Economies of Deception

Two books I have recently read, Treasure Islandsand Merchants of Doubt, have each highlighted, in their different ways, how deeply rooted deception is in our current economic order.  Banks hide behind many layers of secrecy, shuttling funds around shady offshore jurisdictions, in order to get by with transactions that would never pass public scrutiny, and to hide profits from taxation.  Manufacturers have turned to the business of manufacturing doubt about the environmental impacts of their activity, systematically engaging in smear campaigns against scientists and whistle-blowers who reveal these impacts and costs, and funding “studies” to convince that everything from CO2 to acid rain to DDT to cigarettes are clean, safe, and sustainable.  

A slew of recent high-profile scandals have illustrated the same tendency.  The world’s largest company by market cap, Apple, Inc., was sued by the US Department of Justice for secretly colluding to fix prices on e-books.  More recently, damning allegations have come to light that the world’s largest company by revenue, Wal-mart, engaged in systematic bribery to gain a major foothold in Mexico, and, most seriously, that the bribery was then carefully covered up by senior Wal-mart executives.  A couple months further back, US meat-lovers were scandalized to learn that supermarkets and fast-food chains had been selling them beef padded with ammonia-sprayed “pink slime,” prompting a massive public backlash and the virtual shutdown of the pink slime industry, may it rest in peace.


Despite their differences, all of these episodes reveal a troubling problem in our economic order—the truth doesn’t sell.  The truth about tobacco doesn’t sell cigarettes, the truth about beef doesn’t sell burgers, the truth about e-book prices doesn’t make nearly as much profit as an artificially jacked-up price, the truth about Wal-mart’s corporate practices isn’t gong to endear them to consumers.  

This problem points to a deeply-rooted contradiction in the free market model—its hostility to the free flow of information.  For Adam Smith and other free market theorists, free access to information was a key pillar of a successful free market.  If a given exchange was to be genuinely free, and thus maximize the total benefit for buyer and seller, then buyers and sellers had to have roughly equal knowledge of the relevant information.  If I sell you a rhinestone necklace while deceiving you into thinking that it is in fact diamond, then we wouldn’t call this a properly free exchange, even if you eagerly bought it at the offered price.  The resulting transaction would not have taken place at the true equilibrium price, the point at which markets are maximally efficient.   

But of course, while maximally efficient for the market as a whole, the equilibrium price is not where either buyers or sellers would prefer to transact, since it limits the gain that either can make.  A buyer would prefer to take advantage of a going-out-of-business sale, in which a distressed merchant has to sell goods at well below the normal equilibrium price in order to get rid of them quickly.  A seller would prefer to take advantage of a naive first-time buyer, who has no idea how much something normally costs, so he can charge far more than it’s worth—hence the rip-off merchants that like to cluster around entry points for foreign tourists.  As this latter illustration shows, limited information can provide tremendous opportunities to avoid the equilibrium price and maximize gain.  

Generally, it is the seller who is in much the stronger position to make use of this information gap, since the seller usually knows a great deal more about the actual value of the goods and where they’ve come from than the buyer.  The seller may know that a product has cost him $10 to acquire, and he will have to sell it for $12 in order to turn a profit; but if he can convince the buyer that in fact the market price is $20 (say, by normally selling it at that price, and occasionally having a 50% OFF CLEARANCE SALE!), then so much the better.  This kind of disequilibrium is of course ubiquitous, but normally it doesn’t bother us that much, because it is kept in check by competition.  Assuming plenty of competitors in the marketplace, and assuming they aren’t colluding with one another (which, as the Apple case shows, is not always a safe assumption), we can count on the selling price as a whole to gravitate toward equilibrium, especially if we are willing to be shrewd shoppers and only buy things when they’re on sale, recognizing that the sale price is likely to be closer to the real price.

