The Price of Everything

"According to Eduardo Porter of The New York Times editorial board, prices are more interesting than most of us realize. And the prices that never appear on a price tag are the most fascinating of all. In his new book The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do (2010, Portfolio), Porter explores the surprising ways prices affect every aspect of our lives, including where we live, who we marry, how many kids we have, and even how religious we are."

Here is the introduction to Porter's book.


Anybody who has visited a garbage dump in the developing world knows that value is an ambiguous concept. To most people in the developed world, household waste is worthless, of course. That's why we throw it away. Apparently, Norwegians are willing to pay about $114 a ton for somebody else to sort their recyclables from the general garbage. A survey of families in the Carter community of Tennessee several years ago found they were willing to pay $363 a year, in today's money, to avoid having a landfill nearby.

But slightly beyond our immediate experience, waste becomes a valuable commodity. In Kamboinsé, outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, farmers pay municipal trash haulers to dump unsorted solid waste on their sorghum and millet fields as fertilizer -- bits of plastic included. The going rate in 2003 was 400 francs per ton. In New Delhi, a study in 2002 found that waste pickers earned two rupees per kilo of PET soda bottles and seven rupees per kilo of hard plastic shampoo bottles.

Read the rest

Catholic Mischief in Glasgow

Even those who agree with the great Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything might be surprised to learn that the toxin extends its reach even to football (soccer). Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, has two major football teams - indeed they are Scotland's two top teams - Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

By long tradition, the fans of these two teams break down by religion: Celtic represents the Catholics and Rangers the Protestants. Historically, the reason is the long association between this region of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Belfast and Glasgow have more in common than their depressed ship-building industries. The large Catholic population of Glasgow is mostly of Irish origin, while Orange Parades such as this one through the centre of Glasgow are all-but indistinguishable from their counterparts in Belfast.

If, in a crucial match between Rangers and Celtic, a referee's decision is unpopular, there is a high chance that he will be accused of sectarian religious prejudice, something that, I imagine, is not often seen in baseball or American football.

(photo courtesy BBC News)

This is the background to bitter storm that erupted recently, in which I seem to have become embroiled although I am neither Scottish nor a soccer fan. Hugh Dallas, czar of referees for the Scottish Football Association was fired because he passed on, in an eMail, a joke about Roman Catholic child rape. The pope is not, so far as we know, a pederast, but there is good evidence that he was deeply involved in covering up the crime and contributing to its repetition by priests moved to other dioceses and parishes. Read the rest

A trip to the Peruvian Andes

(As part of his research for a book he's writing on microfinance, Bob Harris took a trip through the Peruvian Andes, including Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, where he studied the architecture, refused to try corn-and-human-saliva beer, imbibed in coca tea ("maybe the best damn thing I ever drank"), and visited with people who live on floating islands made out of reeds. His photos and comments are fascinating. -- Mark) Read the rest

"We did not know that child abuse was a crime," says retired Catholic archbishop

Retired Catholic Archbishop Rembert G Weakland, who has been accused of covering up widespread child rape by priests in Milwaukee, has a forthcoming memoir in which he wrote the following bits of wisdom:

"We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature."

Weakland, who retired in 2002 after it became known that he paid $450,000 in 1998 to a man who had accused him of date rape years earlier, said he initially "accepted naively the common view that it was not necessary to worry about the effects on the youngsters: either they would not remember or they would ‘grow out of it’."

"We did not know that child abuse was a crime," says retired Catholic archbishop Read the rest

LA Times religious reporter loses faith

My favorite news magazine, The Week, reprinted this fascinating personal account written the LA Times' former religious correspondent.

Nine years ago, William Lobdell was assigned to cover religion for the LA Times. He was a born-again Christian when he got the gig. In 2001 he started studying to convert to his wife's religion, Catholicism. That was when the trouble began for Lobdell. He began reporting on the molestation scandals in the Catholic church:

I discovered that the term "sexual abuse" is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ's representative on Earth. That's not something an 8-year-old's mind can process; it forever warps a person's sexuality and spirituality.

Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.

I couldn't get the victims' stories or the bishops' lies -– many of them right there on their own stationery -– out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different -– the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.

