Reuters: Can progressive economists join forces with the church? - Felix Salmon
Last week I was invited to hear Joe Stiglitz talk on “God, hope, happiness, death, suffering, values, grace, and evil” at Union Theological Seminary. With a menu like that, how could I resist?
The event was billed as an “innovative lecture series” combining, essentially, God and mammon: it was organized in large part by INET, an organization devoted to “new economic thinking” and backed — to the tune of $75 million — by George Soros and Bill Janeway. But, frankly, it was an inauspicious beginning, and although in principle I’m a big fan of making economics much more interdisciplinary, I think the idea of connecting it with theology, in particular, is not going to be easy or even particularly helpful.
One of the problems was that this was not a lecture: Stiglitz just sat and answered open-ended questions, and most of the time, when he did so, he talked about his latest book. The book is about inequality, and religious types tend to care a lot about inequality, but they tend to look at economics in very different ways. ...
... These are important questions, no doubt, and religious types do worry about them. But rather than looking for high levels of GDP or productivity growth, or worrying about the effects of international capital flows on domestic interest and exchange rates, the kind of people who hang out at places like Union Theological Seminary tend to have their eyes on a greater and much more eternal prize. Economists, especially on the left, love to quote Keynes’s dry statement that “in the long run, we’re all dead”; you can imagine how far that kind of rhetoric will get you in a church or mosque or shul. Religious leaders don’t tend to rely very heavily, if at all, on empirical data; few of them feel the need to prove that they are right. And as a result, when Stiglitz took his passionately-argued economics a few hundred feet from the east side of Broadway to the west side, he entered a world which was much more alien to him than the conferences he attends in Shanghai or Dubai or Davos.
Stiglitz is constitutionally incapable of talking about economics without bashing right-wingers, and hilariously, even in a chapel, he decided to keep to his standard criticism that the economics spouted by Republicans was essentially “theology” rather than anything scientific or empirical. I have numerical proof that I’m right, he said; my opponents only have faith! ...
... [Cornell] West’s point is simple and powerful. Stiglitz, and most of the people at Union, look at the state of America, and especially at the degree of inequality, and want to change that. And if you look at the history of successful campaigns to effect change in America, they tend to be based overwhelmingly on the power of storytelling, often of the moral variety, rather than on the power (which is always pretty limited) of logical argument. Narratives — stories — move people in a way that Stiglitz’s econometrics never could. And the most powerful narratives are religious ones. ...
... Indeed, the left has its work cut out for it when it comes to shaping the kind of narratives that West was calling for: it hasn’t been able to frame inequality as a moral issue, while the right has been spectacularly successful in framing its pet causes as moral issues which should be taken very seriously by all citizens of faith.
Stiglitz responded to West by basically saying “yes, you’re right, we need people able to weave powerful moral narratives around these themes. But don’t look at me, I’m just going to keep on telling Republicans they’re wrong, using all the dry econometric tools at my disposal”.
And this is where I think Stiglitz has failed to learn from Occupy. He credits himself as being one of the driving forces behind the idea of the 1%, and of course he went down to Zucotti Park to address the crowd down there. But if they were listening to him, I don’t think that he was listening to them. He wasn’t hearing their deeply moral anger, not only at the 1%, but even at the whole structure of capitalism — maybe he’s too steeped in economics to be able to do that.
There was just one question from the audience at the event, from a woman who said that she loves the Bible. “It says there’s something deeply unhealthy about the pursuit of wealth,” she said, and she’s absolutely right about that. But you’re not going to find many economists who agree with that, and certainly Stiglitz didn’t. He’s happy to say that the very rich suffer from moral turpitude — but he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion, which is that the things which make us rich also make us bad.
I’m not religious, and I spend my life in the world of intellectual argument — I’m naturally on the economists’ side of things when it comes to constructing narratives. I also don’t kid myself that there’s any nobility, be it moral or otherwise, in being poor. But I do see the power of religion when it comes to sending messages to the world. And I do see the left straggling far behind the right when it comes to harnessing that power. And, after attending this INET event, I see very little chance that they’re going to catch up.
Very interesting piece. I think he has identified well the gulf in the discussion between economics and religion. Economists are forever interacting with empirical data but think little about narrative. Many continue to operate under the illusion that economics can be completely value free and that homo economicus, human beings as rational utility calculators, is a sufficient anthropology.
Theologians are all about narrative but rely heavily on heuristics for economic thinking. Because theologians tend to be grounded in holy writings of advanced agrarian societies from 2000+ years ago, and grounded in moral reflection by people who have lived in the intervening time in similar societies until the past two centuries, their theology is deeply intertwined with heuristics of people from that era. Because they have a mission of looking after the poor and marginalized there is a strong tendency to frame things in Marxian categories of haves, have-nots, and power struggle, rather than being able to offer perspective on comparative models for organizing economy and the society. Because their livelihood is typically earned outside the context of market exchange, and precious few have ever received any economic education, economic modes of thinking are particularly foreign to most.
Finally, factor in the Western Church’s longstanding ambivalence, if not animus, toward business and finance, and factor in that for the past two hundred years economics has been an extension of the Enlightenment/Modernist project to develop an empirical value-free science of human behavior … particularly free from religious moralism … and you begin to see how daunting the conversation is.