Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Sunday Sermonette: The Just World Fallacy

 The "just world fallacy"or illusion is a cognitive bias that assumes the consequences of actions are morally determined -- that people ultimately get what they deserve based on the rightness of their actions. Psalms 36 and 37 are among many that express this fallacy as fact. Indeed, the just world fallacy is central to most religions -- God rewards the righteous and faithful, and punishes the wicked and impious. Of course this is not true. 

Note verse 11 of Psalm 37, which the RSV translates as "The meek shall possess the land." KJV translates this as "The meek shall inherit the earth," and I suspect that the Hebrew is the same as Matthew 5, which is also usually translated as "The meek shall inherit the earth." As we have seen, a lot of material in the gospels is lifted from the psalms.


To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord.

36 Transgression speaks to the wicked
    deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
    before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes
    that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are mischief and deceit;
    he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots mischief while on his bed;
    he sets himself in a way that is not good;
    he spurns not evil.

Thy steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    thy faithfulness to the clouds.
Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God,
    thy judgments are like the great deep;
    man and beast thou savest, O Lord.

How precious is thy steadfast love, O God!
    The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings.
They feast on the abundance of thy house,
    and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights.
For with thee is the fountain of life;
    in thy light do we see light.

10 O continue thy steadfast love to those who know thee,
    and thy salvation to the upright of heart!
11 Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me,
    nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
12 There the evildoers lie prostrate,
    they are thrust down, unable to rise.

A Psalm of David.


37 Fret not yourself because of the wicked,
    be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass,
    and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your vindication as the light,
    and your right as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
    fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way,
    over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
    Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off;
    but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.

10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look well at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall possess the land,
    and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

12 The wicked plots against the righteous,
    and gnashes his teeth at him;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
    for he sees that his day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows,
    to bring down the poor and needy,
    to slay those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
    and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is a little that the righteous has
    than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken;
    but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
    and their heritage will abide for ever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times,
    in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked perish;
    the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures,
    they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrows, and cannot pay back,
    but the righteous is generous and gives;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall possess the land,
    but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 The steps of a man are from the Lord,
    and he establishes him in whose way he delights;
24 though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
    for the Lord is the stay of his hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old;
    yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
    or his children begging bread.
26 He is ever giving liberally and lending,
    and his children become a blessing.

27 Depart from evil, and do good;
    so shall you abide for ever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
    he will not forsake his saints.

The righteous shall be preserved for ever,
    but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall possess the land,
    and dwell upon it for ever.

30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
31 The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watches the righteous,
    and seeks to slay him.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power,
    or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
    and he will exalt you to possess the land;
    you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

35 I have seen a wicked man overbearing,
    and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.[a]
36 Again I[b] passed by, and lo, he was no more;
    though I sought him, he could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless man, and behold the upright,
    for there is posterity for the man of peace.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
    the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
    he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and delivers them;
    he delivers them from the wicked, and saves them,
    because they take refuge in him.


  1. Psalm 37:35 Gk: Heb obscure
  2. Psalm 37:36 Gk Syr Jerome: Heb he



Saturday, December 30, 2023

Digression -- an important economic fact

I commend to your attention Jeffrey A. Winters in The American Interest, with the essential truth about our present historical moment, that gets obscured in the deliberate distractions thrown up by politicians and journalists who would rather make us think and talk about something else. Pull quote:

Despite polls consistently showing that large majorities favor increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, policy has been moving for decades in the opposite direction. Reduced taxes on the ultra-rich and the corporations and banks they dominate have shifted fiscal burdens downward even as they have strained the government’s capacity to maintain infrastructure, provide relief to children and the poor, and assist the elderly.

Everyone is by now aware of the staggering shift in fortunes upward favoring the wealthy. Less well understood is that this rising inequality is not the result of something economically rational, such as a surge in productivity or value-added contributions from financiers and hedge-fund CEOs, but is rather a direct reflection of redistributive policies that have helped the richest get richer.


