Friday, November 30, 2012

The Opportunity Cost of a Mission

I recently listened to the podcast interview of Don Livingstone, former president of the Kinshasa Mission, and his wife Marsha on “Into All the World.” The interview included a discussion of the sacrifices made by young men and women to serve missions and the faith that was necessary to produce those sacrifices. I thought back to the time that I decided that I wished to serve a mission and the sacrifices I made. The things that I deemed sacrifices were very different than those mentioned in the interview but they were real to me. As I was contemplating sacrifices, I started to put them into an economic framework using an important economic insight, opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is the cost of what you give up to get something, your second best alternative. I thought that my sacrifices were unique and enormous. I would have to give up dating for two years. Was that possible? I would have to quit my job (cooking chicken for KFC), forgo my university education for two years, give up dating, leave my friends, and did I mention, give up dating? I magnified my costs and, because my faith was not yet sufficiently developed, understated the benefits I would receive. Developing a testimony was my biggest opportunity cost. It required study, prayer and small changes in lifestyle. I decided to read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover and my faith grew. I yearned to serve. I wanted to be like the sons of Mosiah as described by Alma (Alma 17:2-3).
2 ...they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.

3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.
I was called to serve in the Argentina, Cordoba Mission. I sold my car and emptied my savings account to pay a little more than 50% of the total cost of my mission. My parents paid the remainder. I did not consider the lost saving a major part of my opportunity cost, nor did my parents. My mother claimed that it was cheaper to pay for my mission than to feed me at home. In a high income country like the United States, money is relatively cheap.

The African missionaries of the Kinshasa Mission face similar challenges but probably weight them differently. Many are from countries where the average person earns something approaching $45 per month. One young man from a slightly more prosperous area gave up a $225 a month job as a chemist with a mining company to serve a mission. It is unlikely that he will regain that job after his mission. Other young men rode bicycles 40 miles to buy corn, bundle it in 80 kilo bags and push the bicycles back through their point of origin and onward another 40 miles to sell the corn. Their reward was approximately $10 per trip. Because the church only asked them to pay about $400 of their mission’s total cost, these young worked about a year to raise their missionary funds.

A cynic might claim that these African missionaries have a low opportunity cost because church funds will pay the majority of their expenses and their second best choice is to earn $45 per month while paying their own expenses. I do not accept this conclusion. These missionaries are giving up saving that would have allowed them to start small businesses and make other investments that would last a lifetime. A mission offers similar returns, but only if you have the faith to see them. I believe that their biggest cost, like mine, was developing sufficient faith to value the rewards of serving.

The work habits, and commitment to others and determination to achieve goals that I developed while serving prepared served me well as I pursued and education and maintained a career. I do not believe that I would have had the work ethic to earn a Ph.D otherwise. Missionary service also prepared me for marriage and fatherhood which are more important to me than career. I suspect that the Kinshasa missionaries have and will continue to realize these benefits after their missionary service ends.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Change in Missionary Age Requirements

Many Latter-day Saints, me included, were excited when President Thomas Monson announced at General Conference that young men could now serve a mission at 18 years of age and young women at 19.  Prior to the announcement, 14% or 8,120 of the 58,000 missionaries were Sisters.  A short time thereafter, the Church issued a statement that reported a 471% jump in missionary applications over a two week period from 700 to 4,000 per week.  My mind began to race.  How many would be added to the 58,000 missionaries serving and how would the composition change between Elders and Sisters?  

Two data points is not enough to forecast the increase in the missionary ranks with any degree of certainty but I had fun thinking about some possibilities.  The linked article stated that a little over half of the applications were from young women.  For ease of calculation, make that 50% or 2,000 applications.  The average number of applicants per week prior to the announcement was 700.  Of that number, approximately 570 applications are from young men, and 130, from young women.  Backing out those numbers from the 4,000 news applications, there was an increase of approximately 1,430 from young men and 1,870 from young women.  That translates to an increase of 151% for young men and 1,130% for young women.  A back of the envelope calculation suggests that about 33% of future missionaries in the field will be young women.  1

This number of applicants will not persist.  The new rule doubles the number of young men that come of age to serve and triples the number of young women.  Next year, only one year of each will come of age. Assume that the number of Sisters as a percentage of the missionary stays at 33%.  In a worst case scenario, the number of Elders stays constant.  This implies that the number of Sisters will increase to 19,140 and total missionaries to 67,020.  If the number of Elders increases by 10% or 4,788, to 52,688, the number of Sisters would increase to 21,054.  Total missionaries would jump to 73,722.  Finally, if the number of Elders increased by 20% the missionary force would climb to 80,424. The prophesy of the stone that was cut out to the mountain without hands to roll forth, until it fills the whole earth is a bit closer to being fulfilled. 

1.  After subtracting out the number of applications normally received, from the 2,000 applications from young men and young women, there has been a net increase of approximately 1,430 and 1,870.  Because two new years of applications are coming from young women and only one from young men, divide the applications from young women by 2, making the applications per year 935.  Because Sisters serve for 18 months, multiply the applications from young women by .75 resulting in 701 Sister missionaries to 1,430 Elders.  This implies that 32% of the missionaries serving will be Sisters. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Church As An Inclusive Institution

While serving as a missionary in Santiago del Estero, part of the Argentina Cordoba Mission, during the Dirty War, my companion and I were approached by a young woman maybe a little older than us.  She asked why we were proselytizing rather than helping those trying to change the Argentine government.  This by chance meeting haunted me even before I learned that young people like her simply disappeared, hidden victims of a silent war.  She was sincere and scared.  We asked for an opportunity to teach her but she declined stating that we would not be safe associating with her.  

I did have an immediate answer for her.  By converting people through the Spirit, their lives and behavior change; they will have “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2).   Recent work by Acemoglu and Robinson summarized in Why Nations Fail provides a second answer that is secular.  They divide man-made political institutions into two types, extractive and inclusive.  Extractive political institutions grant power to a narrow elite and place few constraints on their application of power.  Extractive economic institutions are created by the political elite to marshal the resources for the political and economic benefit of the elite. Argentina was dominated by extractive institutions then and is little better today.  Inclusive political institutions broadly disperse political power within a state sufficiently centralized to police its borders.  Inclusive economic institutions allow a broad segment of society to freely participate in and benefit from economic activities.  Property rights are well defined, secure and easily enforced, and support the entry of new businesses into an industry.  

The Church is an inclusive organization.  Wards (congregations) are organized geographically and, in my experience, come close to maximizing the heterogeneity of the membership that speaks a common language.  All members, regardless of income level and social position, are expected to conform to a common socially healthy set of beliefs and life style.  Members are expected to help one another including support for their poor.  This help includes not only traditional goods and services but investments in human capital as well.  

My original answer did not satisfy this young woman and the second may have been rejected too but I believe Ezra Taft Benson’s description of missionary work in a war weary world.

We are commanded by God to take this gospel to all the world.  That is the cause that must unite us today.  Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction.  Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family