The Economics of Good and Evil: Part 2, March 18, 2010

Fifteen men met tonight to share scotch, tell stories and discuss ideas. Above all we met for companionship, to greet each other on our various journeys into the future.  The trains passing and sounding their horns in the distance seemed an apt metaphor for the intersection of our lives with this particular place. The night  wove a pattern whose thread was our conversation and camaraderie. The constellations pulsed brightly overhead among the bare branches of the trees, and a slim paring of moon sank rapidly, deep in the western sky.

Jerry began by asking Thomas, a leading economist from the Czech Republic to tell us about his background and what he is working on now.

Václav Havel

Thomas: The Czech Republic is a young democracy and young people get to places they would never get in an aged democracy. So at the age of 23, I had a dream job that I never even dreamed of which one should work for and get at the end of his career. I had that at the beginning which was a blessing and also a curse because what do you do after that? So I was working with president Václav Havel who was a great figure known around the world, really, as the only Czech politician, and I served during the last two years of his presidency as economic advisor. I also was involved with some of the reforms which happens to an economist once in a hundred years or maybe once in a generation. I also saw the crisis (the fall of communism), which hasn’t happened in 90 years.

I have been advising the government the last eight years on various issues and the last three years I’ve been working in one of our biggest banks as a commentator. But in the evenings, I was writing this slightly philosophical book called The Economics of Good and Evil.  In it, I focus on the metanarratives that underlie economics and our culture.  We are also working on a stationary model in which an economy doesn’t grow. We’re trying to see if that’s a problem and so far, though we haven’t finished it, it’s not a problem. We think it’s a God-given right or duty that we have to grow at least 2% every year and if we don’t, it’s not a good year. One of the things I’m trying to say is let’s take a shabbat (sabbath) and have a stationary state for a time and focus on other things because I think we’ve dug very deep in the well of consumption. And I’ve been labeled an anti-consumptionist, but I’m not. What I’m saying is don’t we have enough and aren’t there other things in life we should focus on? I think we’ve depleted the well of consumption to the last drop and there is very little joy we can get if we increase our wealth or production. Another thing I’m looking at, but not in this book, is the commandment to rest and not work all the time. We usually take it as a suggestion. If you’ve got something important to do, it’s okay to work on Sunday. It’s like saying if you really have to commit adultery, it’s fine. It’s the same logic.

Justice, one of the group’s newer attendees, mentioned that during the French revolution they got rid of the sabbath for a brief time and people began going insane because they were working seven days a week without a day off, so they reinstituted it. They thought it was merely religious, but it actually ended up being a very human requirement.

Thomas: Resting is not just a function of better work. In the Greek calendar they only had ten months. They had two months off. Those months didn’t even exist. God didn’t rest on the seventh day because he was tired or because he needed to start a new planet on Monday. He was resting because he was finished, resting in the creation of his hands. He was enjoying it. So in other words, for six days you change reality, but on the seventh day you do not change reality, but let it rest. We’ve worked very hard in the last twenty years –and I like to take that number because it’s when communism fell– and we’ve done very well. America’s GDP went up by 87%. I think we need a rest and nature needs a rest. We’re over-driving it, and if we don’t rest then a crisis will come. In Europe, instead of laying people off, we  encouraged companies to give everyone Friday off if they don’t have enough demand. In this way, it was an enforced shabbat. It’s a better model for our economies because if your demand comes back, it’s easier to go back to a five-day week, instead of training new people. And if people don’t work for two years, you basically have to start from scratch. It’s much better than paying unemployment benefits and all that.

I’m trying to study the relationship between economics and ethics in Hebrews. Most of macroeconomics is trying to explain the business cycle and nobody really explains this very well. If anybody manages, he gets the Nobel Prize just like that. The first ever explanation is in Hebrews and it’s what I call a morally determined business cycle. So a lot of the stories in the Old Testament follow the pattern. If the king behaves well and the nation is just, then it will prosper. But if you suppress the widow and do unjust things, you will go down economically and politically and other nations will occupy you. Ethics was a determinant of GDP growth. And of course it’s something that we can’t measure, so it’s not part of the economic discourse.

I’m using the story of Joseph and Pharoah which is the first recorded business cycle in the history of mankind. And we’ve been behaving exactly contrary to that. We’ve been creating budget deficits even during good years where we should have been doing budget surpluses. So my suggestion is that we should not aim at maximum growth, but we should aim at 0% or 1% growth. And with the money that we save, we should pay back the debt. Even America, as stable as it is, cannot afford to have a crisis. And it will come in maybe 15-20 years and if it comes and the debt has not been cleared, then that crisis will destroy even the United States.

