Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Robert H. Nelson Dies: Religion And Economics

Robert H. Nelson of the University of Maryland Public Policy Department died at age 74 on Dec. 15 while attending a conference in Helsinki, Finland.  He was the leading economist writing about the relationship between religion and economics, notably in three books: Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (1991), Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (2001), and The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Enviornmental Religion  (2010).  I spent several days with him some years ago at a conference on forestry issues where he was presenting his views on environmentalism as religion.  In any case, his death has me thinking about the broader issues he wrote about.  I shall note the arguments in these books along with some further observations.

His first book was essentially a history of economic thought that put a certain theological perspectve on thnkers mostly from the fairly distant past. A basic theme in all of his books is that economics is a form of secular religion that posits a material salvation in some distant future as a result of economic  growth and redistribution, a material heaven on earth.  In that book he posed two competing theological strands in the history of economic thought: a Roman (Catholic) "rationalism" and a Protestant "revelationism."  The former started with Aristotle and included such figures as Aquinas, Adam Smith, Saint-Simon, and Keynes.  The latter started with Plato and Augustine, Calvin, Darwin, Spencer, and Marx.  A number of observers criticized this pair of categories, noting particularly that virtually the only economist in the second list is Marx (although Spencer did write on economics somewhat).  I happen to share the criticisms that it is not clear how useful or meaningful this pair of lists is, although the tradition of lining up historiccal intellectual figures as being Aristotelian or Platonic has a long history in philosophy.

But this does make me think about the especially strong theological/religious element in Marxism, with people "believing" in the philosophy and even specific Marxist economics doctrines such as the labor theory of value.  There has been a long history of people "converting" to Marxism and then sometimes "converting" away from it, sometimes becoming religiously anti-Marxists in their disillusionment to a fanatical degree.  As an old recognition of this I note a comparison made by Bertrand Russell, someone who considered himself to be a reasonable Aristotelian against troublesome Platonic idealists (recognizing that Marx claimed to be a materialist, not an idealist).

Yahweh (God) = Dialectical Materialism
Messiah = Karl Marx
The Second Coming = The Revolution
The Saved = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
Damnation to Hell = Expropriation of the Capitalists
The Millennium = The Socialist Commonwealth

The second book got more attention than the first and in some sense made a more obvious point: that current schools of thought can be viewed as sects whose differences ultimately boil down to matters of belief.  The subtitle of "From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond" indicates the sorts of schools of thought Nelson was thinking of.  My sense is that the Old Keynesian versus Classical Monetarist split was probably less theological/religious than some other splits among economic schools of thought, such as indeeed Marxists and their polar opposites the Austrians.  Nevertheless, many people arguing over the Keynesian versus Old (and newer) Monetarists sometimes seem to fall into the terminology of "belief," often buried in the matter of assuming axioms that cannot be questioned.  So, looking at the New Classical school one finds Sargent at one point declaring rational expectations to be an axiom that cannot be questioned and must be used in any serious economic analysis.  One must "believe in rational expectations," even if one knows that it is factually inaccurate (and Sargent would later grant indeed that ratex is indeed false).  Of course with Samuelson it is not just his Keynesian macro but also his defense of standard neoclassical microeconomics, with this having also a theological/religious aspect to it.

I would add a sociological element to this general Nelson argument that many economics debates between schools of thought often seem to take on a theological or religious aspect, even if most participants usually at least put on a show of respecting facts and logical rigor and so on.  It is an old observation made esepcially by some observers of British economics that especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a tendency for people who became professional economists to come from families that included actual ministers of the Anglican Church (or other denominations), with this coinciding with a decline of that church and its influence.  To some extent this is conisstent with the origin of economics in Britain in moral philosophy, which is what Adam Smith was a professor of, and with the very first Professor of Political Economy in Britain being Thomas Robert Malthus, who was in fact actually also an ordained Anglican priest.  More generally many economists, although certainly not all, seem to be at least partly driven by motives "to do good," a sentiment easily coming from people who may be secular on the surface but come from family bsckgrounds of religious practitioners (I confess this might apply to me, with both my quite religious mother's grandfathers having been Proetestant ministers).

The third of these books may deal with a more serious and controversial issue, the matter of "economic religion" (more or less as described above) against an erstwhile "environmental religion," with many anti-environmentalist Christian ministers denouncing environmentalism for being a competing anti-Christian religion drawing on paganism and other alternative religious impulses.  For Nelson, both of these are "secular religions," but he recognizes that the environmentalist movement (in contrast to some extent to environmental scientists) has a spiritual side that can be quite fervent and draws on various religious traditions, although it must be noted that increasingly current Christians of at least some denominations are emphasizing environmental themes.  But some opposed to these recent views emphasie how the monotheist Judeo-Christin-Muslim tradition has emphasized humanity dominating nature with a "be fruitful and multiply" view.  Such a view then merges with the materialist economic "Heaven on Earth" to be delivered by economic growth.  In the non-Christian environmentalist "religion" one finds both the Earth Mother worship of neo-paganism but also the Buddhist Economics strand one finds in Schumacher's Small is Beautiful book that de-emphazies economic growth and sees nirvana as being in a low consumption economy that is associated with a condition of envitonmental harmony that is nirvana on earth.

Barkley Rosser


AXEC / E.K-H said...

If religion is opium of the people, economics is crack of the people
Comment on Barkley Rosser on ‘Robert H. Nelson Dies: Religion And Economics’

Barkley Rosser summarizes: “A basic theme in all of his [Nelson’s] books is that economics is a form of secular religion that posits a material salvation in some distant future as a result of economic growth and redistribution, a material heaven on earth.”

