The God of No Return

Book cover
Economics as Religionby By Robert H. NelsonPenn State Univ. Press. 378p $35

Economics has dabbled in theology from its beginnings.

Two centuries ago, Adam Smith, the father of economics, got the theological ball rolling with his assertion that prices were determined by the Invisible Hand of competition in the market. Karl Marx’s theory of capital was that it was a religion whose god was production.


Today the invisible hands continue to hold sway, as consumer confidence and the index of productivity are of supreme importance to the high priests of the market.

Especially since the World War II economic boom, money, markets, efficiency and science have been widely taught to be the best instruments for reducing crime, keeping families together, preserving mental and physical health and maintaining a global peace. That these tenets have failed to produce progress in all areas except perhaps the third has not shaken the faithful who cling tenaciously to its tattered utopian vision.

Not for nothing does the stock market hold such unmatched influence. Not for nothing is there a collective holding of breath during U.S. Federal Reserve Board meetings. Not for nothing do markets dance when the Fed’s chairman, Alan Greenspan, scolds stock traders for their irrational exuberance. If the Gallup Organization did a poll asking people if money could buy happiness, what would be the result?

Faith in economics is one of the modern era’s major movements, and it shows no signs of abating. Its theology of paradise on earth has confused even many clerics, and may be the root cause of the loss of vocations. In his groundbreaking study, Robert Nelsona professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Marylandexplores the genesis, the prophets, the prophecies and the tenets of what he sees as a perfervid secular theology and religion of economics that has come into full blossom in latter-day America. Its evidence is everywhere, from the op-ed pages, where the shamans of economics now hold key places, to the classrooms, where educators have separated church from state while at the same time teaching the commandments of economics and material success as the pathway to happiness.

Especially in academe, the horrors of Sept. 11 found many liberal and secular Americans unwilling or unable to point the finger at Arab terrorists who destroyed some 3,000 lives and smashed countless family circles forever. Instead, many fingered America and its unwillingness or inability to spread wealth so widely that Osama bin Laden’s suicide pilots would be so wealthy and so happy that smashing the icons of American capitalism would never enter their minds. It is a thoroughly silly argument, based on no factual evidence, but it has millions of adherents.

Sept. 11 showed once again that for many Americans, questions about morals and ethics receive answers best centered around money, preferably government money (an imagined separate specie) and the market, whatever that may be.

For many, how much is in the church’s poor box is more important than who is in the tabernacle. Nelson finds this theology’s nexus in the teachings of Briton John Maynard Keynes and the M.I.T. economist Paul Samuelson, a secular Jew whose 16 editions of the ubiquitous textbook, Economics, spread the Keynesian gospel to millions of U. S. students. (Keynes was the father of the short-term financial planning that plagues American workers and taxpayers even today. In the long run, he cynically argued, we’re all dead.)

The primary purpose of economic activity is provision of consumption goods and services, writes Samuelson in his hallowed textbook, putting forward in a single sentence a value system for a human lifetime. He argues, for instance, that there is no moral value attached to the charging of interest; it is simply a business matter. Here, as in much of the book, Nelson argues, Samuelson is seeking to persuade [students] of the irrationality’ of old Catholic, Islamic, Aristotelian, and other value systems that preached otherwise.

Nelson questions the very bases of modern economic dogma, noting for instance that nowhere does it count the economic costs of worker displacement or constant family movement. And nowhere does Samuelson’s one-size-fits-all theology factor in the economic drain of drugs and alcohol upon a society, which is why a new school of cultural economics is catching fire.

Though churchless and uncollared, economic theology has millions of adherents and thousands of priests in the field of economics. Many of the faithful reside in Congress, promising paradise for a few million more. Some are in the White House, and not a few of them are in the nation’s pews each Sunday.

Obviously, many of these believe that Jesus Christ was speaking with tongue in cheek when he smacked down disciples who kvetched about the waste of alms money when Mary Magdalene purchased expensive perfumed ointment for him. The poor you always have with you, chided Jesus (Mt. 26:11; Mk. 14:7; Jn. 12:8). And he always meant what he said, didn’t he?

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