But rather harder to exorcise is the suppression of unsavory information about a product—if it comes from an unethical source (e.g., blood diamonds or Nikes), or contains harmful ingredients (e.g., Coke, a Big Mac, or tobacco), or else is just useless for its supposed purpose (e.g., a high proportion of patented medications and hygiene products, for which dirt-cheap natural substitutes are often far more effective).  Any of this information might cause the consumer to pay far less for the product, or reject it altogether (which would, of course, force the price down for those still willing to buy).  While we might be able to rely on McDonalds to sooner or later make it clear to us that Burger King is systematically overstating the cost of beef, by underselling them if they price it too high, it is in neither McDonalds’s nor Burger King’s interest to be forthcoming with us about the unsavory backstory of that beef, just as, competitors though they may have been, everyone in the tobacco industry could agree to work together in manufacturing doubt and disinformation about the dangers of smoking.  Collusion in the suppression of information is the order of the day.  


What all this suggests, of course, is the dependence of any kind of free market on a robust moral order, the dependence of The Wealth of Nations on The Moral Sentiments.  When the pursuit of profit becomes a self-justifying end, truth becomes a readily dispensable commodity, because truth will not maximize profit.  And as truth is exchanged for profit, a genuinely free market is exchanged for a war of all against all, in which consumers and producers are locked in an endless battle of trying to deceive and outwit the other.  If a free market can work, it can only work within a vigorous shared commitment to truth and honesty that runs deeper than any desire for gain, an integrity that “swears to its own hurt.”  Whether such a shared commitment can be counted on in any society, much less in our current culture that is at war with the very idea of truth, is an open question, and one that needs to be faced more honestly by the proponents of free market orthodoxy.

What Would Jesus Tweet?

Toby Sumpter has answered some of my recent arguments (and those of others) about the pastoral use of social media here.

The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).  And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.”  Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.”  He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.

From this he concludes,

But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”

I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:

  • Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group.  The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
  • Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
  • The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
  • Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
  • Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?

 I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue.  I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.  Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy.  But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force.  I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative.  If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.  

The Soul of a Christian Commonwealth

(An excerpt from a recent thesis chapter draft; citations removed)

Nowhere is Hooker’s dependence on the dictum “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it more true than his treatment of the role of religion in the commonwealth. While Hooker understood public religion as a natural and civil phenomenon, not as exclusively Christian or spiritual, this did not mean it was a mere simulacrum of the spiritual; rather, although achieving its effect through natural and outward instruments, Christian worship can serve as a real pathway toward our growth in grace.  The key point, however, was that the civil kingdom, in addition to being concerned with all the mundane concerns of public order, economic prosperity, and outward protection that characterize our modern conception of the domain of politics, was also properly a religious order; it existed under God, toward God, and animated and structured by worship. 

Given Hooker’s argument in Book I, it is not hard to see why this should be the case.  Human nature is not satisfied with mere finite, earthly ends, but constantly seeks a happiness beyond the bounds of temporal existence, a happiness to be found in God.  This restless longing for God, which subordinates and orders all other desires, will always, thinks Hooker, be reflected in the life of human society, which will always establish some kind of religious devotion at the heart of its public life.  Because of the centrality and ultimacy of this religious devotion, worship is not merely of value for its own sake, but serves as an anchor for the public life of the community, guaranteeing unity around a common object of love, and reverent esteem for the magistrates who are the guardians of this common life.  Hooker describes the importance of religion for the commonwealth at the outset of Book V: 

We agree that pure and unstained religion ought to be the highest of all cares appertaining to public regiment: as well in regard of that aid and protection which they who faithfully serve God confess they receive at his merciful hands, as also for the force which religion hath to qualify all sorts of men, and to make them in public affairs the more serviceable, governors the apter to rule with conscience, inferiors for conscience’ sake the willinger to obey.  It is no peculiar conceit, but a matter of sound consequence, that all duties are by so much the better performed, by how much the men are more religious from whose abilities the same proceed.  For if the course of politic affairs cannot in any good sort go forward without fit instruments, and that which fitteth them be their virtues, let Polity acknowledge itself indebted to Religion; godliness being the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things.

Hooker then goes on to outline how religion helps preserve and perfect each of the four cardinal virtues, to the great benefit of the commonwealth, going so far as to say, regarding the greatest of the cardinal virtues, “So naturall is the union of Religion with Justice, that wee may boldly deny there is either, where both are not.” 

