Saturday, August 12, 2023

Plummer's "Rich in Good Deeds" and "Healthy and Wealthy"

Healthy and Wealthy and Rich in Good Deeds are volumes edited by Robert Plummer—the first two of four planned books in a series by Fontes Press on "Faith and Work". Most of the writers are professors at Christian universities and seminaries in America. About half of them are at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Plummer teaches). The writing is academic but accessible to laypeople. The topics and approaches vary considerably, so the relevance and usefulness of particular essays will depend on the interests of the reader. 

The subtitle of Healthy and Wealthy is "A Biblical-Theological Response to the Prosperity Gospel". Ben Cornish opens the volume with a relatively technical article on the historical connections between various "prosperity gospel" (PG) preachers. James Hamilton compares the PG-ish teachings in Proverbs to pessimism about the value of wealth in Ecclesiastes and the need to ground our lives in light of God's Kingdom and eternity. Michael Pohlman relies on Paul's writing to talk about the under-estimated role of suffering in the Christian life among PG preachers. Philip Chia discusses suffering and prosperity in light of Joseph's story in Genesis. Michael Naylor details poverty and wealth in Revelation, particularly in the Heavenly City and in contrast to Babylon. And Abeneazer Urga describes the PG in the context of Africa. 

Of greatest interest to me: David Kotter's essay is excellent in terms of a biblical view on wealth and poverty, but a bit of a tangent on PG per se. (It's an angle I would have been tempted to pursue as an economist if I had been asked to contribute a chapter.) Todd Scacewater's description of blessing and happiness in Greek literature and the Bible was quite helpful for understanding some of the context in which the goodness of Jesus' Gospel was first proclaimed. But I suspect that the most interesting and applicable essay for most people is from Matthew Westerholm. He wrestles with the use of PG songs in evangelical worship. Along the way, he analyzes the historical arc of PG worship, notes the varied attractions to PG-ish songs, and uses the lens of legalism vs. liberty (in primary vs. secondary issues) to draw his conclusions. 

One problem with "the prosperity gospel"—especially for its opponents—is that it is a slippery concept, better understood along a spectrum than a binary 0/1. As such, it's important to read/listen to PG-ish messages with nuance and grace. It's tempting but facile to put people in one box or another, assuming too quickly that someone is PG or missing the reality that two people are closer theologically than one might initially imagine. 

This reminds me of references to the papal encyclicals that touch on economics. Their arguments do not rely on standard terminology (popes are not economists); their analysis transcends the usual categories; and they critique all worldly "isms". So, it is easy for proponents of capitalism and socialism to find excerpts to use for their own ends. When a pope critiques some aspect of market activity and lauds some aspect of communal living, the socialist would claim the pope for his side. Or a fan of free markets would read the critiques of socialism and the acknowledgement of the market's contributions to material prosperity—and see the pope as a capitalist. Of course, it's more complicated than this—and points back to the need to read the original source carefully, rather than relying on the interpretations of partisans. 

Back to this context: I'm no fan of Joel Osteen, but after reading one of his books, I saw that his writing was often slandered. In Your Best Life Now, Osteen talks about both suffering and the importance of serving at length—sprinkled throughout the book and then devoting 50+ pages to each topic. Some of his critics applaud John Piper's Desiring God (a great book) with its subtitle on “Christian hedonism"—without any explanation for why Osteen's views are terrible while Piper's are glory. The fact is that all of us believe "Word of Faith" to some extent (e.g., words have power) and all of us believe in some form of the "Prosperity Gospel" (e.g., God wants to bless us on Earth; God will provide eternal rewards in Heaven). Especially from academics and Christian church leaders, we should expect more nuance and grace. (In this volume. Westerholm expresses a strong grasp on Osteen, describing the evolution from the "classic" PG teaching of John Osteen to the "soft" PG teaching of Joel.) 

The subtitle of the second volume, Rich in Good Deeds, is "A Biblical Response to Poverty by the Church and by Society"—and this set of essays largely fits the bill. Benjamin Hussung describes mercy, poverty, and personal benevolence to the poor in Matthew. In a bit of a tangent, Robert Plummer contributes a helpful list of key, broad economic principles with relevant Bible passages and comparisons to popular children's books. Joseph Harrod provides a history of giving to the poor from prominent 18th-19th century Christians, discussing the benefits of giving for the recipient and the donor. Michael Haykin profiles William Kiffen as the central figure for 17th-century British Baptists, describing his use of wealth and power to influence society. Megan DeVore details the prominence of female benefactors in early Christian history. And Matthew Hall contributes a thorough analysis of Carl Henry's thoughts on socialism and capitalism over the course of his career. 

