Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Mighty Fortress is Our God

A Mighty Fortress is our God

-Martin Luther

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

World military expenditures – an American perspective!

The biggest military spenders

ON JUNE 8th China’s top military brass confirmed that the country’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbishment of an old Russian carrier, will be ready shortly. Only a handful of nations operate carriers, which are costly to build and maintain. Indeed, Britain has recently decommissioned its sole carrier because of budget pressures. China’s defence spending has risen by nearly 200% since 2001 to reach an estimated $119 billion in 2010—though it has remained fairly constant in terms of its share of GDP. America’s own budget crisis is prompting tough discussions about its defence spending, which, at nearly $700 billion, is bigger than that of the next 17 countries combined.

From The Economist



Sunday best

Something that struck me this morning is the hypocrisy in much of the current charismatic church. We ridicule traditional churches who dress up in suits and ties – ‘Sunday best’ – to impress everyone, yet we have our own brand of ‘Sunday best’ – the caricatures of our lives. We paint these wonderful pictures of strength, success and happiness for everyone to see, but whether or not they are true is immaterial. This seemingly small flaw in our churches is so nefarious that we should be repenting ad nauseum. God help us!

I include three things: the first is an excerpt from ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ and the second and third are lyrics from two profound songs:


“A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old!- to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.

At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she creid. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

*From Phillip Yancey’s excellent book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?


“Stained Glass Masquerade”

Is there anyone that fails
Is there anyone that falls
Am I the only one in church today feelin’ so small

Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong

So I tuck it all away, like everything’s okay
If I make them all believe it, maybe I’ll believe it too
So with a painted grin, I play the part again
So everyone will see me the way that I see them

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

Is there anyone who’s been there
Are there any hands to raise
Am I the only one who’s traded
In the altar for a stage

The performance is convincing
And we know every line by heart
Only when no one is watching
Can we really fall apart

But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be

Would your arms be open
Or would you walk away
Would the love of Jesus
Be enough to make you stay


Jason Gray – The Golden Boy And The Prodigal Lyrics

 There are two sides to every person

Like the two sides of a dime
Heads or tails it depends upon
Who’s watching at the time
Though I hate to say it
Mine is no exception
One part is the prodigal
The other part: deception

Like the prince and the pauper
Like Jacob and his brother
Each hide a different heart
Each a shadow of the other
Me and my doppelganger
Both share the same blood
One I have hated
The other have I loved

One of them’s the Golden Boy
The man I’d like to be I show him off in the parades
For all the world to see
The other is much weaker
He stumbles all the time
The source of my embarrassment
He’s the one I try to hide

The Golden boy is made of straw
His finest suit will surely burn
His vice is the virtue
That he never had to earn
The prodigal’s been broken
And emptied at the wishing well
But he’s stronger for the breaking
With a story to tell

I’m not easy with confessions
It’s hard to tell the truth
But I have favored the golden boy
While the other I’ve abused
And he takes it like a man
Though he’s longing like a child
To be loved and forgiven
And share the burden for awhile

So take a good look in the mirror
Tell me who you see
The one who Jesus died for
Or the one you’d rather be
Can you find it in your heart
To show mercy to the one
The Father loved so much
That he gave his only son…

Yale jumps on the band-wagon

Yale has jumped on the Open-Course band-wagon, and what a wonderful band-wagon it is! Not only are they adding courses quite frequently, but their courses all contain a full set of downloadable video lectures. Wonderful! Yale’s motto ‘Lux Et Veritas’ (also in Hebrew on the logo) means ‘Light and truth’. Bravo!!

See the various departmental offerings below and the history course that has made its way onto my to-do list!