Hooker will return to this argument early in Book VIII, where he constructs his defence of the Royal Supremacy on two chief pillars.  The first is the personal identity of the visible Church (being an outward society of those who profess the faith) and the Commonwealth in Elizabethan England.  The second is the natural responsibility of commonwealths for religious concerns, for which Hooker is not afraid to cite Aristotle: 

“That the scope thereof is not simplie to live, nor the duetie so much to provide for life as for meanes of living well,” and that even as the soule is the worthier part of man, so humane societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soules estate then for such temporall thinges as this life doth stand in need of.  Other proof there needes none to shewe that as by all men the kingdome of God is first to be sought for: So in all commonwealths things spirituall ought above temporall to be provided for.  And of things spirituall the chiefest is Religion.  

From all this, however, it might appear that Hooker has been so eager to demonstrate nature’s receptivity to the supernatural, religion’s integral place in the commonwealth, that he has perhaps naturalized religion altogether, reducing Christianity to a mere prop of political order.  He anticipates this objection in V.1 and V.2, attacking both skeptics and atheists.  The latter conclude from the “politique use of religion . . . that religion it selfe is a mere politique devise, forged purposelie to serve for that use.”  The former imagine “that it greatly skilleth not of what sort our religion be, inasmuch as heathens, Turks, and infidels, impute to religion a great part of the same effects which ourselves ascribe thereunto.” Against these objections, he takes care to argue that on the contrary, it is not merely religion, but true religion, after which all men instinctively seek, and that finding the true religion, Christianity, makes a great difference, both in this life, and in that which is to come.  He has no hesitation in recognizing the many virtues and benefits which flowed from heathen religion, as “certain sparks of the light of truth intermingled with the darkness of error,” but he maintains nonetheless that “the purer and perfecter our religion is, the worthier effects it hath in them who stedfastly and sincerely embrace it.”

Hooker thus develops his account of public religion under his overarching logic of nature and grace.  The desire for and worship of God is natural to man, and indeed, so central to human nature that it serves to ground and orient the other virtues, and is a mainstay of civil polity.  Fallen as man is, however, this religious devotion is tainted with “heaps of manifold repugnant errors,” on account of which we desperately need the gracious revelation of true religion.  This true religion, then, serves not only to set us on the path to everlasting life, which the false religions cannot even begin to do, but also reorients our temporal existence, crowning the natural virtues with a perfection beyond the capacity of false religion, and enabling a more harmonious life together in civil society.  For all these reasons, Hooker can argue for the Christian magistrate’s overarching concern for the spiritual well-being of his subjects, which is found only in their redemption by Christ; for in this rests their ultimate good, to which they are naturally oriented, and from it flows all subsidiary goods which will ensure a peaceful and virtuous life for the commonwealth.  On Hooker’s definition, then, the Church, considered as an external, visible society, is a commonwealth ordered toward the true religion: 

the care of religion being common unto all societies politic, such Societies as doe embrace the true religion, have the name of the Church given them for distinction from the rest; so that every body politic hath some religion, but the Church that religion which is only true.  Truth of religion is that proper difference whereby a church is distinguished from other politic societies of men.

He concludes, therefore, attacking what he perceives as the disastrous implications of the Presbyterian separation of church and commonwealth, 

A grosse errour it is to think that regall power ought to serve for the good of the bodie and not of the soule, for mens temporall peace and not their eternall safetie; as if God had ordained Kings for no other ende and purpose but only to fatt up men like hogges and to see that they have their mash? Indeed to leade men unto salvation by the hand of secret, invisible and ghostly regiment or by the externall administration of thinges belonging unto priestly order (such as the worde and Sacramentes are) this is denied unto Christian Kings, no cause in the world to think them uncapable of supreme authoritie in the outward goverment which disposeth the affayres of religion so farr forth as the same are disposable by humane authoritie and to think them uncapable thereof only for that, the said religion is everlastingly beneficiall to them that faythfullie continue in it.  