Todd Scacewater describes poverty and wealth in James, with a focus on 5:1-6 and the various definitions of poverty in the Bible. Scacewater rightly observes that wealth per se is sometimes praised rather than universally condemned. So, the Scriptures critique certain forms of the acquisition or use of wealth—in particular, oppression, profligacy, and idolatry. Timothy Paul Jones uses a secular book critical of Christianity as a springboard for early Christian care of the poor and parentless as an effective apologetic for Christianity. The philosophical references will bore some readers, but his conclusions are powerful: charity is attractional; good theology requires care for the vulnerable; and suffering is a "miniature martyrdom" that is central to the Gospel and the goodness of God's Kingdom. But for most readers, I suspect the greatest value-added may come from David Croteau's thorough discussion of (Old Testament) tithes and offerings—and their relevance to contemporary Christianity. (He connects the common misunderstanding of the tithe to harming the poor, but is not as compelling when pursuing this tangent.)

Of greatest interest to me, David Kotter describes the pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) from ethical and practical perspectives. Although the piece is titled "a moral case against" the UBI, his argument is balanced and certainly doesn't slam the door on UBI as a policy-improving move to replace all existing welfare programs. He cites Charles Murray's 2006 book, In Our Hands—a slim but helpful resource on the topic. I would have liked more discussion of UBI reducing current disincentives for marriage (since welfare programs are largely conditional on not being married) and as an eventual replacement for Social Security (given its future insolvency, high and regressive taxes, and 0% average rate-of-return). But Kotter's piece is a useful primer on an interesting policy topic that will probably gain traction as welfare and "entitlement programs" are seen as increasingly problematic. 

These two volumes are a hodgepodge of good articles—useful to academics in the relevant fields and to laypeople interested in wealth, poverty, and the prosperity gospel. Thanks to Robert Plummer for organizing this effort.

Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge

A shorter version of this will appear in newspapers across the state...

Amity Shlaes writes history and biography that connect to economics. I had already read her detailed book on "the Great Society" and her excellent book on "the New Deal". She's always thorough and insightful. Her 2013 biography of Calvin Coolidge will provide too much information for many readers. But for those who enjoy economic history, her work is helpful and interesting. I'd already read and reviewed Garland Tucker's book on the 1924 election. With the 100th anniversary of Coolidge's inauguration as our 30th president on August 2nd, I wanted to read and write about his noteworthy presidency. 

Along the way, Shlaes shares some cool little details: Coolidge's great-grandfather paid $31 in 1842 for preferred seating on a pew at church (14). The middle name of Coolidge's grandfather was Galusha after a two-term governor of Vermont. At one point, Galusha was paid to cut off the ear and brand a C on the forehead of a criminal (probably for counterfeiting). The Coolidge family had a recipe for "Scripture cake" with 12 ingredients based on a variety of Bible verses (15-16). And the nature of telegraph messages is that they tended to be abrupt and abrasive: saving money with shorter sentences; all capital letters; "stop" instead of periods for punctuation (171).

It was a different time in many ways. Coolidge's 16-year-old son died from a freakish blister infection that would have been easily treated today. The federal government was much smaller then. Spending is 90 times greater today, even controlling for inflation (which they didn't have in the six years when Coolidge was president). But some things were the same—e.g., interest group politics (burgeoning at the time) and concerns about federal government spending and debt (their problems were largely from World War I). Technological advance was also impressive. Suburbs and skyscrapers made their debut. Movies added sound. Cars and phones became prevalent. Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. And Coolidge lit the first national Christmas tree using electricity.

Why has Coolidge continued under the radar of history? In terms of "substance" and public policy, he was a "minimalist president" and opposed the growth of government—not to mention dramatic expansions of the State. He thought it was more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones. Acts of omission are typically harder to value compared to acts of commission, especially with government where the benefits of activism are typically obvious while its costs are subtle.  

In terms of style, Coolidge didn't have a big personality; some presidents have drawn attention to themselves through charismatic personality. He doesn't get any credit from being associated with Mount Rushmore which started when he was president. (He advocated that Teddy Roosevelt should join Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington.) "Silent Cal" was a quiet man who was famously terse. But quality trumped quantity; he meant what he said and said what he meant. He was the last president to write his own speeches. He was the first president to make heavy use of radio. And Larry Reed notes that Coolidge still holds the record for presidential news conferences—one every five days in office.  (Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president who talks less and speaks to the press more?)

