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October 17, 2017

This is my first venture into Twitter, and though I usually write about where economics intersects with government, this essay looks to the approach to such intersection through both secular and religious lenses with the upcoming 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation exactly two weeks from today – the then unexpected beginning of Protestantism.  As it turns out, Dr. Martin Luther was a brilliant theologian and a rather perceptive economist as well. I have blogged this piece before but this is my Twitter debut which I consider a timely choice.

PIKETTY AND THE MINING MONK

My followers know that Piketty’s great book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is my secular bible. I keep it for ready reference at bedside and at the table where I type my views of economic history and current affairs where economics intersects with government. My contributions are based upon an almost 100 percent view of economics as a man-made social science under an almost purely secular lens; no other lens need apply.

My approach may be wrong. I have just read a short book, The Forgotten Luther, Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, which is a look at the same topic of economic inequality through a religious lens. As we know, the Reformation will be 500 years old this coming October 31, the day before All-Saints Day in religious rituality, celebrating Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses on the door of All-Saints Church in Wittenberg, a university town where he, as Dr. Martin Luther was a professor.

Thus began Protestantism, though Luther wanted to reform the Catholic Church of his day, not start a new church. He failed; he let the genie out of the bottle with his nailing of his denunciations of a Catholic Church mired in medieval practices, practices that had a lot to do with the sale of indulgences but, as I now know after reading this book written by theological professors, he was dismayed by the way the papacy borrowed money at usurious rates to build buildings and threaten the mostly illiterate Christians of that day with purgatory and hell if they didn’t pay up so Rome could build its great buildings and pay its great painters of the time to inscribe them – but on borrowed money.

Luther thought that was wrong, and I think he was right. It appears that sticking it to the poor for the ease and comfort and prestige of the rich and governing class is nothing new to this day. Look around. Perhaps there is moral dimension to this grotesque maldistribution of income and wealth produced by our economy that I have not appreciated. After all, the problem remains the same whether viewed through a secular or religious lens, so perhaps as a matter of approach I should start paying more attention to the moral dimension such structural economic inequities present for solution.

This Reformation Day 500 years later, if not the beginning, was an addition to the structural inequality of the economics of that day as still read through both secular and religious lenses today. The structural inequality of economics has lasted for centuries before the Reformation and into today 500 years later where we see wealth and income inequality persisting and since Reagan, accelerating. Piketty and Luther, though viewing such structural inequality through different lens, come up with similar prescriptions for reform, Piketty through democratic processes, Luther through thesis and catechism.

I had no idea that Luther was anything more than a brilliant theologian who told it like it was, or that he was a perceptive economist, but consider this: In the Large Catechism he made it clear that he was addressing not just individual economic matters but also systematic (structural) economic matters. He wrote: “Thievery is the most common craft and the largest guild on earth. . . Armchair bandits. . .  rob and steal under the cloak of legality. . .” Tax cuts and Wall Street, anybody? Nothing has changed; the medieval moneychangers and the financiers (big banks) and superrich individuals (Kochs and Mercers) were and are yet stealing and robbing under the “cloak of legality” furnished them by bribed politicians via “campaign contributions.” We are still wallowing around in a medieval system of rewards and punishments desperately in need of a new either religious or secular Luther armed with theses calling for justice for all. Where is he or she? Our economy cannot withstand much more of this lopsided treatment before, in my opinion, we lose social cohesion and the entire structure comes crashing down.

So Luther and Piketty agree, though their views of what transpired and is transpiring were viewed through different lenses. We know Piketty was a brilliant economist who already had a PhD at age 22 and was lecturing at an Ivy League school (MIT), but what about Luther the Man (as opposed to his best known description as Father of the Reformation 500 years ago)?

Luther was the son of a copper miner, was a citizen of the German state of Saxony and a resident of Wittenberg, then considered to be a “boondocks” town, became a monk with a doctorate in theology, and taught at the local university. He enraged the then Pope with his theses and marriage to an ex-nun, prompting the Pope to have an army track him down for burning at the stake. Fortunately, the Elector of Saxony took him into his castle and for the year that he was in hiding he committed another sin: He translated the Latin Bible into the vernacular. Fortunately he survived the Pope’s wrath after allowing literate Germans to know the secrets formerly known only to clergy, who interpreted such holy script in accord with papal instructions. (Which, negatively stated, is akin to the modern day removal of Civics from the high school curriculum in Texas by the State School Board – the new papal regime – keep ‘em dumb and scared and Ky subjects of political manipulation.)

However, there is hope for reform in our lifetime. The current Pope is from Argentina and is a Jesuit intellectual well-acquainted with the liberation theology of Latin American Catholic clergy, a theology not altogether in line with papal pronouncements of yore. There is reason to believe that the present Pope, Francis, is willing to tackle economic problems from both the lens of clergy and the secular  Piketty, a refreshing happenstance. I can only hope that reform comes soon; that capitalists in the long run look in the mirror and see the seeds of destruction of the system as presently practiced that has afforded them wealth beyond reason at the expense of the rest of us, and that they will voluntarily reform their own practices for the benefit of all, including, in the long run, themselves.

Finally, consider this famous comment of the now-deceased Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara through his clerical lens: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Ponder that framing; it would make Goebbels blush.      GERALD         E

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