Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Economics is ALWAYS a morality play

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Whose image is on this? (Mt. 22)
Let me preface this post with a few things:

  • I am not an economist. For better or worse, I dropped out of the one economics class I took in my undergrad because 1) I changed my major (from journalism to English) and didn't need it anymore and 2) the teacher was terrible.
  • I don't know who Paul Krugman is other than what the page whose link I'm about to post tells me. He's a self-described liberal, has a blog on the NY Times site (a column in the paper too?), and writes about economics.
  • My reflections will not be coming from the field of academic study categorized as "Economics" with its various competing theories that are then put into practice in the world.
Now on with the post! In Paul Krugman's NY Times blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he posted something whose mere title gave me pause: Economics Is Not A Morality Play. In this short piece, he makes a few subsequent statements that also make me scratch my head. Namely these:
  • "(E)conomics is not a morality play. It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance." (emphasis in original)
  • On our current economic situation, demanding what he describes as "depression economics": "This is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise."
  • "(I)t would have been much better if the Depression had been ended with massive spending on useful things, on roads and railroads and schools and parks. But the political consensus for spending on a sufficient scale never materialized; we needed Hitler and Hirohito instead."
Read on after the break for more on why I'm scratching my head...

I want to keep this post brief, so I'll merely contrast these statements from a passage of Scripture: Acts 16:16-40, which the NIV titles "Paul and Silas in Prison," but what I'm focusing on are the events that lead up to their incarceration in the Roman colony of Philippi (on the coast of modern-day Greece).

(By the way, this reading has been heavily influenced by C. Kavin Rowe's World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco Roman Age. I won't quote his work but it's the elephant in the room alongside my mental furniture.)

In the passage of Scripture above, Paul and Silas run into a slave girl who is afflicted by a spirit that allows her to see the future. This ability to see the future brings the slave girl's owners great financial benefit. So let's see, we have economics predicated on a system of slavery. No morality play there? Hardly. Well, by this spirit of divination, the girl has quite a lot to say about Paul & Silas and who they serve (God). A few days of this possessed slave girl hollering gets Paul so annoyed, he casts out the spirit in the name of Jesus Christ. The spirit is gone, the divination is gone, but the slave girl remains. What has also gone with the spirit is the means for the girl's masters to derive financial gain from their slave. This is the situation that precipitates Paul and Silas being thrown into prison. Read the rest of the passage, there's all sorts of fun political implications in it beyond this illustration.

James K.A. Smith has observed such phenomenon in his book, The Devil Reads Derrida, saying: "When you read the book of Acts, it's hard not to notice a pattern: that when the gospel is preached, it causes a public disturbance." So as a Christian, to read passages like this one in Acts and then see today's world through Christian eyes is to read statements like Krugman's and say, "Uh...what?"

Are economic systems really amoral? Is it true wisdom "to spend more, even if the spending isn't particularly wise"?

(Finally, I'll close by linking to a book that I haven't actually read but really, really want to and I think it would be germane to this discussion: William T. Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: economics and Christian desire. I've written previously about another Cavanaugh book that was profoundly influential on my thinking.)

(Photo credit: Nils Geylen, under CC license.)

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