The Tragedy of the Chametz

matzahIt is the season of both Lent and Passover, which means that for Christians and Jews it is the season of making small but pointless sacrifices. This always strikes me as mildly tragic. If you’re going to sacrifice your pleasures in order to feel virtuous, why not at least do it in a way that helps someone? Instead of giving up meat or leavened bread, donate a few hundred dollars to a worthy cause.

[Before you tell me that giving up meat is socially beneficial because it holds the price of meat down, remember that low prices are good for buyers only to exactly the same extent that they're bad for sellers. Changing a price does no net good. The rigorous proof of this is part of the theory of pecuniary externalities, on which the Wikipedia entry is uncharacteristically useless.]

Observing Lent or Passover has much in common with things like running around a track: You push yourself to do something hard, you feel good about it, and you leave the world pretty much the way you found it. What a shame that you didn’t push yourself to do something useful instead. I bet you could have learned to feel almost as good about that.

The two tragedies have very different micro foundations. Athletic events are wasteful essentially because they’re arms races; the winner succeeds only by preventing others from succeeding. (I posted about this here and here.) On Passover, by contrast, we can all be equally successful at sticking to the same ridiculous diet. So athletic competitions and religious observance are tragic for fundamentally different reasons, even though they’re tragic in the same way.

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34 Responses to “The Tragedy of the Chametz”


  1. 1 1 Diggle

    You have argued in the past that charity is of net benefit to society, except for the vague feeling of satisfaction which the giver ‘feels’. Now you are saying that it is a better alternative than fasting which you also claim is of no benefit to society except the satisfaction of the abstinent. Maybe I’m just sleepy, but it appears you’re inconsistent.

  2. 2 2 Radikal

    You know, sometimes people observe certain religious holidays for spiritual reasons — they may not even be driven by economic motives at all. think about it sometime.

  3. 3 3 Joshua

    Why is adopting a different kind of diet or observing religion tragic? This author is sneaking in some of his personal presuppositions of how he thinks people should behave in this article (without justification), which is well, just intellectually dishonest.

  4. 4 4 EricK

    Why not give up a few moments of your time and do something worthwhile – like improve the Wikipedia entry on pecuniary externalities?

    But doesn’t Lent/Passover tie in with what you love about Scrooge? Giving up something (eg meat, or chocolate) makes people, temporarily at least, a little more Scrooge-like. As you, yourself, say “In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to.”. I am assuming here that they don’t replace this reduced consumption with increased consumption in another area – something which I believe to be generally true, especially of those who give up chocolate or sweets.

  5. 5 5 Dave

    I agree with EricK….maybe I don’t understand pecuniary externalities but if I give up meat, then someone else can have that meat and the seller doesn’t lose anything in the process. ie my sacrifice means that someone else can enjoy what i’ve given up with no one losing in the process?

  6. 6 6 Justin Ross

    FWIW, I have a short essay that spends a good portion explaining pecuniary externalities to educated laymen (their importance and how they differ from the normal externalities we worry about):

    It is on p.3 of 7 at

    http://sites.google.com/site/jross08/MarketFailure_revised.pdf?attredirects=0

  7. 7 7 Steve Landsburg

    EricK and Dave: If you cut your consumption, then, like Scrooge, you leave more for everyone else to consume. But if you switch your consumption from leavened to unleavened bread, or from meat to fish, or from meat today to meat next month, then you don’t.

    If you switch from eating a dollar’s worth of leavened bread to fifty cents worth of unleavened, you leave the rest of the world fifty cents richer—IF (like Scrooge) you never spend that fifty cents you saved. But as far as I am aware, adding to the piggy bank is not part of either the Lenten or the Passover tradition.

  8. 8 8 Steve Landsburg

    Diggle: If you count money in the pocket of the giver as equivalent to money in the pocket of the recipient, then charity is of no net benefit—but fasting is of *negative* net benefit. So whatever you use as your base line, fasting is still inferior to charity (provided the giver gets the same satisfaction out of either, which I am thinking it shouldn’t be so hard to learn to do).

  9. 9 9 Ron

    Running around a track does not leave the world pretty much as
    you found it. At least, it doesn’t unless your definition of
    “the world” excludes yourself. Running around the track provides
    exercise that improves the state of your heart, lungs, muscles,
    and general health.

    Similarly, athletic events are more than mere arms races. Even
    the losers profit by the health benefits of the exercise.

  10. 10 10 thedifferentphil

    @Ron -isn’t it the case that serious athletes (those competitive with a chance of winning serious events) frequently train to the point of permanent injury (chronic future pain), as well as bulk up muscle that leads to future risk of being overweight?

  11. 11 11 thedifferentphil

    It strikes me that the true tragedy is following dietary and/or religious restriction because of coercion. Voluntary observance is just another way of obtaining utility -without coercion we have to assume that utility is being improved. So, mandatory observance (blue laws, etc.) is a definite loser. Coercion by parents for their children who prefer not to is no good, although the optimality of parental choices of children is always controversial. Coercion by religious leaders seems to be a gray zone. If the restrictions are part of a faith package, then dropping them may involve dropping the faith. Again, if the whole package provides positive utility, people will become members or not drop birth memberships. One can wish that people would observe differently, but then that is really creating a new religion.

