In Defense of Economic Knowledge: A Review of Jean Tirole’s Economics for the Common Good by Christina McRorie

June 28, 2018

Like many of us today, Nobel Prize winning economist Jean Tirole is worried about the increasingly ‘post-factual’ nature of public discourse. He’s especially concerned by the way that nationalistic and populist rhetoric that pits “us” versus “them” threatens to displace the more measured analysis of particulars that is necessary for the good governance of global markets.

These fears significantly inform the pages of Tirole’s recent book, Economics for the Common Good (Princeton, 2017). In it, he introduces the state of economic thinking on a rather wide range of topics, from how environmental regulations work to the causes of the global financial crisis of 2008. Tirole also devotes a few chapters to explaining what academic economists do all day, and how their discipline develops new knowledge.

Unlike other recent works by economists-turned-public intellectuals such as Thomas Piketty and Richard Thaler, Economics for the Common Good is not an attempt to popularize Tirole’s own scholarship. Instead, it defends the idea that economics can contribute to the common good; Tirole often seems to be pleading with his readers to remember that economic facts do, in fact, exist. This is the single, and simple, message linking the book’s many chapters: economics may not be a perfect science, but it is a science and we ignore its wisdom at our own peril.

It is strange to think that only a decade ago, such a message would have been more or less unnecessary. As recently as the early 2000s, economics and economists still enjoyed considerable cultural and political cachet. Progressive and conservative global leaders alike generally presumed a roughly neoliberal worldview in which economic knowledge reigned supreme, or at least appeared to. Policies promoting global economic integration were allegedly based upon an ever growing body of knowledge about the way markets work, and how to control them. Public deliberations regularly began with the premise that economic laws were unchanging, and real, and deserved our deference.

Of course, some of this confidence in technical expertise was misplaced. Scholars in the humanities (including some religionists and theologians, alongside non-mainstream economists, for that matter) have long felt a need to point out that economics is a fundamentally social science, and as such reflects and in turn shapes the values and practices of the societies it purports to objectively study—and, of course, that many of the policies sold using economic authority proved harmful to the socially vulnerable across the globe, as well.

But suddenly, neoliberal economic sensibilities are no longer quite so dominant; they are being replaced by new and revived nationalisms and populisms. From an economic point of view, the wave of protectionist trade policies we are now seeing is a throwback to a time before even Adam Smith. Far from inappropriately appealing to economic expertise, leaders enacting these policies have apparently rejected the idea of expertise altogether. (Consider, for example, the Trump Administration’s willful insistence that tariffs upon imported goods will drive growth and protect American jobs, when it’s abundantly clear that they do neither.) In light of such disastrously magical thinking by those in power, Tirole’s rather sane defense of some basic economic insights—the audacious idea that all policies have opportunity costs, for example—suddenly does seem urgently warranted.

One wonders, though, whether this is the message needed most by those already willing to pick up a 500 page tome on economics—and for those not already convinced, whether Tirole’s patient exposition of his science would be of any use. Can further appeals to economic knowledge—even appropriate ones— be the way forward, if those were part of the problem in the first place? To what extent have economists contributed to the anti-intellectual backlash against expertise we’re currently witnessing? Is this rising mood of disenchantment with globalization partly the result of frustrated expectations (however unrealistic they were) that the science of markets would save us from politics?

It is a shame that Tirole does not ask such questions. Certainly economists are not uniquely responsible for our breakdown in public discourse; this is at least as much about culture, politics, and religion as it is about markets, or any single academic discipline. But we are unlikely to resolve what’s been called our “crisis of facts” by simply repeating what we do know to be true (such as the fact that tariffs hurt the poorest the most, or that immigration economically benefits receiving countries).

Politicians, economists, and scholars of religion alike must ask: Have we contributed to our currently fractious state of affairs? If so, how can we undo that contribution? And how can we use our disciplinary strengths to foster public conversations in which facts can not only be announced, but also heard?

Christina McRorie is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University.

Jeff Sessions, Methodist on Trial by Rev. Isaac Collins

June 20, 2018

The United Methodist Church doesn’t often hit the headlines but it has after more than 600 of my fellow members filed charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a professing member, for breaking church law with his implementation of the new “zero tolerance” policy on immigration.

The formal complaint claims that Sessions has repeatedly violated the Book of Discipline, the text that governs our life together as United Methodists. It’s strong stuff. He is accused of child abuse, for his separation of children from their parents at the US border, immorality, racial discrimination, and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the those of the UMC.

So what happens next? Well, Sessions’ pastor, either of the church he attends in Virginia or of his home church in Alabama, must address the charges with him. It is up to the pastor to lead the Attorney General to a ‘just resolution’ of the situation. The Book of Discipline defines that as, “one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all parties.”

However, to reach such a resolution, Sessions would have to agree with the charges filed against him. And that’s not going to happen. If he refuses to cooperate with the complaint process, his case could be taken to church trial. Many would delight at the prospect of the Attorney General in the dock, forced to account for his “misuse of Romans 13” (part of the formal complaint). But there is no reason to believe that will happen either.  The truth is that racist political policies are not what the UMC has church trials over.