Winters attempts to explain how this happens within an electoral republic in which the very wealthy directly possess only a tiny minority of the votes.  But the history is revealing. The average income of working class Americans tripled from 1920 to 1970, but then it stalled out. But after the crash of 1929, incomes of the very wealthy stagnated. But then:

The decade from 1970–80 was the turning point in the Great American Inversion. This is when the boom for the average household turned to bust and the rich soared after decades of treading water. It is as if a big pause button had been hit in 1970 for the bottom 90 percent at the same moment the fast-forward button clicked on for oligarchs. The cumulative effect was breathtaking. By 1990, real incomes for the top 1 percent exceeded the 1920 level threefold and continued to rise thereafter, while those of the majority did not budge. Reversing the pattern of previous decades, the richer you were, the faster gains accrued. It did not matter if Democrats or Republicans were in charge of the White House or Congress. By 2007, the top 1 percent of households had almost five times the real income they had in 1920; the top 0.1 percent had around six times, and the top 0.01 percent were awash in nearly ten times the real income they had enjoyed nine decades earlier. The tables had turned.


Keep in mind that after the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913, allowing a federal income tax, it was originally imposed only on the highest 1% of earners. In 1918, the top marginal tax rate was 77%. But the wealthy exercised all sorts of methods of tax avoidance and didn't really pay that much, so in search of revenue the government began to shift the burden downwards. Nevertheless, marginal tax rates on the very wealthy remained above 90% from 1944 to 1964, and stayed above 70% until 1981. As Winters points out, taxing the so-called "job creators" did not, in fact, stop jobs from being created -- it was exactly during that period the real incomes of working people increased dramatically. But today, while average people's fortunes are stagnating, the ultra-wealthy pay little in taxes at all, a fact of which Donald Trump is proud and which his cult followers find admirable. Thinks about it.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Econoclasm Chapter Two, continued: "Insurance"


Health insurance – again I’m using the term because everybody else does, not because I think it’s accurate – can work in many ways. One of the most important broad dimensions is how the benefit gets delivered.


· Indemnity plans are the most like fire insurance. They pay money when the beneficiary incurs medical expenses. (The money could be paid to the beneficiary, or directly to the provider. That doesn’t much matter.)

· Service benefit plans have negotiated arrangements with providers to pay them a certain amount for a given service, when it is provided.

· Service delivery plans actually provide the service, in other words a provider organization is given the premium and then must provide whatever services a beneficiary happens to need.


Health insurance, even in the indemnity form, is different from fire insurance. We can estimate in advance the cost to rebuild our houses and replace the contents, and buy insurance for that amount and no more. For obvious reasons, insurance companies won’t let us insure our houses for far more than they are worth. But there’s no meaningful limit to the medical costs someone might confront. Once you’ve rebuilt your house, you’re done. But medical expenses may be ongoing for the rest of your life.

Which creates another problem. You can’t hold off on buying fire insurance until your house catches fire; it will only pay for costs incurred after the policy is in effect. But in principle, you could wait until you were diagnosed with cancer to buy health insurance, since most of your costs will be in the future. Obviously, if people could do this, nobody would sell health insurance. The problem that people who are likely to need more medicine would be more likely to purchase insurance is called “adverse selection.”


Another difference is that it won’t do the contractor who rebuilds your house any good to make your new house twice as big, unless you ask for it and pay out of your own pocket, because that won’t increase the insurance settlement. But if doctors know they will be paid more to do more, guess what they’ll do? This is called “moral hazard.” It’s often blamed on patients, who are presumed to go out and get more health care than they really need if it doesn’t cost them the full price. This is quite dubious. Medical interventions are usually unpleasant and in fact dangerous. I’m not going to rush out and get brain surgery just because it’s paid for. The only reason I’ll get it is because a doctor tells me I need it. Either way, however, it is a legitimate problem for insurers, because the doctor has an incentive to tell me I need it since the doctor will get paid.