As Simon Wren-Lewis once observed: “Narratives are a way people can try to understand things they know little about, and most people know little about economics or politics.”

This is an accurate observation. Where knowledge is lacking a story fills the void. Media of all types have always been in the business of storytelling, entertainment, and agenda pushing. This goes from the so-called Holy Books to Rome’s Circus Maximus to Hollywood to Paul Krugman’s NYT blather and to supply-demand-equilibrium textbooks.

Religion and economics have indeed a common denominator. It consists of the triad storytelling/entertainment/agenda-pushing.

It may have been the case that religion initially had a genuine spiritual content and an indispensable social function at the interface to the unknown and unknowable. But at some point in history, the priesthood took over and religion became psychological conditioning and social agenda pushing. With the secularization, economists in part took over where the priesthood lost ground.

Religion is about NONENTITIES and belief, science is about REALITY and knowledge. The communicative format of religion is the emotionally charged narrative, the format of science is the materially/formally consistent theory.

Economics is storytelling since the founding fathers. Adam Smith was NOT a scientist: “… he had no such ambitions; in fact, he disliked whatever went beyond plain common sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers. He led them on gently, encouraging them by trivialities and homely observations, making them feel comfortable all along.” (Schumpeter)

All appearances to the contrary, economics is NOT a science but political agenda pushing. The formats of popular propaganda are the narrative, the talk show, and the shouting match in the political Circus Maximus. For a narrative, there is NO need to satisfy the scientific criteria of material/formal consistency. Basically, a narrative emotionally re-enacts a deep-seated archetype. The three great economic narratives are the story of the Schlauraffen Land of Plenty and Freedom, the story of the Alchemist who transmutes dirt into gold, and the story of the struggle of Capitalists vs Workers.

Economics is a failed science. All attempts to make economics a science remained on the surface. The major approaches — Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism, MMT — are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent, and all got profit ― the pivotal concept of the subject matter ― wrong.

With the pluralism of provably false theories, economists have not achieved anything of scientific value but have produced a lot of proto-scientific garbage, vacuous propaganda, breath-taking rhetorical stunts, and brain-dead ideological debates about the material/moral superiority of Capitalism or Communism.

After 200+ years, the reality-content of economics is not significantly higher than that of any religion. The Invisible Hand of supply-demand-equilibrium has always been a NONENTITY just like the innumerable fictions of the priesthoods since time immemorial. Needless to emphasize that Barkley Rosser is part of the degeneration of what was intended as scientific community to what has now become a coterie of ideological drug dealers.#1

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 For the References see

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading the essay. Unexpected subject, fascinating and well done indeed.

Thank you.

Barkley Rosser said...

Thanks, Anonymous,


Kind of figured this would set you off. You make some valid points, but then just get into repeating your standard stuff. let me simply note that while I clearly recognize all this quasi-theological stuff going on in economics that is not scientific, there remains a scientific economics that I periodically remind you of and which you really have no response to other than to ignore it. That is experimental economics, which has its flaws and limits and is sometimes manipulated by people with political or ideological agendas, but often is not. Again, as I have previously, I note the example of Nobelist Vernon Smith who has been fully accepting of experimental results that undercut his own (strongly pro-free market) ideology, in particular his seminal experiments establishing how ubiquitous speculative behavior is in financial markets.

You really do need to face up to the fact that there is a scientific economics that has nothing to do with even thinking about your silly theory of profit.

Don Coffin said...

I ran across this the other day, and it seems like an interesting addition here:

"Voltaire remarked that it is possible to kill a flock of sheep by witchcraft if you give them plenty of arsenic at the same time. The sheep, in this figure, may well stand for the complacent apologists of capitalism; Marx's penetrating insight and bitter hatred of oppression supply the arsenic, while the labour theory of value provides the incantations."
Jpan Robinson, from An Essay On Marxian Economics

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Barkley Rosser

You say: “You really do need to face up to the fact that there is a scientific economics …”

Microeconomic supply-demand-equilibrium is axiomatically predicated on equilibrium. Equilibrium is a NONENTITY. General Equilibrium with the summum bonum of overall welfare which is realized by the Invisible Hand is a NONENTITY. Call it superstition, magical thinking, hallucination, religion, deception but do NOT call it science.

Macroeconomics is false since Keynes wrote down I=S. The equality/equilibrium of I and S is a NONENTITY. Economists are too stupid for the elementary algebra that underlies macroeconomics.#1

The defective Walrasian microfoundations and the defective Keynesian macrofoundations do NOT fit together. Every economics textbook is an instance of glaring inconsistency.#2

And then there is Barkley Rosser who maintains with the applause or tacit approval of his academic colleagues that his summary of MbS’ role in the Khashoggi affair: “He is guilty guilty guuilty” is a valid piece of legitimate political economics.

Robert Nelson’s comparison of economics with religion is a distraction at best and a deception at worst. The provable fact of the matter is that economics is a failed/fake science.#3

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 “But economics is not pure mathematics or logic” No, it is pure blather

#2 The father of modern economics and his imbecile kids

#3 There is NO such thing as “smart, honest, honorable economists”

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

LOL. MbS is still guilty, guilty, guilty!!!

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Barkley Rosser

You said: “You really do need to face up to the fact that there is a scientific economics …”

I said: “The provable fact of the matter is that economics is a failed/fake science.”

On Twitter is some news about the AEA for you.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke