The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a talk on theology and economics at New York’s Trinity Church last week. The historic Wall Street church was the site of the Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace conference which promised to “bring together leading theologians and economists to talk about the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action.”
Williams had this to say:
“Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”
“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”
And that’s how his talk went — long on literary and theological metaphor (“money is a metaphor like other things”) but precious little on economics. What’s more, there seemed to be no words in his vocabulary that would help him distinguish between competing economic systems or, in fact, help him describe how the economic systems in the United Kingdom or the United States actually work. At some point, economics transcends mere metaphor and goes to work in a concrete way in the world in which people live.
Is the archbishop aware that there has been a jaw-dropping, incredible reduction in global poverty?
World poverty is falling. … new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa. Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world.
How did this happen? What type of economic system brought this about? Doesn’t it seem as though more than “naughts” are being produced in some of the poorest regions of the world? Is this poverty reduction not an occasion for rejoicing, or at the least singing a few hymns right there on Wall Street?
You can read the 3,600 word transcript of Williams’ talk here, but you won’t learn much about poverty reduction. Or economics.
And how many times do we have to be informed, by people who apparently believe they have discovered the connection for the first time, that the root meaning of economics is from the Greek word οικονομία for household management? Can you see the metaphor coming?
Williams announces that the “isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic ‘rationality’ that is in fact wildly irrational.”
Rowan Williams’ visit to Wall Street would have been more educational for him, and more edifying for those who heard his talk, if he had actually spent some time with the people who work in that district. He would have found out that, by and large, they’re not so “irrational” after all. They might help him understand how the world works, and that not everyone who labors on Wall Street, or on Main Street, believes that all human relations “are actually to do with exchange and the search for profit,” as he describes it. He might even find the imago Dei in one or two people who work on Wall Street. But he will only find that Image in real human persons, not metaphors.