In 2002, Lobdell decided not to go through the rite of conversion. Read the rest

When PR flacks "take things seriously"

Dan Gillmor's PR Week editorial, "They Take it Seriously? Oh, Sure" centers on a nice little linguistic observation: when a PR head says, "We take ______ very seriously," they mean "We don't care at all about ________."
Privacy violations, a drumbeat these days, constantly get this treatment. On December 15, the AP reported charges against a New Hampshire teenager who allegedly stole credit-card numbers from McDonald’s customers, with this quote from the company: “We take these matters very seriously…”

On December 14, after it was revealed that patients’ medical data went missing from a data-management company in Ohio, the healthcare provider’s spokesman intoned, “(W)e take this sort of thing very seriously,” according to a Pennsylvania TV station.

Taking things seriously isn’t limited to privacy slip-ups. A Texas district attorney, reacting to a Dallas newspaper’s successful campaign to unseal Catholic Church documents about alleged sexual-abuse cover-ups, said, “We take these kinds of abuse scenarios very seriously” (The Dallas Morning News, December 15).


Update: For more, see the punchline to yesterday's Penny Arcade strip -- Thanks, Jamie! Read the rest

Residents of Sadr City, Baghdad angry over "Buddy Christ" leaflets

Iraqi Shiite residents of Baghdad's Sadr City are upset about smiling Jesus posters that appeared on the streets after a joint US-Iraqi military operation:
Residents found a picture of "Buddy Jesus" from [Kevin Smith's] 1999 film "Dogma" posted in the streets, accompanied by a badly photocopied pamphlet bearing a crude approximation of a US military crest and outlining a US "plan" to subjugate the neighborhood.

"That picture abuses our Imam Mahdi and his holy character, and mocks our sacred figures," said resident Abu Riyam Sunday, apparently mistaking the satirical movie still of Jesus for one of Shiite Islam's historical imams, whose images adopt a Jesus-like iconography.

Link (thanks, Mitch Wagner)

Reader comment: ttrentham says,

Kevin Smith posted on his own blog about it today: Link.
Chris says,
This story is really unfair to Muslims -- thanks AFP. It makes them sound like morons, confusing obvious iconography of Jesus for that of one of their Imams. Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that Jesus is also a sacred figure to Muslims (though in a different way than for Christians, clearly). Shoddy journalism on AFP's part -- shockingly insensitive and ignorant of the beliefs of 1 billion people. No wonder we have trouble understanding each other. See this Wikipedia link for a good explanation.
Nathaniel Thomas says,
Although I don't know what the residents of Sadr City thought the "Buddy Christ" picture to be besides what the AFP story says, I think Chris underestimates the number of people who realize the significance of Jesus in Islam.
Read the rest

Update on SubGenius child custody case

Here's the latest news about performance artist Rachel Bevilacqua (AKA Rev. Magdalen), a SubGenius reverend who lost custody of her 10-year-son after a pink judge saw photos of a SubGenius convention she participated in. (Disclosure: I have been a card-carrying SubGenius reverend for 22 years and take the word of JR "Bob" Dobbs to be the literal truth. I have also contributed to Rachel's legal fund.) Read the rest

Woman denied custody of son for participating in SubGenius holiday

As a card-carrying minister of the Church of the SubGenius since 1984, I am outraged that a judge has taken a mother's child from her because she participated in a sacred SubGenius ritual event.
…On February 3, 2006, Judge Punch heard testimony in the case. Jeff entered into evidence 16 exhibits taken from the Internet, 12 of which are photographs of the SubGenius event, X-Day. Kohl has never attended X-Day and is not in any of the pictures. Rachel is depicted in many of these photos, often wearing skimpy costumes or completely nude, while participating in X-Day and Detroit Devival events.

The judge, allegedly a very strict Catholic, became outraged at the photos of the X-Day parody of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ — especially the photo where Jesus [Steve Bevilacqua] is wearing clown makeup and carrying a crucifix with a pool-noodle dollar sign on it while being beaten by a crowd of SubGenii, including a topless woman with a “dildo”.

…Judge Punch lost his temper completely, and began to shout abuse at Rachel, calling her a “pervert,” “mentally ill,” “lying,” and a participant in “sex orgies.” The judge ordered that Rachel is to have absolutely no contact with her son, not even in writing, because he felt the pictures of X-Day performance art were evidence enough to suspect “severe mental illness”…

Link (thanks, weev!) Read the rest