August 1, 2014

Archbishop of Canterbury Opens Trinity Wall Street Economics Conference

BREAKING NEWS! John Couretas has an excellent analysis over at the Acton Blog with video. Back to our report…

I don’t want to turn this into beat up on the Anglicans day but, as long as we are discussing the presumptuousness of religious professionals, here’s another.

Institute of Religion and Democracy

Amid the backdrop of an ongoing economic recession, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave the keynote address at the annual conference hosted by the Episcopal Church’s affluent Wall Street outpost. “Building An Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace” was the 40th annual event hosted by Trinity Wall Street’s Trinity Institute.

[...]

While Williams warned against materialism’s dangers, his respondent, a former Wall Street Journal editor, warned against theologians who ignore the moral need for wealth creation.

According to Lee, theologians, especially on the left, tend to emphasize the distribution of wealth – how fair it is – economists tend to emphasize the generation of wealth – how we can combine scarce resources in more productive ways.

“I agree with economists,” Lee said. “Generation and distribution [are] both very important, but I think our crucial concern has got to be the generation of wealth.”

The former New York Times and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor argued that economies either must generate more wealth, so that there is more to redistribute, or, at the very least, sustain the same level of wealth.

“If an economy doesn’t generate more or sustain wealth, then it has a shrinking pie for redistributive purposes and possibly even stands in danger of collapse,” Lee explained.

The journalist said despite the fact that “in theory” it is possible for theologians and economists to agree, “in practice, they seem to live on two different planets.”

“Perhaps the biggest gap comes in assumptions, most importantly how theologians use economics like a Chinese menu; they like to pick and choose,” Lee said. “When they look at capitalism, theologians often assume there can be profits without private property, work without incentives, enterprise without income inequality, investment without market rates of return. Or, to get really specific, theologians assume that you can have the invention of medical marvels like pacemakers without the development of unnecessary consumer products like 37 brands of breakfast cereal.”

Lee compared this practice of picking and choosing to the theological practice of some Christians “who assume there can be forgiveness without atonement, Christ’s divinity without his bodily resurrection, or even the beauty of the Psalms without the rigors of Leviticus.”

Lee said this act of choosing what one likes and discarding what one does not did not make sense. Economics, just like Christianity, is an integrated system, Lee declared, saying its operation depends on interlocking parts.

“The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance,” Lee said, suggesting how theologians could better sharpen the discussion.

Read the entire article on the Institute for Religion and Democracy website.

Comments

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    There is always an uneasy peace between creating wealth and assuring it is done for the general good, and according to good order.

    Unfortunately in the case of the Church of England, recklessness investment has impoverished the Pension Fund on an unimaginable scale (see story in the Financial Times). Maybe the concern and balance is shifted not due to genuine theological development, but due to errors which created untold needs. A more conservative financial practice would have avoided this.

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    John Panos says:

    Sounds like Lee is a better theologian than the Archbishop.

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    Chrys says:

    An arrogant theologian is a contradiction in terms, unless we are describing the same phenomenon rightly condemned by St. Maximos as the “theology of demons.” Humility recognizes that one does not know everything one needs to know in one’s own field; for the same reason, it would surely recognize it knows far too little to direct those in another field.

    Ask questions? Sure. Comment? Okay. Provide guidelines for consideration? Alright. Direct? No.

    Economics – the complex self-interested interactions of myriad people – has shown itself far too complex for even the smartest people in the world to “manage”; every significant effort has produced unintended consequences, often with increased moral hazard and amplified dislocations in distribution rather than the intended solutions. The most widespread efforts have consistently wreaked untold havoc. Yet humility remains in short supply. For some reason this seems especially the case among academics who know little about economics and have certainly never had to meet a payroll. (Of course, to a novice, all problems have easy solutions.)

    Three comments from Thomas Sowell’s recent article apply:

    Poverty is obscene. It is poverty that needs to be reduced–and increasing a country’s productivity has done that far more widely than redistributing income by targeting “the rich.”
    . . .

    The assumption that what A pays B is any business of C is an assumption that means a dangerous power being transferred to politicians to tell us all what incomes we can and cannot receive. . . . the power to say what incomes people can be allowed to make will inevitably move down the income scale to make us all dependents and supplicants of politicians.

    The phrase “public servants” is increasingly misleading. They are well on their way to becoming public masters– like aptly named White House “czars.”

    As a general rule (and I am NOT saying this necessarily applied to the AC or this conference), it is always more compelling when leaders who warn against the excesses of materialism do so first by example. Yet this plea inevitably offends when it comes from those who will be asking for more money in the tray to meet their own operation’s material needs. The business owners in the pews rightly recognize that the sermon and the behavior don’t match and – not surprisingly – know which of the two really matters, especially when our leaders (whether ecclesiastic or political doesn’t matter) espouse “one for thee and another for me.” A living witness, however, can accomplish far more with far less.

    One good thing about this event is that it allowed someone like Lee to respond. My reading agrees with John’s (above): Lee seems to be the better theologian, not least because he seems to be approaching the issue with some humility.

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