Sunday, July 12, 2009


Economics is among many disciplines that essentially remain mysteries to me. At Georgia, we had to take an absurd number of survey courses. Such a curriculum safeguarded departmental jobs and status. We had to take 25-quarter hours from social science courses. I took ethics, introduction to sociology, elementary psychology, and introduction to philosophy. My last quarter, because I petitioned with the daughter of a distinguished professor, a dean to let us substitute political geography for an introductory geography, I got to take a fantastic social sciend course.

All the elementary social science courses had major flaws—an easy “A” but with little substance. They uniformly were the most boring courses I ever endured. The worst were ethics and introduction to philosophy. The author of the text for the later course eventually became a presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party. The instructor for the ethics course became an attorney for Procter and Gamble.

I did not take anthropology or economics because I did not want to play at disciplines that I had thought might have been good major fields of study. I used to read widely from sociology and psychology. I read less widely from anthropology and somewhat selectively from economics.

Economics courses when I was a university student were often less mathematical than they might be today and more ideologically driven than most professors might have admitted. I had the Samuelson textbook for economics. I even read most of it. I read economists who did not use much mathematical framework. I read John Kenneth Galbraith, Frederick Hayek, and somewhat late Milton Friedman. I have never read von Mises.

I did not read Hayek on economics directly but I did deeply admire and appreciate his political work, especially his fine book The Constitution of Liberty. I did not much care for his book The Road to Serfdom.

Hayek was a deeply honest scholar. He understood what was salient about Marxism, for example. I thought he was wrong about labor unions but I weighed that by the Austrian context within which he formed his outlook. In my life when I had union shop jobs, I enjoyed a good work environment. When I worked in non-union shops, my employers screwed me. That was already my standard.

I found much to admire in Milton Friedman. His views were already important in the Republican Party. I was an ardent Republican, somewhat more a Northeast Yankee one than a Western one.

What bothered me about both Hayek and Friedman was their zeal to divorce economics from ethics. I did not want to jump too easily into Marxist critiques as a substitute for a moral vision, even though they often had useful insights.

A writer who influenced me more politically was Karl Popper. He was a careful, thoughtful, but also polemical critic of the Frankfurt School critics of capitalism. I took Popper very seriously. He taught George Soros, who used Popper’s theories as a ground for his financial speculations. Popper was not an economist but a political theorist.

Wendy Doniger knew Popper through her father when she was a child. He did not bowl her over. He bowled me over.

Galbraith was a counterpoint to the Republican ideologues who influenced me. The other influences on me were Kenneth Boulding and distributionism, particularly in the work of Fr John Ryan. When Howard Pew tried to subvert the National Council of Churches to his economic views, Boulding worked with J. Irvin Miller, and Eugene Carson Blake to thwart Pew. Miller was a hero to me. I regret that I never met him. He wrote a fine pamphlet about ownership and private property that I keep glued into my copy of Paul Lehmann’s Ethics in a Christian Context.

My knowledge of economics and rhetorical skills are meager. I do not have a clear notion of how to relate Christian life and thought to the topic, but I do think it important that we do just that.

My main problem with much ideological presentation of economics is how black and white the proponents make it, especially those who dominate the right wing of the Republican Party. Remember Mr. Miller was a prominent Republican and a highly successful businessperson. He was also the first lay president of the National Council of Churches and one of us (Disciples). He read the New Testament in Greek.

I am less concerned with mathematical models (one can shape them to model one’s prejudices) than with thinking about fundamental assumptions with reference to biblical and theological interpretation. This is a vital and central concern of mine.

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In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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