefat toar) captured in war, but only after she has been given a month to mourn (and been forced to 'uglify' herself by shaving her hair and growing her nails long).

The second (verses 15-17) warns that if a man is married to two women (one who he loves, the other who he hates) he can't favor the child of the loved one when it comes to inheritance.

The Rabbis read all these stories as one – that anyone who takes a captive woman during wartime will end up hating her and their child and will ultimately have a rebellious son.

The rebellious son is thus a product of a dysfunctional relationship forged (most likely) from lust in the heat of battle rather than from love. He is hated by his father, and his mother suffers trauma from being torn from her previous life.

He is the ultimate unwanted child, who – by stealing wine and meat – has already entered the criminal world at a young age.

As I previously wrote, I'm inspired by the ultimate conclusion of the Rabbis, who used their moral intuition to effectively neutralize what they saw as an ethically problematic law.

But, I can't help being intrigued by the similarity between Talmudic logic written 1500 years ago and a modern best-selling book that melds pop culture with economics.

Regardless of whether one agrees with their controversial claim.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Israel's Strategic Vulnerability and the First Law of Petro-Politics

The land you are entering is not like the land of Egypt, where you planted seeds and irrigated it by food as in a vegetable garden. The land…is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven.
(Devarim 11: 10-12)

Similar to that joke about God's sense of humor being apparent by Him leading the Jews through the desert for 40 years before bringing them to the only place in the region without oil, the above verses from last week's Torah portion touch on the irony of Israel's geography and its contemporary meaning.

We may have stunning scenery, but in contrast to its neighbors, Israel isn’t a place full of natural resources. As the British Chief Rabbi writes, "Israel is by its very nature a vulnerable place, a strategic location at the meeting point of three continents, always at the mercy of surrounding empires but never the basis of an empire itself."

Our fate, it seems, is always to be outnumbered, vulnerable and under threat.

Those living in the country need no reminders of this. On Sunday a grad rocket fell on Ashkelon. On Tuesday, rockets were fired at Eilat. Yesterday meanwhile, Israeli soldiers were attacked on the northern border.

But maybe this situation is actually our strength.

Maybe its davka our lack of natural resources that has caused Israelis to rely on their own courage and ingenuity. In their very readable book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe this exact process – how Israel's adversity-driven culture has facilitated its creative energetic spark.

But what the verses in Devarim particularly reminded me of is a concept coined by Tom Friedman, called the First Law of Petro-politics.

Friedman's Petro-politics law very simple – the greater a country's natural resources, the lower its levels of civil freedoms. As Friedman puts it “as the pace of freedom declines, the price of oil goes up; as the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom increases.”

It seems counterintuitive. Countries should benefit from having natural resources. But many suffer from what the Economist calls the 'Curse of Oil' or the 'paradox of plenty.' Friedman explains that high oil prices often create tyrannical and backward regimes, precisely because their leaders (think Iran, Venezuela or Russia) extract oil rather than constructing a society which extracts entrepreneurship and creativity from its people.

Those states like Israel, who dont have oil wells to drill, are forced to drill their own people's intellect and imagination. (as an aside, Friedman notes that the first Arab Gulf state to hold a free and fair election, in which women could run and vote, was Bahrain, which happens to be the first Arab Gulf state expected to run out of oil.)

So as our weekly portions continues to describe the Jewish people's journey towards the promised land, and as current events continue to remind us of our geo-strategic reality, lets remember that certain aspects of our 'vulnerability' should be celebrated.

Lets just hope that the recently discovered gas fields off Israel's coast don’t change any of this.