Markets and Metaphysics: An Inquiry

Steve Peterson

In 1735, George Berkeley – immaterialist philosopher, poet, Anglican bishop, satirist, mathematician, preacher, Royal Dublin Society member, planner of a utopian university in Bermuda, and benefactor to Yale of eight boxes of books and a Rhode Island farm – published The Querist, a collection of 598 questions regarding the desperate economic plight of Ireland. 

The English Woollen Act of 1699 restricted the export of Irish wool, causing extreme poverty in Ireland. Berkeley placed this economic crisis in a broader theological and philosophical context with his pamphlet, addressing the nature of money and credit, the need for a national bank, the evil effects of stock-jobbing or speculation, and the importance of education for economic development and honesty in commercial dealings. Berkeley’s long roster of questions includes:

“Whether it be not evident that not gold but industry causeth a country to flourish?”

“Whether there should not be erected, in each province, a hospital for orphans and foundlings, at the expense of old bachelors?”

“Whether, in order to understand the true nature of wealth and commerce, it would not be right to consider a ship’s crew cast upon a desert is- land?”

Today’s economic turmoil raises its own set of difficult and unsettling questions regarding greed, debt, capitalism, trust, consumption, globalization, risk, and incentives – questions carrying both theological and economic urgency. In the spirit of Berkeley’s Socratic inquiry into the true foundations of prosperity, here are a few of my own questions regarding the contemporary financial crisis:

Whether financial regulation can ever adequately protect against the treachery of the human heart and the delusions of the human mind?

Whether refinements in econometric modeling will truly improve investment results?

Whether every asset bubble is not followed by a bubble of self-serving jeremiads and self-righteous scolding?

Whether economic inequality can reach a point that it breeds civil unrest and subverts democratic institutions?

Whether Max Weber’s Protestant ethic of hard work and self-restraint has been replaced by a lotto culture and flamboyant consumption?

Whether reading John Calvin’s Institutes could possibly reverse this development?

Whether trauma and crisis are not the necessary preconditions for serious philosophical and theological questioning?

Whether there is anything left in the world that is not for sale?

Whether 9/11 or the financial meltdown has provoked more philosophical and theological ruminating?

Whether an hour with a pastor or an hour with a financial advisor is worth more?

Whether Christianity inspires a fullness of joyful giving that is directly at odds with calculating, self-interested market transactions?

Whether locking Glenn Beck and Al Franken naked in a room full of ripe tomatoes and homemade banana cream pies would settle the debate on the causes of the financial crisis once and for all.

Whether people should be forgiven for not reading the financial and the theological fine print? 

Whether singing a song might not do some good?

Whether sharing a meal might not do some good?

Whether, as theologian Herbert McCabe writes, ethics is entirely a matter of doing what you want? Whether greed is a matter of not knowing what you truly want?

Whether a crisis or trauma, as Joan Didion wrote about her husband’s death, dislodges things deep in us, lets off reactions that surprise us and may cut free memories and feelings?

Whether the economy would be healthier if every man with an Adam Smith necktie had actually read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations?

Whether in a society fueled by hysteria and confusion – where vast numbers of people believe in ghosts and UFOs and few understand com- pound interest or Adjustable Rate Mortgages – academic theologians and financial economists have any significant role?

Whether more superstition and credulity may be found in the churches or on Wall Street?

Whether, as Arthur Schopenhauer claims, money is human happiness in the abstract and only the man who is no longer capable of enjoying happiness in the concrete sets his whole heart on it?

Whether truthiness – Stephen Colbert’s word – is more common in investment brochures or in the pulpit?

Whether the social trust that binds an economic community also resembles the trust that binds a religious community?

Whether trust once lost can be restored?

Whether the world was better when men wore homburgs?

Whether Jim Cramer or Rev. Ike is more ridiculous? Whether the gospel of prosperity fueled reckless

personal spending and irresponsible subprime lending?

Whether Andy Warhol’s prediction that art will collapse into business – “Museums will become department stores and department stores will become museums” – applies to religion too?

Whether the collapse of the financial system would have been avoided if more traders had escaped Max Weber’s “iron cage” of rationalistic calculation and had read Augustine and Pascal?

Whether the collapse of mainline churches would have been avoided if more pastors had escaped denominational meetings and had read Joseph Schumpeter and Thorstein Veblen?

Whether financial complexity may have unexpected costs?

Whether belief in the invisible hand of the market is not a theological belief?

Whether there is any conceivable limit to clever evasions of the truth, self-interested excuses, and imaginative rationalizations?

Whether any who use the excuse “perfect storm” to explain various failures should not be removed from positions of public responsibility?

Whether business schools or divinity schools are more culpable for our cultural and economic failures?

Whether Wall Street and the churches have not both become subsidiaries of the entertainment industry?

Whether home ownership is the American dream or do we not have more imaginative and glorious hopes?

Whether desperate poverty or desperate wealth is a greater obstacle to wisdom?

Whether Wall Street is an engine of dynamic innovation or merely another institution at the corpo- rate welfare trough?

Whether the churches are capable of dynamic innovation or will fail like GM or Chrysler?

Whether market overconfidence is related to theological pride?

Whether, as Sigmund Freud claims, money and sex are not treated with the same inconsistency, hypocrisy, and prudishness?

Whether humility is not a financial as well as a theological virtue?

Whether the vast increase in the financial services sector of the economy has created a more productive and dynamic economy, or the opposite?

Whether the opportunity cost of the growth in the financial services sector – the poems not writ- ten, the scientific discoveries not made, the third graders not taught – has been too high?

Whether our country can repent? 

Steve Peterson ’84 M.Div. studied historical theology at YDS and the University of Chicago (Ph.D. ’01) and trades distressed and high-yield bonds for an investment bank in Chicago. He is a member of the YDS Board of Advisors.