In the last thirty years, the church trial has mostly been used to punish and expel clergy who perform same-sex weddings or ordinations. That too is in violation of the Book of Discipline. In those cases, which are legion, charges are brought that inevitably lead to anything but a just resolution for the clergyperson involved, who is forced to surrender their ministerial credentials and find a new vocation.

It is deemed a far more serious offence in the church to marry two LGBTQIA people who love one another than it is to destroy the lives of children as part of a white supremacist administration that sows hatred and division.

The complaint brought against Attorney General Sessions, if taken seriously, could at the least start an important discussion about the denomination’s relationship to American political power. Jeff Sessions is just one of several politicians who are Methodists. They include Hillary Clinton, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, who has condemned the child separation policy as immoral and cruel, (but perhaps not fully-reckoned with her husband’s role in the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE in the first place), and sacked FBI director, James Comey.

Some readers might worry that if the church pursues charges against Sessions, then what would keep other Methodists from bringing a formal complaint against any of these political figures that they disagree with? The whole enterprise might just become another battleground in our fractured political terrain.

But how about we Methodists have an honest conversation about our church’s influence on the last thirty years of domestic and foreign policy? What would it look like to find a “just resolution” between our denomination and the people of Ferguson, Charlottesville, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Honduras?

Perhaps we would find that while we may claim that Sessions’ actions are antithetical to our theological commitments, nothing about our church’s practice has prevented members of our denomination from invading other countries, authorizing the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or creating systems of mass surveillance.

The Book of Discipline’s language on accountability calls all United Methodists to “be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict.” We are to “exemplify the Christ of hope.”

Such a call to honest discussion wouldn’t turn our process into a political tool, designed to expel those with whom we disagree. It would make our church look more like the Kingdom of God. It would help us to work toward the grandest of Wesleyan spiritual goals, being made perfect in love. It might bring a just resolution to all our needless conflict.

Rev. Isaac Collins is the Lead Pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, a reconciling congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He can be reached at isaaccollins@vaumc.org

Pluralizing Nationalism, Or Why ‘New Patriotism’ Might Not Be an Answer by Slavica Jakelić

June 20, 2018

In his conversation with Religion & Its Publics Senior Fellows, E. J. Dionne argues that America needs a new patriotism. This is a patriotism grounded in ideals: it begins with the “pride in our ability to absorb newcomers…the pride in their intense desire to become Americans” and, together with empathy, it can rejuvenate American democratic culture so that the ideal of political freedom is not enacted only through conflict but also through consensus.

We also hear from Dionne that patriotism supplies an answer to politics of divisions that triumphed in Trump’s election. As he writes in his book “One Nation After Trump”, co-authored with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, that victory successfully linked “populism, nationalism, nativism, and protectionism,” thus threatening the institutions of American democracy, especially its commitment to pluralism. (In that they agree with EJ’s colleague at the Brookings Institution, William Galston).

Calls for a new patriotism accurately identify two challenges: first, the need to respond to a moment in which it is the populists who most successfully articulate the notions of collective identity (defining the “we” as the hegemonic power of “the people” against, vertically, “the elite” and, horizontally, minorities) and second, the demand to put forward a constructive notion of what binds Americans to each other while they remain different from each other. The constructive aspect of the task is most challenging—to shape a collectivity, respect pluralism, and, in Jason Springs’s apt phrase, allow for a ‘healthy conflict.’ But to get there, is it a new patriotism or a new nationalism that is needed? I have suggested in another post why nationalism cannot be conflated with populism. Here I want to problematize another distinction, the one between patriotism and nationalism:

George Orwell, to whom Dionne refers, famously argued that patriotism is about a devotion to a place and a way of life, while nationalism is about power and blind loyalty to one’s country that places it beyond good and evil. Philosophers tell us that patriotism is about the love of country, and nationalism is about love of one group of people with whom one shares ethnic or historical bonds. They also instruct us that patriotism can be shaped in accord with virtue and morality. It can be, to use Igor Primoratz’s term, “ethical,” asking whether policies and institutions of one’s country are just, domestically and internationally. Nationalism, we are told, is always about special love for one’s people. Here, loyalty precedes morality and attachments precede moral concerns.

As with any neat list of conceptual distinctions, the problem with this one is that even those who elaborate it often blur the differences between patriotism and nationalism, sometimes conflating the two notions altogether. (Dionne, for example, moves without explanation from patriotism to the “national culture we share and shape.”)  The second problem with patriotism-nationalism distinctions is how they fuse conceptual thinking with the act of political moralizing: nationalism is emptied of any ethical force while patriotism is imbued with moral content in ways that all to easily get us to claims that we are patriots while they are nationalists. There is yet another difficulty with neat patriotism-nationalism differentiation, this one directly related to the patriotism advocates’s desire to shape a response to nativism, a response that allows both for plurality and bonds of identity. This problem emerges from the view of patriotism as individualistic, reasonable, and open to contestations, and of nationalism as collectivistic, visceral, and exclusivist.  