This passage highlights at the same time to Hooker’s haste to qualify what he envisions by the magisterial care for religion.  After all, if the prince is responsible for the good of his subjects, and their highest good is to be found in union with God, then does this not make the prince the pontifex maximus, both priest and king, arbiter of his subjects’ eternal destiny as much as their temporal?  Certainly, in some of the ambitiously caesaropapist declarations of the Henrician era, these implications would not have been far from the surface.  Hooker protects himself against these excesses by two sets of distinctions.  The first, of which we have already seen a good deal, is his two-kingdoms doctrine, which we see on display here in his qualification about “secret, invisible and ghostly regiment.”  The salvation of believers lay entirely within the hands of Christ alone, working invisibly by his Spirit in the hearts of men.  External means he may use to ready the soil and water the sapling, but only he could plant the seed of spiritual life.  No human servant could usurp his kingship here; they could only point to it.  

The second distinction, mentioned here in Hooker’s reference to “the externall administration of thinges belonging to priestly order,” designates a distinction of roles or orders, within the one civil kingdom.  While insisting that church and commonwealth are one society, he is careful to preserve a diversity of duties within this society, so that those activities in which the activity of the spiritual kingdom is outwardly manifested—the preaching of the Word, leading of worship, and administration of sacraments—are entrusted to priests, not kings.  He resists, however, the implication that “they that are of the one can neither appointe, nor execute in part the dueties which belong unto them which are of the other.”  On the contrary, throughout his argument for the royal supremacy, he maintains that the monarch, by virtue of his office as highest guardian of the common good, ought in England to have final (though not sole) authority for directing the various offices within the Church toward the good of the whole.  In other words, while the magistrate’s arena of direct concern is temporal affairs, and he can by no means lay claim to the power of order—which is the priestly authority over word and sacrament—he nonetheless exercises dominion over all matters in his realm, as the repository of sovereignty and the deputy of Christ in the civil kingdom. 

By virtue of these distinctions, Hooker tries to resolve the ambiguity inherent in the Puritans’ constant insistence that the affairs of the visible Church are “spiritual” and hence belong to Christ’s “spiritual kingdom”; he is willing to accede to this language, so long as it be qualified rightly:

To make thinges therfore so plaine that henceforth a Childes capacitie may serve rightly to conceive our meaning, we make the Spiritual regiment of Christ to be generally that wherby his Church is ruled and governed in things spirituall.  Of this generall wee make two distinct kindes, the one invisibly exercised by Christ himself in his own person, the other outwardly administred by them whom Christ doth allow to be the Rulers and guiders of his Church. 

 This outward administration of the “spiritual regiment” belongs within the orbit of what will elsewhere be called the “civil regiment,” which contains also matters of strictly temporal concern.

A New Creation Prayer

The world is charged with the grandeur of God*

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; 

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil  


Lord, we thank you for the glory of springtime, when the golden gorse blossoms on the sides of Arthur’s Seat, when Princes Street Gardens are transformed into a sea of green, when each day is longer and brighter than the one before.  It is not hard, when the sun shines out across the spires of Edinburgh, to believe that we live in the dawn of new creation, when “old things have passed away, and all things have become new.”  For your glory refracted in every flower, every sunrise, in the waves of the Firth of Forth and the cliffs of Salisbury Crags, we thank you.  For every good and perfect gift, which we take for granted; for everything that is going right in the world, which we somehow think it tactless to dwell upon, we thank you.  Make us mindful of your presence and your grace at all times, even when they are not so obvious; but at least do not let us ever be so callous as to ignore your grandeur when it flames out so blindingly as it does each Easter season.


Why do men then now not reck his rod?  

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod

Lord, we confess that each one of us has turned inward upon ourselves.  How rarely we look outward to admire your handiwork, instead of gazing, ever unsatisfied, on our own; how rarely we look outward to see the faces and needs of others, the bearers of your glory, instead of brooding on our own problems and desires!  We bend everyone and everything into the instruments of our own projects; we manipulate our family and friends in a hundred subtle ways; we treat the world around us as so much raw material for us to consume to suit our pleasure, or remake or unmake to make our lives a fraction more convenient.  The evil that we see and deplore on a national and global scale—of bankers for whom the pursuit of money has become a self-justifying end that knows no end, of politicians for whom the truth and the common good are values so frequently traded for short-term gains that they have lost all meaning, of tyrants and war profiteers for whom violence is a way of life, of an earth straining under the weight of our demands, reeling from our daily depredations on soil, sea, and sky—is merely the selfishness of our own hearts writ large.  Lord, have mercy upon us. 


