Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forget Lehman Brothers, it's the witches who should be worried

Last week in the Financial Times, Tim Hartford wrote about the link between witch trials and tough economic times:

"Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago, has tried to gather systematic data on the link between witch trials and the weather. The results look striking: between 1520 and 1770, colder decades go hand-in-hand with more trials. The link may be simply that witches were often blamed for bad weather. Or there may be a less direct link: people tend to lash out in tough times. There is some evidence, for instance, that lynching was more common in the American south when land prices and cotton prices were depressed.

Such deaths are, sadly, not a historical footnote. In Meatu, Tanzania, half of all reported murders are “witch-killings”. Such murders have been documented elsewhere in Africa, in Bolivia and in rural India. The difference between the historical executions and modern attacks are that a Tanzanian “witch” typically dies at the hands of her own family. The machete is the weapon of choice."

Economists typically assume that individuals are "rational"-- that is, they base their decisions on costs and benefits. Hartford, the author of "The Logic of Life" does a particularly good job of showing the rational basis for even the strangest behaviors.

What's interesting is that before the "little ice age" in the mid-16th and 17th centuries, witch trials were not common in Europe. In fact, Hartford points out that the medieval Catholic Church dismissed the idea that witches had supernatural powers (one of the few times it sided with the forces of rationality).

So why would people target witches during economic downturns? The Tanzania example provides some clues:

"Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of Economic Gangsters, a book about the economics of crime, corruption and war, has studied the Tanzanian situation. He argues that there is a direct economic motive for the attacks. Tough times in a Tanzanian household may well result in starvation, and the elderly – especially women – are at risk of being sacrificed to free resources.

As evidence, Miguel points out that victims of witch attacks in Meatu district – almost all old women – tend to be from the poorest households. The murders are much more common during years of drought or flood."

The upshot is that understanding the "rational" basis for seemingly crazy behaviors helps us figure out how to solve problems:

"A grass-roots alternative has emerged in another Tanzanian district, Ulanga, where traditional healers “cure” elderly women of witchcraft by shaving their bodies and smearing their pates with “anti-witchcraft paste”. Miguel does not think it’s a coincidence that the healers also provide the women with food and shelter during famines, in expectation of payments from their families in better times. Spiritual ceremony meets social insurance: it is a solution, of sorts."

Individuals may harm others for no apparent reason. But groups usually require some sort of push. Rather than dismissing witch trials as "crazy" of "culture-driven", we can look to see if there is some logical basis for them. As the US sits on the brink of a financial meltdown, we may want to take a few minutes to think about who we might lash out against as times get tough. Any bets?

No comments: