You cannot serve both God and Mammon, but you can serve Mammon by predicting who will serve God

The good news is that there are some opportunities to make a couple bucks arbitraging papal candidates on InTrade. The bad news is that if you try this, you will be arrested, then damned to eternal hellfire.

The arrests will come from the US government, who continue to ban prediction markets in order to, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, “protect market integrity”. To me this sort of seems like a case of locking the barn door after the horse has fled, traveled to Boston, been accepted to MIT, earned a degree in high energy physics, constructed a revolutionary FTL drive, and warped to the outer fringes of the Andromeda Galaxy – but such is the noble and impartial majesty of the law.

The damnations will come from the Vatican. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV issued a papal bull banned all betting on papal elections under pain of excommunication. This has never really been enforced, but as far as I know it’s still in effect.

Luckily not everyone is afraid of Pope Gregory, and the Papal betting markets continue to function. As one would expect of something at the intersection of Catholicism and gambling, the most significant are in Ireland, especially at, which is offering odds on candidates as unlikely as Richard Dawkins, Bono, and Father Dougal Maguire – who, as you may recall, is fictional.

PaddyPower is also significant for their special bonus offer to refund all losing bets if the next Pope is black. There’s about a 1/3 chance this will be the case – two black cardinals are considered likely candidates – which means it should in theory be possible to come out ahead on net by betting on the leading white guy.

I can think of more complicated plans to get guaranteed free money by getting several people together to bet on all the leading white guys, plus hedging against InTrade’s market that the next Pope will be African, but the maximum refundable bet on PaddyPower is 25 pounds, making this more trouble than it’s worth, which I guess is what the betting markets are counting on.

Another so-close-yet-so-far route to free money is betting on the next Pope’s name. PaddyPower gives even odds in favor of the next Pope’s name being Pope Peter II, which is of course ridiculous. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way to bet against this proposition, which is probably by design.

If InTrade set up a next papal name betting market, that would allow much better calculation of these Peter II odds. Unfortunately, as an American I can’t easily bet in InTrade, and the only person I know who’s done the necessary paperwork to avoid the civil authorities, Leah, is also the only person I know who will be genuinely deterred by Pope Gregory XIV’s papal bull.

I continue to think there ought to be some way to money-pump this “next Pope” thing, but I can’t figure out what it is.

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31 Responses to You cannot serve both God and Mammon, but you can serve Mammon by predicting who will serve God

  1. Army1987 says:

    which is of course ridiculous


  2. siodine says:

    Scott, I noticed that you were trying to tweak your theme and kind of messed it up in the process so I fixed it for you (see it here I can help you with the details and send you the files (assuming you want it) on lesswrong’s irc channel if you specify a time (around 6pm today would be good for me).

  3. Deiseach says:

    Okay, don’t bet on the two African cardinals (unless it’s part of a complicated bet involving a chain of candidates).

    First, Cardinal Arinze is too old; he’s 81 this March which means that he can’t vote in the conclave (cardinals “age out” when they turn 80) and it would be his second go (I would have loved to see him get it at the last election, even though I’m perfectly happy with Pope Benedict) and there are no second bites at the cherry.

    Second, Cardinal Turkson may have torpedoed his chances with this interview in the British “Daily Telegraph” where he appears to be canvassing for the job (he’s probably not, he may just have been asked “If you were chosen…” and answered accordingly, but the College don’t like candidates who are too obvious about wanting the job).

    Cardinal Oeullet of Canada is another bookies’ favourite, but I don’t think we’re going to see a Pope from North America (either Canada or the U.S.A.) anytime soon.

    One of the Italians is always a possibility, since they’re the single largest national grouping represented, but they never (or very, very rarely) get behind one candidate – there is always fierce politicking – so it’s hard to pick one out of the bunch.

    No German or Austrian either; Cardinal Schoenborn of Austria was looking good, but in recent years he’s come out with some wacky (by orthodox standards) pronouncements which have damaged him.

    An outside bet and long-shot: Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines. I don’t think he really has a chance, but I like the guy ๐Ÿ™‚

    Papal names: NOT Peter II. First, it’ would be the height of hubris to take the name of the first pope, and even the Renaissance guys never tried it. Second, there are already enough vapourings about the prophecy of St. Malachy, the ‘last pope’ being ‘Petrus Romanus’ – if the new pope did take the name of Peter, it would make the Harold Camping affair look like a Richard Dawkins lecture on atheism by comparison ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Jack says:

    LOL. That was awesome.

    My first thoughts are, making free money by betting on the least-bad white guy to win is basically how our whole country works, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

    And, if I’m not catholic, I can’t be MORE excommunicated, right?

  5. Gilbert says:

    Taking this way more serious than you meant it:
    Cogit nos, the bull threatening excommunication for betting on papal elections is an old penal law not repeated in either the 1917 or 1983 code of canon law and thus abrogated by their general provisions.

    Leah won’t be able to help you anyway, because there is no magical paperwork protecting Americans from their civil authorities. She just used InTrade before those authorities decided to get authoritarian.

    I think the closest thing InTrade has to a papal election money pump would be betting against another German pope. It’s at 1% but that’s still at least an order of magnitude too high.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Can you expand on the 1917 and 1983 codes? Did those automatically repeal all previous church law?

      I thought I remembered there being some issue even during the last election why InTrade wasn’t really usable and that Leah got around it somehow, but that might be different from what’s happened since December.

    • gwern says:

      Why is a German 1% so unthinkable and off by a factor of 10? Given how unpredictable papal elections seem to be, and Germany being one of the competitive (read: European) countries up there with Italy, I think 0.1% sounds way too low.

      (Heck, if I were still on Intrade I’d consider picking up a few shares at 1%…)

      • Gilbert says:

        I don’t think only European countries are competitive nowadays, in fact world-church-wise we Europeans are well on our way to irrelevance. We’re not quite there yet, but I would start looking out for Asians and Latin Americans.

        Reasons for Germany to be particularly unlikely this time around: I don’t think the cardinals want two popes in a row from the same country. I think even the probability for Poland is still reduced. Probably they want a fairly long term pope now, which makes most German cardinals too old. And German cardinals are too closely aligned with church-political factions, which isn’t conductive to organizing super-majorities. Also I just don’t see the special something that would promote any of our present cardinals to attention. Ratzinger was the world’s most eminent theologian long before his election, right now we don’t have anyone standing out a lot. So I think 0.1% is a fair estimate.

        However, after looking at how InTrade works, I no longer think that means shorting it is a very good investment. There is no leverage on InTrade, probably because it is far too illiquid and jumpy for that to work. So betting on an epsilon not being small enough essentially ties up 10$ interest free for the duration of the bet. The opportunity cost of that probably pushes the profit below what one could make by arbitraging the illiquid jumpiness.

        Now that I get that Robin Hanson’s scoring rules suddenly make much more sense. I thought he was sorting out the little details before the main questions, but it turns out this is part of the bootstrapping problem.

  6. JJJ says:

    Leah doesn’t care what the church says about abortion and gay marriage, so why would she care what the church says about prediction markets?

    • Gudlerian says:

      Ever since her bizarre conversion (really? Objective morality made you Catholic?!) I’ve given up on understanding her.

    • Joe says:

      How do you know she is in favor of Abortion? I guess I wouldn’t be surprised. Its kinda like what my spiritual directer once told me. “Cowards have few enemies, but all their friends hate them.” She seems like a nice person though.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Speaking of people having few enemies, any chance we can keep this blog free from personal insults for at least the first week or so?

      • JJJ says:

        Since her conversion she’s never come out as being in favor of abortion rights, but she was pro-choice before she converted. She never recanted that position, and she’s never blogged anything that would suggest abortion should be made illegal. Not even when all the other Patheos Catholics were writing about the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. And of course there’s the fact that she still identifies as a feminist.

        Now granted, that’s not enough to convince everyone, but it’s enough to convince me. If Scott (or someone else we both trust) is willing to hold our money in escrow, I’m willing to bet $10. I win if Leigh endorses an abortion position more liberal than the Vatican’s by 2015, you win if she endorses the church’s position.

        • Anonymous says:

          If she takes a more liberal take on abortion then Vatican I will be too sad to collect any money.

        • Gilbert says:

          I notice your proposed winning condition is narrower than your original claim. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if she was more liberal than the Vatican because that would be possible without totally rejecting what in her axiom-theorem distinction are axioms. For example, she could disagree on particularly hard cases like ectopic pregnancies or believe the lie that legalization doesn’t increase abortion rates.

          On the other hand, if she actually denied the fetus’s moral right to life or endorsed abortion as an actual moral right in the general case, that would be straightforward heresy and totally dwarf all the difficulties she mentioned. I would be willing to bet against that, because I’m quite sure she is basically honest, which would be incompatible with that kind of deliberate misleading.

          • JJJ says:

            What are Leigh’s “axioms”? Did she says she had some “axiom” related to abortion?

            I’d be happy to narrow my winning condition once we clear this matter up.

          • Gilbert says:

            I’m not aware of any statements on abortion by post-conversion Leah.

            She has on several occasions made the point that she thinks the Church has the right basic ideas on morals but is too slow to take account of new data in applying them to the real world, so that some beliefs on applications of the principles may be outdated. Her favorite image on that point seems to be that the Church has the right “axioms” but some of the “theorems” may be wrongly derived. In particular she seems to suspect this on gay relationships where a lot of new data became available over the last few decades. As i said, I haven’t seen her applying that scheme to the abortion question.