Jerry: You say that in 20 years if we don’t correct these things, we will come to an unrecoverable crisis. The biblical view and the man-centered view of economics are on a collision course. So really, you’re writing a book of prophetic significance, because in a materialist society, the economist becomes the prophet.

Thomas: I play this practical joke with journalists all the time. They ask what the future is and I say ‘I don’t know.’ They ask ‘are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?’ I say ‘well I’m not opti, nor am I pessi, I’m just mystic.’ Because mysticism is “I don’t understand and I give up,” but magic is “I want to control it.”

Greg, you haven’t said anything all evening,” said Jerry to his nephew, after a moment of silence fell among us.

There was a brief pause.

“Anyone catch that Georgetown/Ohio game?” asked Greg. And of course we were convulsed with laughter.

We decided that if Jesus smoked a pipe it would be a Peterson.

After awhile, Ralph brought out his guitar and began to play quietly. This is the first time that we have had a musician play at our gathering and it was perfect, creating a stream on which thoughts could drift for those who were quiet, and a background for those in conversation. Smoke, music and talk all seemed distilled to a crystalline whole that was mesmerizing in a way I have not encountered at these meetings. Afterward, at home, I tried to put down some of what I was feeling.

It was a feeling of new friends made, a reluctance to leave, a wish that more could be said, or more connection made. The spirit of God seemed there in a way not experienced before.

The night consisted of many parts that contributed to its perfection: rabbits peering silently through the hedges, an owl calling faint and far-off, the Big Dipper flaming in the sky, the naked trees waiting to be dressed by the spring,  the way the darkness and fire felt on the skin, the smell of smoke in my clothes, the way the music prompted me to look at the stars and be glad of their existence, the way each individual made me glad to be a part of such a group, and that ineffable something that makes such gatherings worthy of remembrance, that makes you wish you could somehow grasp the whole or be a different person than you are so you could enter in more fully, or simply makes you glad to be a part of something so unique and important.

Somehow, we step outside our humdrum lives and feel as if we are truly living. As if being there is an incredibly important thing. Where else do we have quite the same forum for an exchange of ideas?

The feeling lingered, after I left. To interact with other lives and be acted upon by them, even if we never meet again, is remarkable. The interaction of minds is a reaching out in darkness towards some understanding of truth, of what it means to be alive and living in this world. One of the men who attended this evening sent me a poem which he gave me permission to share.

Holy Moments

Heaven and Earth meet in time, space.
In broken Bread and Wine imbibed,
Giving life and presence: Thanksgiving.

Yet also twain worlds meet in unity of body.
Men, like Josephine coats, many colored
Brought together by Providence.

Unlikely meetings fabricated not by human will.
What would we think on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday?
Would we pass each other and see – truly see with His eyes?

Men, travelers on the Road who carry
Various burdens, sundry stories, vocations
Intersect paths and meet as equals.

And so we come from streets of our own;
On this night expecting fire and scotch
To warm our bodies. Only they have prepared us

For a meeting. A meeting of Heaven and Earth.
In this time, in this space, in this moment.
All that we once thought we knew: decreased;

Given way to Holy Moments where we learn,
Like one man oft says, “Pea-brained” we are.
It is in these moments that we catch glimpses of eternity.

I think newcomer Bruce summed it up succinctly. “This is living,” he said.  “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 1


~ by Mark Neal on March 21, 2010.

4 Responses to “The Economics of Good and Evil: Part 2, March 18, 2010”

  1. Mark,

    Last Thursday was Sacramental. One felt the Presence of God and His grace. It was a great evening for this pipe smoking Quaker. And yes the blend of Conversation, Ralph’s music in the background, the fire, the stars, the hint of Spring, along with “Old Pulteny” made it a supernal evening.


  2. Mark,

    I forgot to add that I also appreciated your poem to conclude the blog.



  3. I agree with my Uncle Jerry, last Thursday was a special meeting. Although most of the conversation was over my head as usual, the special combination of people, companionship, and surroundings made me feel less “pea brained” by the end of the evening than ever before…And Georgetown/Ohio didn’t even end up being that huge of an upset compared to what transpired over the next couple days….#1 Kansas losing to #9 Northern Iowa and #2 Villanova losing to #10 Saint Mary’s??? My bracket is pea brained!!!

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for writing. You weave the conversation, the environs, and our persons into a tapestry of metaphor that is just good.


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