  12. 12 12 Neil

    These silly superstitions do do some good. They give atheists like me a good belly laugh.

  13. 13 13 Leah

    My family has amended our Passover tradition for exactly this reason. Instead of ransoming the afikomen (the piece of matzoh that is reserved for dessert, without which the seder cannot be concluded, and which someone often hides for the others to find and ransom) for our own benefit, the holder of the matzoh bargains on behalf of a mutually agreed upon charity. This year, we agreed to make a micro-loan through Kiva or Finca. Last year, we agreed to give to a food bank that had been robbed.

  14. 14 14 Ron

    thedifferentphil:

    It depends on which sport. Some do go to extremes.
    Others do not. For instance, I doubt olympic fencers
    are significantly bulked up. Their goals are speed
    and endurance.

  15. 15 15 thedifferentphil

    I will concede fencing. Football, basketball, track and field, tennis, etc. all lead to injuries and surgeries for participants.

  16. 16 16 val

    @leah: That’s really cool. My cousins and I were feeling pretty silly what with all being past 30 and expected to ransom for a prize. (Which, come to think of it, I may have left in Cleveland. Oops.)

    @stephen: Dunno about others, but despite the wide range of things I /don’t/ eat during Passover I don’t so much feel deprived of [yeast bread, cake, peanut butter] as deprived of the ease of eating out. But the traditional foods for Passover are in and of themselves a treat. Well, okay, I do sometimes feel deprived of cake, since my birthday often falls during Passover.

  17. 17 17 Nick

    So the concern is that religious observers are subjecting themselves to hardship that produces no net social good? I wonder if the result would hold if they were abstaining from eating Soylent Green.

  18. 18 18 Chris M

    Dr. Landsburg,
    I am an undergraduate student who used your text for intermediate price theory and learned a great deal from it. I read your blog and any new material you publish as soon as I get a hold of it. In this post you mentioned the term pecuniary externalities. I was wondering if you could explain what this term means more thoroughly because I have come across a lot of professors in academia, especially in philosophy departments, making references to similar situations and mistakenly referring to them as negative externalities. Thanks

  19. 19 19 Steve Landsburg

    Chris M: I’ll plan to blog about this sometime soon.

  20. 20 20 Super-Fly

    Well, Prof. Landsburg, if you think Passover is ‘suffering’ you surely haven’t had my grandmother’s Matzah ball soup. But anyways, in the Mormon community, they fast for one day a month and they use the money that they would have spent on food and donate it to the poor. That does seem a bit more productive.

  21. 21 21 Nichlemn

    @Ron – running around a track may not be useless, but you had the ability to run around a track anyway. The point is that you run *more* than is socially necessary. Externalities have efficiency consequences only on the margin, the fact that they may be highly beneficial on *average* is not important.

  22. 22 22 Jonathan Kariv

    @ron/thedifferentphil
    I’m not so sure about fencing being injury free either. It is very 1 side dominant isn’t it? Also repetitive strain injuries on the wrist.

    A small gripe with athletic the winner succeeds only by makeing the loser not succeeed group. Comrades marathon (and I presume other marathons also) have medals for finihsing in less than time x, where the number of people finishingin time x is large-ish. I can imagine the competitive bowler that loses but finally breaks 200 (or some other round number) generally feels pretty happy about it. Same for pretty much any other sport where you recieve a numeric score (lifting,swimming,sprinting, shot-put, rowing,golf,…).

    Of course we might be able to make the opposite argument about the athlete that wins but doesn’t manage the time/weight/distance/score
    he/she wanted

  23. 23 23 Ken

    Steven,

    You say such strange, and wrong, things sometmes. If I push myself hard and accomplish something like shaving a minute off my 5k run I’ve left the world a better place because my pleasure has in creased without taking away anyone else’s pleasure. I’m curious to know how you define ‘useful’ a wonderfully meaningless word you use with such precision as the Queen of Hearts meaning what you want it to mean and nothing more. You read Shakespeare. Is that useful? If you read it to your daughter is that useful? If you perform it (well) in a theater troop is that useful? Is it useful that I’m a programmer and mathematician in the US when I would surely improve more lives doing something that’s of greater need in a poorer part of the world? Is it useful to compare sugar to arsenic (wih some strained logic) or an Olympic athlete to a ponzi schemer (again with some pretty strained logic)?

    Why is it useful to perform a service of value to someone else but not useful to do something that you alone value?

    Regards,
    Ken

  24. 24 24 Steve Landsburg

    Ken: The comparison is between a) pushing yourself hard on the track and feeling good about it versus b) sacrificing for a cause, feeling good about it, AND doing some good for someone else. If both things are equally hard for you, and both leave you feeling equally good, then you’re as likely to choose a) as b) — but b) is better for the world at large (counting you as part of that world). So choosing a) in those circumstances is tragic in that sense.