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Blessed are you, our God, Redeemer, for you have had mercy upon us; you have not left us trapped within ourselves, cut off from one another and from you.  For you, O God, were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself, and you have given us the Spirit of reconciliation.  For the reconciling work of Christ, we thank you, and pray that you bring it to completion in each one of our lives.  For the reconciling work of this church in the power of the Spirit, we thank you, and we pray that you would advance it through the preaching of the Word, through worship, through service, through fellowship, and in every new endeavour we undertake.  For the reconciling work that you have tasked each one of us with, we pray for your grace to carry it forward.  May the love of Christ compel us to turn out of ourselves and become part of the new creation of which you have invited us to be a part, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for Him who died for us and rose again.  Reconciled to you, may we be agents of your reconciling, recreating work to a world gone stale and dark—to the needy right in front of us, in our church and our streets, to friends or family estranged from us or from you, to nations and men in power deaf to your word and to the cry of the oppressed, and to the voiceless victims of our preoccupations, in the creation around us.  Make us ready for the dawn that awaits this groaning world, when your grandeur will flame out for all to see. 


Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery hast established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.**


(Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church; 22 April 2012. Sermon passage: 2 Cor. 5:12-6:2)

* The poem used here is “The Grandeur of God,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

** For all you liturgical police out there—I recognize that this is the Collect for the 2nd Sunday in Easter, not the 3rd.  However, it fit the sermon passage so well that I decided to disregard calendrical propriety.


An intriguing passage from the fascinating (and deeply troubling) book Merchants of Doubt, about which much more soon to come:

“Cornucopians hold to a blind faith in technology that isn’t borne out by the historical evidence.  We call it ‘technofideism.’

Why do they hold this belief when history shows it to be untrue? Again we turn to Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, where he claimed that “the great advances of civilization, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.” To historians of technology, this would be laughable had it not been written (five years after Sputnik) by one of the most influential economists of the second half of the twentieth century. 

The most important technology of the industrial age was the ability to produce parts that were perfectly identical and interchangeable. Blacksmiths and carpenters couldn’t do it; in fact, humans can’t do it routinely in any profession. Only machines can. It was the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department that developed this ability to have machines make parts for other machines, spending nearly fifty years on this effort—an inconceivable period of research for a private corporation in the nineteenth century. Army Ordnance wanted guns that could be repaired easily on or near a battlefield by switching out the parts. Once the basic technology to do this—machine tools, as we know them today—was invented, it spread rapidly through the American economy. Despite efforts to prevent it, it soon spread to Europe and Japan, as well. Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.

Machine tools are not the exception that proves the rule; there are many other cases of government-financed technology that were commercialized and redounded to the benefit of society. Even while Friedman was writing his soon-to-be-famous book, digital computers were beginning to find uses beyond the U.S. government’s weapons systems, for which they were originally developed. Private enterprise transformed that technology into something that could be used and afforded by the masses, but the U.S. government made it possible in the first place. The U.S. government also played a major role in the development of Silicon Valley. In recent years, something we now all depend on—the Internet, originally ARPANET—was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies, and industry, funded largely by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was expanded and developed into the Internet by the government support provided by the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, promoted by then-senator Al Gore.

In other cases, new technologies were invented by individual or corporate entrepreneurs, but it was government action or support that transformed them into commercially viable technologies; airplanes and transistors come to mind. (Transistors were explicitly promoted by the U.S. government when they realized that Minutemen missiles needed onboard rather than remote controls, and vacuum tubes would not suffice.) Still other technologies were invented by individuals but were spread through government policy. Electricity was extended beyond the major cities by a federal loan-guarantee program during the Great Depression. The U.S. interstate highway system, which arguably created postwar America as we know it, was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, who recognized the role it could play both in the U.S. economy and in national defense; it became the model for similar highway systems around the globe. And nuclear power, which may help us out of the global warming conundrum, was a by-product of the technology that launched the Cold War: the atomic bomb. The relationship between technology, innovation, and economic and political systems is varied and complex. It cannot be reduced to a simple article of faith about the virtues of a free market.”