Friday, October 02, 2015

Jerry Bowyer at IWU on Biblical Economics

KERN sponsored a visit by Jerry Bowyer to IWU these last couple days. Yesterday he presented on Biblical Economics Principles.

1. I substantially agreed with Bowyer on most things. Our own Tom Lehman might be surprised to know that I actually agree with him on many, many aspects of economic principles. Of course both of them are light years ahead of me on the math. They are truly economics scholars.

To set some background, Bowyer's conservative political credentials are solid. For example, he completely rejects Keynes as the purveyor of an atheistic system. More on that below. So any comment that might sound balanced should be taken in light of a joke he made about the Republican party: "It's my party and I can cry if I want to."

2. Here are some of his thoughts that I tweeted yesterday:

a. "I want both a pro-growth approach and a safety net that is more like a trampoline" (these are not exact quotes). Jerry Bowyer on the negatives of both political parties. The Republicans have the right economics, he was saying. But Democrats express Christian values when they want there to be a safety net.

Economically, Bowyer argued that only prosperous nations can afford a safety net. He heavily critiqued Bernie Sanders, whom he has debated, for wanting a 90% tax rate. That would kill the growth that affords a safety net. Bowyer advocates a safety net that is more of a trampoline, one that doesn't create dependence.

b. "My experience of the poor is not that they are sponges but that they usually have some sort of block."

His point here is that he finds that a lot of those who are dependent are not so by choice but because they either don't know how to get out of their rut or have something standing in their way.

c. "The Bible has a lot to say against hoarding but seems in favor of 'investment.'"

Wesley was invoked here--"Earn all you can, save all you can [in terms of being conservative in your spending], give all you can." Lehman also argued Wednesday at lunch that profit is a sign that demands are being met, that people are getting what they want.

3. So I agree with a lot of the economic fundamentals that both Bowyer and Lehman are suggesting here. For example, I agree with both that modern economics is not a zero-sum game today (the biblical authors thought of it in zero-sum terms in light of the culture of their day). Economic prosperity has the potential to create prosperity across the board.

Perhaps unlike Lehman, however, I don't think this is automatic. Care has to be taken that production is done in a just way. And I suspect some safeguards need to be in place in relation to the hoarding of prosperity.

Bowyer argued that most of the wealthy do not hoard beyond about 5 million, if I remember correctly. It's just hard to increase one's standard of living beyond that point, he suggested. I was impressed with Bowyer's Christian values.

4. There was one theme that I would significantly nuance myself. It's the suggestion that, somehow, biblical economic values didn't really get put into play until the Industrial Revolution. It reminds me of oneness Pentecostals who claim that their understanding of the Bible is the correct one, yet their movement started in 1916. The idea that 1500 years or more passed before someone finally implemented the true biblical teaching on economics seems highly suspect to me.

Yes, I believe that a regulated capitalism currently is the economic system with the best shot at bringing about the core Christian value of love on the largest scale (that could change in some future yet to come). But to suggest that it wasn't until modern times that true biblical values were played out seems suspicious, and I think it's absurd to suggest that the Church from 100-1500 was somehow "pagan" or at least based on pagan presuppositions.

The core values of Christianity were incarnated to begin with in the cultural thinking of the biblical authors and audiences. That's how revelation works. I agree with Bowyer that they were translated into more hard core Platonic and Aristotelian forms in the first 1500 years of Christianity. And I agree with him that these philosophical translations did not lead to economic flourishing or the flourishing of knowledge.

But here's my central claim. What changed in the late Middle Ages was the rise of modernism as the culture into which Christian values were translated. First, there was the rise of nominalism, which broke up the absolutism of Platonism and Aristotelianism. This coincided with the rise of the individual datum and the individual person. So we have the rise of empirical method and individualism.

So Christian values were applied in a new way, and it is these modernist presuppositions in combination with Christian values that gave rise to modern flourishing. As individuals gained in significance, the Christian value of the individual rose. Capitalism and democracy rose. The result is a world that has flourished as never before in human history.

So it would seem that Christian values have always played themselves out against the backdrop of other philosophical frameworks that are cultural. This fits with the incarnated nature of revelation.

5. Let me also repeat what I have repeatedly said. If worldview talk is limited to ideas, it is absurd. The Bible is clear that our actions play out our deep seated desires. Even to take the biblical word "mind" in a purely ideological sense is to read the Bible anachronistically in the light of certain modern categories.

If we are to use worldview language in a robust way, we have to talk about beliefs that go down to our bones or, as Jesus said, the heart (Mark 7). The NT is full of language about our "lusts" and "desires," not to mention our "flesh."

So if we are to ask what the impact of Keynesian economics is, then we must look at its effect, not Keynes as a person or even his underlying presuppositions. Does his approach result in an effect that "loves neighbor" best? I certainly would not claim so. But to dismiss his approach we need to look at its results, not the person (ad hominem fallacy) or his reasons for formulating it (genetic fallacy).

Actually, it's ironically Platonic to dismiss his system because of its ideological starting point. This approach sees concrete economic realia as a kind of embodiment of his ideas.


Patrick Bowers said...

Did Bowyer have any comments beyond macroeconomics and onto the micro level?

Ken Schenck said...

I think it was more a general overview. Do you have some topic in mind?

Patrick Bowers said...

It seems to me that Evangelicals (of which I am one, born and bred) see economics as a thing which only involves governments and business. If the Church is supposed to be a beacon on a hill, showing to the world the Kingdom of God/Heaven which is here but not yet, than (especially) the local congregations are to show another economic way of living. I don't think very many Christian see economy as a way to express the gospel of Jesus. What does that mean? I think it is different for every local church but if the local church really lives out a new economy without fanfare, those local churches will attract and repel those who try to define religion as something void of economy.

Patrick Bowers said...

Tom, first can you clarify “regulatory distortions” a bit more? Would you include regulations which try to correct economic “market failures like externalities (such as all types of pollution)”? Second, shouldn’t Christians and churches reject the idea of “the constraints of scarcity”? Third, I would agree that with you last statement of “for most economists, we do not assume that we can know or define that ideal for the broader society.” But I think that local churches can give better glimpse of what the economy will be like under the reign of the Kingdom of God if they see their role in light of Jesus’ promise of abundant life.

Jerry Bowyer said...

I think you are correct that this all does not appear de novo 300 years ago. It was simmering for some time before that. I'd say that the world view which led to the hockey stick rise in economic flourishing has roots in Augustine, was still born in the late scholastic thought in Salamanca and then gets its chance at nation building in northern Europe in the early 17th century.

Jerry Bowyer said...

Also, the rise in standard of living doesn't start in early modern period, it inflects then, economic productivity had already been rising. I would say kin general, though, that the reformation was a major inflection point in Church history, and in economic history too, so much that had been lost during the middle ages was rediscovered, including doctrines about the sacredness of work other than Church work.