zaterdag 19 november 2011

Are Jews smarter?

It is sometimes claimed that Jews are smarter than other people. Indeed, that they are richer as well. I do not know if that’s true. I hear enough stupid things in shul. And I encounter plenty of people there who like me earn average or less.

That does not mean that there are no differences between the Jewish tradition and other traditions when it comes to the place of the intellect. I myself have experience with the Catholic tradition as well, and I daresay that piety there did not primarily engage the intellect. Rather it combined with simplicity, subservenience, humility. The innocence of small children and the statement “Blessed are the poor in spirit” are doing well in Catholic circles. And the Dutch Catholic newspaper De Volkskrant until long after the war considered its readers to be subjects who were to be instructed and entertained (respectively by the bishops and popular novelists).

That does not mean that in those circles people don’t think. But the real thinking is preferably not left to the average believer. That can better be done by intellectual elite troops, such as the orders of the Dominicans or the Jesuits. They are allowed to indulge their theological, philosophical and scientific passions to the full. The responsibility to intellectually lead the Catholic faithful rests mainly on their shoulders.

Within the Jewish tradition it applies that learning befits an ordinary believer as well. Indeed, it is considered an achievement for every Jew to lern, that is to intensively study the sacred texts and to discuss them.

Whether one becomes smarter because of that I do not know. That actually is what René Kahn argues in his Ten Commandments for the brain: ten tips to make the brain perform better. These commandments are, in Kahn’s order: Study, Sleep, Make music, Don’t stress, Make friends, Enjoy prestige, Don’t drink, Sweat, Play. Finally is added: Choose your parents carefully, but that one is not meant seriously because it is obvious that you do not provide the implementation of that commandment yourself. This one only serves to put the rest in perspective.

Whether Kahn really assigns a prominent place to studying, can only be known for sure if for him the order of his tips is important. And if it would be clear that his order runs from major to minor or vice versa. Does he deliberately put "Study" at the beginning and "Play" at the end? That makes a big difference, because when play is more important than study then the Catholic Church may again have an advantage in the maintenance of the brains.

See also La Trahison des Clercs

vrijdag 4 november 2011


Obviously they have all been asleep, the Moodys, the Standard&Poors and the Fitches, when the banks wholesaled their worthless mortgages and doomed debts. The credit rating agencies just continued awarding them top status unblinkingly. With the result that the bubbles grew bigger and bigger, as did the explosions which followed.

But now we are four years from then and now it are mostly state debts which are at stake, I am slightly more inclined to listen to them and to the markets. It might be true that the rating agencies at the moment puncture as much bubbles as they create.

I think so firstly because the rating agencies themselves are shocked by the extent to which they have let themselves be carried away in the financial charade. They seem to have resolved to be more critical in their assessments and to explicitly name and shame obscure and misleading financial constructs.

And secondly because the credit rating agencies, with in their wake the markets, seem to operate in a way which is less speculative and alienated from reality. This I gather from the fact that on the rare occasions that the EU and individual governments show some willingness to really put their financial affairs in order, markets react immediately. At such a moment the interest rate on government bonds goes down and the stock markets go up. Apparently then serious calculations are being made by rating agencies and financial institutions that demonstrate that trust is justified again and that investing can pay again.

The circumstance that what governments announce is generally felt not to be enough for a lasting effect, in my opinion does not alter that conclusion: apparently there are bottoms and ceilings. To that I connect the conclusion that, despite the disproportionate financial fictions, there still is a connection to the real economy. So that there is question of a reality check which aims at serious returns on investments.

The importance of this can be clear when you consider that it could be quite different. It is not inconceivable that markets at some point do no longer respond at all to political initiatives, that there is not any inhibition left whatsoever to interest rise and to speculating the euro to death, and that you no longer need any credit rating. Except for a number of speculators, that’s what we rightly fear the most.