            But I do know what the Church teaches at which levels of authority (think, for example, Evangelium vitae, and I can vaguely match the schemes. I also remember the approach she announced on dealing with her difficulties and what she ended up talking about, namely queer stuff, a bit of universalism, and some disciplinary matters. Compared to thinking abortion OK all of that would be peanuts. Finally, I’ve been reading her blog since since the first ITT, about a year before her conversion announcement and my impression is that she is significantly more honest than most people. Now you know all the information I’m using.

            OK, here are my proposed betting terms:
            – The arbiter and keeper of the pot is either Scott Alexander or, only if he doesn’t agree to take the job, someone we will have to agree on later.
            – Each of us pays US$ N into the pot by sending them to the arbiter. Your proposal of N=10 is OK, but I would also also be game for higher amounts up to N=200. If you don’t want that I’m also open to making basically identical bets about the rest with other people.
            – The maximum duration of the bet is until the end of 2005, reckoned according to UTC.
            – If, at any time before then, Leah publicly calls abortion morally licit in the general case (i.e. not rare special circumstances), the bet is over and the arbiter sends you the pot.
            – If, at any time before then, Leah publicly denies the moral legitimacy of abortion in the general case, the bet is over and the arbiter sends the pot to me.
            – If she makes both kinds of statement, the earlier one will have ended the bet, so the later one will be irrelevant.
            – If the bet expires without either announcement, I get the pot.
            – We both remain anonymous from each other, though obviously not from the arbiter.
            – We are both responsible for bringing bet-deciding statements to the arbiter’s attention. That doesn’t bar him from noting them himself, but if lack of information makes him pay out to the wrong party, that’s the wrongful loser’s own fault and no recurse will be had.
            – The arbiter interprets and applies these terms to the best of his conscience but can’t be held responsible by anyone except possibly God. If our agreement should have failed to provide for unseen circumstances he will decide what is fair and that decision too will be final. In other words his decisions are final and no legal or other recurse will be available.

            Are you in, and, if yes, at what N?

          • JJJ says:

            Gilbert: I thought we were going to bet on Leigh’s political views. Are you willing to bet that Liegh thinks abortion should be criminalized in most cases except rape/incest and death risk? Or do you concede that she probably thinks abortion should legal in most cases?

          • Mary says:

            You do know that the Catholic Church teaches you can treat an ectopic pregnancy even with the full knowlede that the baby will die as a result?

          • Gilbert says:

            Mary, the double effect rules can get somewhat complicated there, because the death of the child can’t be willed as a means, though it can be accepted as a side-effect. What you say is true, but usually not for the specific treatment most secular doctors would recommend. I don’t think I want to fight the details out right now, my point was that they are complex and people can be excused for not knowing them all.

            JJJ, first I notice you keep talking of Leigh. If we are talking about the same person, her name is actually Leah. If we are talking about different people, I’m only interested in betting on Leah, not on Leigh.

            On to betting term negotiations:
            I am willing to bet against her using the standard “personally opposed but won’t impose my morality” dodge. What makes me somewhat more careful is that she has occasionally been a bit quick in accepting her political camp’s propaganda on purely empirical claims. She might, for example, believe that legalization doesn’t affect the frequency but only the safety of abortion. That is clearly a lie, but also very much an article of faith in the secular progressive orthodoxy she grew up in. But I do trust her to self-correct when she gets around to considering the arguments. So here’s my proposed compromise: Her saying abortion should not be criminalized in most cases wins you the pot except if both of the following saving conditions are fulfilled: (a) she goes back on that statement within six months of making it and (b) in the arbiter’s opinion, the reasons she gave were more on the pragmatic side (like prohibition probably not working) than on the rights-talk side (like a right to privacy, separation of church and state etc.)

            Of course with criminalization we mean punishing abortionists (“doctors”), because not wanting to punish the scared mothers is actually common and orthodox. Also she would have to oppose criminalization per se, not some tactic of achieving it.

            Would that version be OK for you?

      • Gilbert says:

        You’re being unfair Joe. Civil recognition of gay shmarriage is an objective evil and Leah is very wrong for endorsing it. But it is very far-fetched to assume she actually knows that and somehow spoke against better knowledge. It’s clearly much more likely she is simply mistaken. In other words nothing points to subjectively evil motivations like cowardliness.

    • FWIW, at the time of her conversion she said she didn’t understand the Catholic Church’s position on gays but was willing to refrain from dating women in the meantime (she’s bi). See Zinnia Jones’ commentary here.

  7. Dave Orr says:

    Administrivia: in the rss feed of this fine blog, all the links are coming across as plaintext with the a href gaarbage there and not clickable. Please to fix k thx bye.

    If you really want to monetize these things, the best bet is probably to find someone who is willing to make side bets. You can offer much better odds than paddypower and still make bank!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I keep having a small amount of trouble with the links to start with and then editing in a fix. RSS apparently doesn’t let my edited changes go through. I don’t know how to fix this other than getting them right the first time.

      If anyone’s interested in a side bet on whether the new Pope will be Peter II (with me taking the side he will not be) I’m quite interested and will offer much better odds than any of the betting sites.