Unfortunately, presidential historians often rate Coolidge (well) below-average. But aside from statist ideology and an ignorance of economics, there is no reason to consider him anything less than above-average. In fact, the most compelling claim about him is that Ronald Reagan was our best president since at least Coolidge. 

Shlaes sees this as a shame and compares Coolidge favorably to other presidents. Like John Adams, he served as Vice President and saw the office as insignificant on its own merits. Like Adams and Washington, he was uncomfortable with high society. Like Washington (and others before FDR), he refused a third term. Like Lincoln, he lost a son while president—and frustrated advisors with his thoughtfulness on policy, but acted decisively when he moved. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he ended a period of rank corruption. Like Wilson, he favored international diplomacy. Like Harding, he valued consistency and predictability in policy. And so on. 

But the closest comparisons are Grover Cleveland and Ronald Reagan. (In fact, Reagan replaced Truman's portrait in the White House with Coolidge's.) All three held a minimalist view of the federal government. (Reagan worked with a bipartisan Congress and inherited a much larger government that could not easily be reduced to earlier standards.)

Coolidge and Cleveland both vetoed tiny expenditures on items that are amazing by today's norms: flood victims and farm subsidies. In both cases, they did not see the expenditures as an ethical or constitutional role for the federal government. When should the government take money from X to give to someone else? (Coolidge did support some tariffs and farm subsidies, although he famously vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm bill twice.) The extent to which his administration pored over the budget to save money is impossible to imagine now: the Weather Bureau not sending out postcards with forecasts anymore; post office bags switching from red, white, and blue to gray; and white string instead of red tape (yes, red tape!) to wrap documents (323). 

Coolidge and Reagan both embraced the reality of "supply side economics" and its relevance in contexts where high marginal tax rates were impeding the economy—and ironically, squelching tax revenues. The theory describes the supply-side impact of cuts in tax rates: encouraging "supply" in the economy through greater work effort, entrepreneurship, and innovation, as well as reducing tax avoidance and tax evasion. (Tax cuts also have "demand-side" implications that are more famous: more money in our pockets results in greater investment and especially consumption.) Andrew Mellon called this "scientific taxation" in his efforts to increase tax revenues. Coolidge and Mellon worked with a Republican Congress to cut the top marginal tax rates from 73% to 25%. Reagan worked with a strongly-Democratic House to reduce the top rate from 70% to 28%. 

Amazingly, federal government spending was about the same (about $3 billion) when Coolidge left office in 1929. In this, he was emulating the fiscal conservatism of Harding who reduced spending dramatically (from WWI levels). The economy boomed throughout his administration. "If Coolidge was a Scrooge, he was a Scrooge who begat plenty." (6) The increased revenues from decreased tax rates resulted in budget surpluses every year—and the federal debt was reduced by more than 20% (from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion). This data also contradicts the tenets of Keynesianism that began to dominate for 50 years, starting with Hoover and then FDR. (Today, if we froze federal spending, we could have a balanced budget within a decade and would be far more likely to avert a debt crisis.)

Ironically, the budget surpluses led to calls for increased government spending. Along with Coolidge's lame-duck status (in 1927, he announced he would not run for another term), Congress began to press for more expenditures in a manner that would soon manifest as much larger government under the big-spending social-engineering of Hoover and FDR. (Spending doubled under Hoover and the role of government exploded under FDR's "New Deal.") 

Coolidge and Reagan both took controversial stands to confront powerful public-sector unions. In August 1981, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers who went on strike, while Governor Coolidge fired the Boston police in 1919 for striking. In both cases, compromises were available but not chosen. To Coolidge, these were not strikers but deserters. His conclusion: "There is nothing to arbitrate...nothing to compromise...there are no conditions under which the men can return to the force...[There is] no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime." (167, 174) Wow! In both cases, the interest group complained, but the public was supportive, especially in the context of the Russian Revolution for Coolidge and a tough economy for Reagan. With his response to the strike, Coolidge became a key national political figure, leading to his election as Vice President in 1921. 

In some ways, the 1924 presidential race was one of the most interesting in American history—with two Conservatives (Coolidge and the Democrat John Davis) and one Progressive (Senator Bob La Follette). This campaign and its context are the subject of Garland Tucker's fine book, The High Tide of Conservatism. (My review of it is here.) Conservatism had been successful under Coolidge. And most of the nation was tired of Progressivism after Wilson (including a really tough economy in 1919-20, with unemployment up to 20% and GDP down by 1/6th).