Despite the messiness or impossibility of patriotism-nationalism distinctions—as conceptually discussed or practically enacted—I want to suggest that patriotism is always posited as an ethical ideal in terms of a capacity to reconcile one’s responsibility to her community and the sovereignty of the individual. The concern with individualism, against all forms of collectivisms, is the background of Orwell’s understanding of nationalism; individualism is also at stake in the discussions of philosophers, political theorists, and public figures mentioned here. They know that something is needed to bind individuals into a meaningful democratic polity but reject nationalism seeing it as collectivistic and ultimately violent.

Such concerns about nationalism are justified: nothing taught me more about nationalism’s hegemonic and violent faces than the brutality of the 1990s war in my own country, Croatia. Yet, this does not change my doubts about the purported moral promise of patriotism and its superiority over nationalism, and my earlier invitation to pluralize our thinking about nationalism. Hence my questions:

Can one’s love of a place bind an individual to others, into a meaningful democratic political community that has long been divided? Can one’s pride about one’s country’s ideals heal divisions that result also from the historical practices her country wants to forget? Can the individualistic locus of patriotism take on the collective force of populist narratives of belonging and exclusion?

Or, could critical and historically conscious narratives of national belonging provide a framework of identity that more powerfully confront nativisms of our time? I am thinking here of narratives that arise in the protests of kneeling NFL players. Their resistance to racial injustices is not their rejection but a way to claim and redefine the American identity. But I am also thinking here of a need for more pluralistic intellectual accounts of nationalism—the ones that recognize that a history of nationalisms in any given case is plural and a story of contestations among various narratives, and the accounts of nationalism that, in remembering and probing one nation’s history in all its facets, enable critique but also a reflexive formation of attachments.

In the 19th century, historian Ernest Renan argued that, to get a nation, you must get its history wrong. In the 21st century, we could claim, to get a nation, it is necessary to get its history right. Can a patriotism that is individualistic, empathetic, and selective in remembering accomplish this? Or, could a reflexive approach to nationalisms, past and present, shape an ethical nationalism that can forge another way forward and reject the populists’ attempts to claim the domain of collective identity only as their own?

Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. Her current book project is entitled Chastening Religious and Secular Humanisms: Identity, Solidarity, and the Practice of Pluralism.

The Cake, The Court, Gay Rights – and Religion Polling Data

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. The 7-2 ruling said that Jack Phillips’ First Amendment Rights to free speech and religious expression had been violated by a Colorado State court that found his decision to turn away David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012 was unlawful discrimination. However, the ruling was a narrow one and did not resolve how states are to balance the prevention of discrimination and the protection of religious freedom.

Robert Jones is the CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) which recently conducted a large survey of American opinion on this topic, the American Values Atlas. Our associate director, Jane Little, asked Robert for his take on the decision.

JL: What does this mean in the context of your research?

RJ: The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, was narrowly decided and doesn’t change much in terms of standing law or public opinion. But the case does provide a moment to reflect on just how much the ground has shifted over the last decade. In 2004, a raft of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage passed, and even when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, only about four in ten Americans supported same-sex marriage. Today, marriage for gay and lesbian couples is constitutionally protected in the U.S., and more than six in ten Americans agree with that policy.

JL: According to your research, all religious groups – except for white evangelical protestants and Mormons – actually oppose allowing service refusals to gay and lesbian people on religious grounds. What does that tell you about the direction of the culture?

RJ: While it’s common to think this is just about generational differences — with younger, liberal Americans replacing older, conservatives ones — we have an abundance of evidence that people in all walks of life have changed their mind on issues related to gay rights.

On allowing religiously based service refusals, there is just a slim majority (53 percent) of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons that favor such a policy. For every other major religious group, a majority opposes.

JL: It was a narrow ruling, leaving the door wide open to future cases. What can we expect in the near future?

RJ: Narrow decisions like this have been a hallmark of the Roberts Court. The court recognized the legitimacy of nondiscrimination laws and mostly focused the ruling on a perceived hostility toward religion in the enforcement of these laws. But because the court declined to offer positive guidelines for appropriate enforcement, we’ll inevitably see more cases in the courts here. Justice Kennedy explicitly noted the need for additional judicial rulings to define these guidelines: “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue respect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

JL: Do you expect public opinion to continue to shift in favor of gay rights here or are we going to see further backlash against a perceived loss of religious freedom?

RJ: Generally speaking, we’re likely to see both in the near term. In the general population, current trends of increasing support for LGBT rights are likely to continue. Between 2014 and 2017, we saw increasing support for same-sex marriage, even among religious groups who were least supportive, including Mormons, White Evangelicals, Hispanic Protestants, Black Protestants, and Muslims. Most indicators would suggest that this is an issue where the American public is going to become even more liberal than it is today.  At the same time, we are likely to see more legal challenges from groups that have been on the losing side of this cultural argument, especially white evangelical Protestants. But even these movements may have a limited time window, since majorities of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) and young Republicans, for example, now favor same-sex marriage.

Robert Jones is the CEO of PRRI and author of The End of White Christian America.