  25. 25 25 Destin

    What about if following some moral code, illusion or not, makes someone more likely to do things in situation “b”? Or perhaps do those things more effectively? Just like how I have to run in the track to train for a fund-raising marathon, so following a religion’s codes, even the tiniest ones, may make me more aware of “spiritual” things like charity. Or maybe this same thing would be accomplished just out of a person’s satisfaction that their life is in order by following their code.

  26. 26 26 JLA

    I don’t understand why people fast, but I also don’t understand why Prof. Landsburg says fasting has a “negative net benefit.” Haven’t people revealed a preference for fasting? People choose to fast, so why doesn’t fasting have a positive net benefit?

  27. 27 27 Steve Landsburg

    JLA: The benefit is negative, positive or zero depending on what baseline you measure from. What matters is that it is *less* than the benefit that could be had if you chose to make your sacrifices in a different form.

  28. 28 28 Uncle Maury

    Many modern Jews do give unused chametz products to non-Jewish charities when cleaning prior to Passover (or sometimes sell the chametz for the traditional $1). One could make a case, though, that enabling someone, even a non-Jew, to do something that you would not (eat leavened products during Passover) is morally distasteful–a negative rather than a positive to the world’s utility.

    Giving $100 to a worthy cause is always noble and emotionally rewarding; but the same $100 spent for a memorable Second Seder with family probably beats charity in most people’s utility functions.

    And finally, a more subtle point: Passover is not about giving things up for the mere sake of experiencing deprivation, but about teaching our children about the importance of freedom from bondage and what people are willing to sacrifice to achieve it. To gain satisfaction that mitigates or even outweighs the cost of the sacrifice obviates the symbolism of the lesson of paying for what one desires.

  29. 29 29 Ken Braithwaite

    I think you have left something out of the athletic events calculus (or the chess, go, backgammon, tiddly-winks calculus, since the same logic applies): it is fun. It rewards the participants.
    More games are funner games.

  30. 30 30 Robert Simmons

    Isn’t the point of the sacrifice that it’s “pointless”? How do you best demonstrate solidarity with a group? Do something costly that brings no benefits to anyone (beyond the value of doing it as part of the group).

  31. 31 31 Benkyou Burito

    So every year when I give up crack cocaine and prostitutes for lent, I’m doing no net good? Well I’m not going to give up coffee. …

    I think you need to go Rational Actor on this one and assume that there must be some value gained by the activity equal to the cost.

  32. 32 32 Charles

    Abstaining from chametz is a means, not an end. It ideally leads to a different, more spiritual attitude toward food, which in turn can lead one to a more conscious, moral, spiritual attitude toward consumption in general. A week spent in training may lead to an immediate loss of productivity at a job, but the net gain of increased skills and knowledge more than make up the difference (why else would companies provide paid training). The “training” period of Lent/giving up chametz similarly cannot be measured by its immediate, tangible social benefit, but needs to be assessed based on the value of the future good works that result from becoming a more moral, spiritual person.

  33. 33 33 Barzilai

    You are, obviously, a careful thinker. This post, obviously, is specious. Therefore, it was either written ironically, or this intelligent individual is willfully making a specious argument.

    Basis of my second postulate:
    1. “it is the season of making small but pointless sacrifices.”
    Wrong for two reasons.
    a. It’s not intended as a sacrifice. It is intended to reinforce Jews’ identities as members of a group by re-enacting a common experience. It’s a tableaux vivant kind of thing.
    b. How can anyone call Passover a holiday of sacrifice? Call it an extravaganza of excess if you like. But don’t call it a time of sacrifice. It’s a festive holiday, and we (somethimes imprudently) expend a great deal of effort and money to ensure that it is a regal and memorable experience.

    2, It could be argued that the distinctive Jewish culture has something to offer mankind, as Hitler ably argued in Mein Kampf, though, as a Netizschean, he wasn’t an advocate of what we have to offer. I like to tell myself that Jewish talents, and the Jewish attitude about tikkun olam, are good things. The disproportionate presence of Jewish names among Nobel Prize winners in the arts and sciences is probably not a result of our physical beauty. If so, reinforcing Jewish identity and ideals yields a net benefit to mankind.

    3. You are not the first to point out that religious holidays ought to focus on the needy. Maimonides writes that one who spends money to celebrate a holiday and does not ensure that the poor have an equally festive holiday is worshipping his stomach, not his God.

    4. You are not the first to point out that fasting is trivial unless one uses the experience it to gain empathy with others who suffer and then goes out and mitigates their suffering.
    Isaiah in 58:5 makes the argument as well.

    So, why would such a deliberate thinker print such a weak essay? Does clowning around amuse you? Or is it the more common unthinking prejudiced unwillingness to see the obvious when it comes to religious beliefs?

  34. 34 34 non

    actually it’s a time=honored custom to give charity before passover, while this is true of all jewish holidays, it’s particularly stressed before passover.

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