Still, there were enough voters to warrant a Progressive candidate. (La Follette earned 16% of the vote; won his home state; and finished second in 11 others.) But the Dems thought it wiser to also go with a conservative. Davis described himself as a "classical liberal" and later opposed both FDR and his "New Deal". In 1924, not surprisingly, Coolidge won easily: 54-29% over Davis in the popular vote and 72% of the electoral vote. (Some of the statewide numbers are amazing: Davis won 97% in South Carolina, but less than 10% in five states, including California.) 

Coolidge was born on July 4th and as president, gave the commencement address at all-black Howard University in 1924. He handled the scandals of his predecessor with integrity and consistency, defending the office of the presidency with strong but modest leadership. The economy was strong throughout his administration. He didn't have much international or domestic drama to address. So, the standard opportunities for presidential greatness were not available to him—as they were to Reagan with the Cold War, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and the "malaise" of the Carter years. Still, Coolidge was a fine president by any objective standard—and arguably, one of our best. Let's make sure to celebrate his centennial on August 2nd. 

AI and the potential demise of higher ed

In newspapers across the state...

I teach an on-line Principles of Microeconomics course every summer. It is “asynchronous”: students work at their own pace (within my deadlines), using the text, a course-management system, short videos from me, and outside resources they find. In such courses, I interact with the students through “forums” to discuss articles; I give them feedback on assignments and tests; and they’re free to schedule Zoom appointments with me (although few do). So, there is little personal contact required—and thus, I barely know them at all. (I’ve also taught “synchronous” courses on-line—with classroom meetings through Zoom—which, with certain teaching methods, can be roughly equivalent to a classroom experience.)

In my Micro course, I use a “mini-paper” as an assignment to help them learn about demand and supply models. It’s a two-paragraph essay about a Wall Street Journal article related to changes in a market. They write a paragraph summarizing the article and a paragraph analyzing the market from the perspective of demand and supply. Then, they add the relevant demand/supply graph.

This summer, for the first time (I think), a student used AI to write the essay. It was well-crafted—too well-crafted, in fact, for 99% of undergraduates. Later work by the student was poorly-done, making it extremely likely that the student had gotten assistance. Teachers have access to AI that detects plagiarism. But so far, we don’t have AI that detects help from friends or from AI.

Students can also Google my test questions or use resources like Chegg to find (attempts at) answers. I change my questions to limit the effectiveness of these efforts. I use time-constrained exams, so they cannot search much and still complete the test. I minimize the course grade weight on assignments that can be gamed. As a result, those trying to game the system don’t know the material and usually sack themselves halfway through the course. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: the laziest student is often the one who works hardest in the end.

So, I work hard to limit shenanigans in my courses. I believe that my strategies are effective. But the nature of such things is that they are difficult to detect. I’ve done my best, but maybe students have found work-arounds to my best efforts.

More troubling: How common is this level of diligence among other professors? Does the level of effort deviate between regional teaching universities and larger research schools? Probably so. Does the ability to avoid “cheating” differ by field? Maybe English was largely unaffected before the most recent iteration of AI. But now, it has been profoundly challenged by the ability of AI to write good papers without detection.

Here’s what I do know: this is potentially a devastating problem for higher ed. Its reputation and credibility (in the eyes of many) have suffered for a handful of reasons over the last decade. Its mission and value have often been undermined by dual credit and on-line courses. But this new threat could be far more substantial.

Education serves two primary roles: “human capital” (building general and specific skills and knowledge) and “signaling” (a relatively low-cost way to distinguish between those who are likely to more/less productive in certain fields). If students can game the system effectively, then both the human capital and the signaling functions of higher ed will be (greatly) diminished.

One response by colleges we might expect soon: transcripts that will note when courses were taken on-line. Businesses will probably put pressure on colleges to provide this information, as they grow more concerned about the problem. Many universities will want to squelch such information. But others will gain by advertising how little they use on-line courses, giving them a competitive advantage.

And we can expect the market for technology to evolve as well, providing AI ways for teachers to monitor AI use by students. This will result in an “arms race” between the two sides of this fascinating market.

AI is not a universal problem for higher ed. For example, I have some accounting colleagues who say on-line is better because it holds students accountable to deadlines more effectively and the work can be self-taught easily enough. AI also provides efficiencies for some university functions. And of course, college education also serves other purposes: networking opportunities, socialization, and entertainment. But AI is a significant threat. Over the next decade, it will be interesting to watch the human intelligence of administrators and professors in their dance with artificial intelligence.