Can progressive economists join forces with the church?

By Felix Salmon
September 24, 2012

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.

Stiglitz’s conception of inequality is very much at the macroeconomic and the political level: he’s still thinking about things in terms of maximizing utility, right here on our mortal coil. Stiglitz has a broader conception of utility than most, but he still found time to get very excited about the way in which he had the empirical evidence to prove that he was right and the IMF was wrong during the famous Stiglitz-Rogoff debates in 2008. More generally, his book’s whole thesis is built around the empirics of inequality, and the empirics of inequality are pretty much all financial. How much money do the rich have, relative to the poor? How much do they earn, relative to the poor? How likely is it that a poor person will become rich, or vice-versa? And which patterns of wealth and income distribution end up being the most effective, in terms of creating broad-based prosperity?

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 leadersĀ  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!

Of course, the reception to Stiglitz was perfectly polite. But when the questions arrived, it was fascinating to see the angle they arrived at. The convention is, when an economics Nobel laureate talks, that the questions will engage his arguments on their own merits. But at Union, Stiglitz was faced with questions he probably never gets elsewhere.

Most notably, Cornel West had a fantastic rejoinder to Stiglitz. I agree with all the points you’re making, said West, but can’t you see that you’re not changing any minds here?

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.

This is an area where INET is attempting to find common cause between lefty theologians and lefty economists. It’s a good idea in theory, but if the first evening is any indication, it’s not likely to work. Because in reality, there is still a huge gulf between the way the two groups see the world. Theologians aren’t into maximizing marginal utility; many of them are deeply suspicious of the entire capitalist system. (For instance, at one point a fellow panelist, Betty Sue Flowers, told Stiglitz that economics was a poisonous ideology which had captured the country, and which needed to be countered with faith and love.)

I found myself thinking about the concept of meritocracy — a word coined, by Michael Young, in disgust at the way the world was moving. Little did he suspect that in no time at all it would be co-opted, and that economists would start looking at meritocracies as societies which do a very good job, empirically speaking, of maximizing their citizens’ utility. At this point, the idea of meritocracy is deeply entwined with the American Dream, and no politician dare suggest that it might be fundamentally unfair.

To many theologians and philosophers, by contrast, especially the ones on the left, meritocracies are fundamentally unfair in a world where all God’s children are equal. Meanwhile, the less radical and more conservative arms of the church tend to align themselves very much with Republican rather than Democratic ways of looking at the world, largely because of their beliefs surrounding abortion, gay marriage, and the like.

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.

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