HIST 202 – European Civilization, 1648-1945
Professor John Merriman
Fall, 2008
This course offers a broad survey of modern European history, from the end of the Thirty Years’ War to the aftermath of World War II. Along with the consideration of major events and figures such as the French Revolution and Napoleon, attention will be paid to the experience of ordinary people in times of upheaval and transition. The period will thus be viewed neither in terms of historical inevitability nor as a procession of great men, but rather through the lens of the complex interrelations between demographic change, political revolution, and cultural development. Textbook accounts will be accompanied by the study of exemplary works of art, literature, and cinema. more >>

Poor Economics – book review

The Gospel according to Banerjee and Duflo*

This book review has subsequently been published in Development Southern Africa – see here

In their latest book, Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee present a highly-readable overview of the problems facing the world’s poor, as well as the most effective ways of overcoming those problems. The book covers the usual suspects of poverty research (health, education, nutrition, family-size, and financial access), and provides an overview of the findings from Randomized Control Trials. It reads as a nontechnical summary of their research over the last two decades and is completely free of economic jargon and theoretical grand-standing, making the book accessible to non-economists.

Those more familiar with RCT research will find the countless stories and anecdotes enlightening and informative. By painting a nuanced picture of the lives and choices of the poor, we are better able to understand the sometimes elusive logic that drives households, families and individuals to make the choices they do.

Yet it must be said that although the book is filled with colourful vignettes and moving anecdotes, the authors do not base their recommendations on a few personal encounters – as is so often the case in qualitative research. Rather, they use the anecdotes as emotionally-pleasing poster-boys for the less palatable RCT’s that litter the end-notes of every chapter and convince the reader that this is all based on highly legitimate stuff.

One of the lasting motifs of the book is the humanization of the poor. By placing their evidence in the wider sociological context that poor people inhabit, we begin to see that while the world of the poor is vastly different from that of our own, the contradictions and complexities inherent in all human behaviour are no less prevalent among the poor.

Another notable feature of the book is the companion website ( The site provides downloadable data for every chapter of the book, as well as data-visualisations and extensive references and research links. There is an entire section devoted to ‘Teaching the book’ which provides lecture notes, problem-sets, podcasts and assignments for every chapter of the book.  Keeping in step with the pragmatic ethos of the book, the website’s ‘What you can do’ section has links to a number of organisations involved in various projects around the world.

In their concluding chapter, the authors highlight ‘five key lessons’ which emerge from their research. The classification is both interesting and informative:

1)      Information deficiency – the poor often lack information, such as the benefits of immunization and early education, or the higher HIV prevalence among older men.

2)      Lack of access – they lack access to financial products such as savings and retirement accounts, as well as medically enhanced products like chlorinated water, iodized salt, and fortified cereals – all of which could substantially improve their lives.

3)      Missing Markets – Although there are success stories of markets emerging to meet the needs of the poor (microcredit for one), many times the conditions for a market to emerge on its own are simply not there. This deprives the poor of many services that would enhance their lives, especially health insurance and no-frills savings accounts.

4)      The three I’s: Rather than predatory elites, the Ideology, Ignorance, and Inertia of experts, aid-workers and local policy makers often explain why policies fail and why aid does not have the desired effect. Rather than continually pointing to abstract conspiracy theories that are difficult to prove, one should focus on the errors we know we are making.

5)      Incorrect expectations – the poor often do not know what they are entitled to from local government, as the authors conclude; ‘politicians whom no one expects to perform have no incentive to try improving people’s lives’. Furthermore, low expectations of their own capabilities, as well as their children’s educational capabilities, become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Throughout the book the authors highlight what solutions have worked in the past and why. They make numerous thoughtful proposals about the way forward, but their most valuable contribution is their pragmatism in tackling the global problem of poverty.  Although there are institutional deficiencies in many developing countries, these do not negate the possibility of improving governance and policy, they argue. Indeed, their research shows that improvements can be made in spite of these institutional deficits. Thoughtful policies that nudge people in the right direction can have large impacts; “We may not have much to say about macroeconomic policies or institutional reform, but don’t let the modesty of the enterprise fool you: Small changes can have big effects”.

After removing the straight-jacket of academic formality, Banerjee and Duflo provide a flowing and detailed portrait of the lives of poor people. They are content to confine their world-class research methods and award-winning techniques to the end-notes of the book and instead give centre stage to the problem at hand: global poverty. This combination of technical rigour, readability and pragmatism is likely to make this book a classic in development economics literature. By moving beyond platitudes and ideological dogmas, they show us that a small group of thoughtful, committed researchers can change the way we look at poverty, and hopefully, the way to eradicate it.

* Book review: ‘Poor Economics

A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’

By: Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

-Nicholas Spaull