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He who rules from the grave

March 15, 2012

So I went to a pretty interesting high school. It definitely belonged to the most conservative brand of Christian school. Our senior year, we had a Worldview class, which consisted of discussing different philosphies and intellectual movements throughout history and weighing them by comparison to the Bible, or at least the Bible as interpreted by the authors of our curriculum. One of the segments of this class was called “Seven Men who Rule the World from the Grave.” This compelling video (of course we used a VHS video) consisted of seven people whose ideas continued to shape modern thought and culture, even after their deaths. You might have expected people like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther The Original, Gandhi, Plato, George Washington, the Guy Who Invented the Wheel, or someone like that, but you would be mistaken. Instead, the seven chosen were Charles Darwin, John Dewey, Julius Wellhausen, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Maynard Keynes. Bonus points are available if you know who all of these guys are without googling.

I suppose you could do worse than this list if you’d like to come up with seven prominent recent thinkers, but I think that one of them above the others has continued to increase in influence and prominence, even though he might not be the most famous. That guy is John Maynard Keynes.

I know that I am unlike other people in many ways, and one of those ways is a hobby-esque interest in economics and economic theory. I can see several of you falling asleep at your iPads right now just reading the term “economics,” but it really is fascinating to me to think about how jobs, money, and capital work together to form a neat little unit of goods and services…..and now the rest of you are asleep. Hm.

Keynes is credited with popularizing the modern economic theories that most hold as gospel today. Do you remember when President Bush started with the stiumulus extravaganzas? That’s Keynesian economics: in times of recession or slow economic growth, the best way to get things back on track is to increase government spending. Bush decided to spend at the family level, giving every taxpayer a small amount of money to use as they pleased. President Obama has taken a different tack, investing in large public works projects and similar spending ventures, mainly with the idea that increasing the amount of cash flowing in the economy will help get everything back on track. Similar types of policies are often credited with helping the USA out of the Great Depression in the form of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In fact, Keynes and FDR were contemporaries. Ronald Reagan, often given near-deity status by Republicans for boosting the economy out of the doldrums in the 80s, borrowed to offset his economic policy. Though he believed in tax cutting rather than direct government spending, the net result is the same: the government helps offset larger amoungs of money in the economy.

The main thing about Keynesian economics is that it works. The USA has seen unprecedented decades of growth and wealth accumluation. But this growth comes with a downside….the bill comes due in the future. Someone asked Keynes how he planned to deal with this reality, and he replied something to the effect of “well I’ll be long gone, so it doesn’t much matter what is done.” Our nation’s current crippling debt and deficits are due in large part to the thinking of John Maynard Keynes, who really does rule the world from his grave through the force of his ideas.

Keynes’ philosophy can be found in more detail either on Wikipedia or in the Talmud.* No–seriously. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and, as is the Bible’s habit, it is right on. 2 Kings 20:19-21 tells about the portion of the reign of Hezekiah in which his life is extended. I’m sure you just read the story last night–the prophet Isaiah comes to Hezekiah and says, roughly, “Dude, you’ve had a good run. Real good. But all good things must come to an end. Get your house in order–God is calling you home.” But Hezekiah wasn’t pleased with that, so he asked God to look at his report card and give him a few bonus years for all the A’s that he had earned. God checks, and, sure enough, Hezekiah is granted fifteen more years.

*Full credit to Andrew for the Talmud joke.

Sometime later, Isaiah visits Hezekiah again. This time, he has more bad news. This time, he predicts that Hezekiah’s kingdom will be carried off into Babylon and that his successors would have the throne ripped from their hands. Hezekiah, roughly, says “That’s cool. Just pass me a sandwich. At least there will peace and prosperity in my own day.”

How Keynesian of Hezekiah to put off worrying about the future because his own day was secure. Perhaps this mindset isn’t really Keynesian after all, but rather “Hezekiahan.” I think we all share this mentality at times–instant gratification, credit card living, thirst for today and no looking to tomorrow. But the bill always comes due. For Keynes and Hezekiah, their successors paid the price. We, too, often make choices that others reap, and I’m not merely talking about tax policy or government spending. I’m talking about moral choices that we make each day with our eyes only on what it costs us.

If you overspend and your budget gets tight, that can cost your kids an event they wanted to do or some ministry project the opportunity to receive your gift. If you play too much Angry Birds and miss your class, you might never think about the opportunity you’ve cost your classmates or your professor by depriving them of your company. Hey, as long as you have peace and prosperity, so be it, right? Everything you do has its cost. The choice is in when the bill is paid. Next time, when faced with an uncomfrotable decision, make the hard choice now in order to ensure a prosperous future. It’s always better to pay now and reap later.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. herewasaman permalink
    March 15, 2012 12:36 am

    My first time I browse around on WP and I come across this post? Awesome. I love economics. That list of people from the video is a bit interesting. I know the majority of those names, mostly because that is what my college’s curriculum consisted of when I was there.

    On another note, I agree, make the hard choice now.

    • March 15, 2012 9:35 am

      Glad to have you stumble across!

      Out of curiosity, which college did you attend with such a curriculum?

      • herewasaman permalink
        March 15, 2012 11:39 am

        I went to the University of Nebraska. Every economics course that I took seemed like an ode to Keynes. We dabbled with some Marx in those courses also. We steered clear from anything that looked like free market economics. We also spent a decent time on Freud in psych, which is fairly standard. Same with Darwin and biology.

      • March 15, 2012 9:11 pm

        I wonder if Marx and Keynes would have been for or against Nebraska’s move to the Big Tennish?

      • Here Was A Man permalink
        March 15, 2012 9:19 pm

        I think the Big Ten “spreads the wealth”, so I will say they were for it. Haha

  2. March 15, 2012 1:12 am

    Awesome (long) post! Love this….and how in the world do you remember the 7 ppl. from your vhs all these years later???

    Your ending was strong:

    “Everything you do has its cost. The choice is in when the bill is paid. Next time, when faced with an uncomfrotable decision, make the hard choice now in order to ensure a prosperous future. It’s always better to pay now and reap later.”

    • March 15, 2012 9:34 am

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I have to confess that I did not earn my own bonus points; I had to google the list of seven. For some reason, I couldnt remember Freud. Wellhausen and Kierkegaard are the least famous of those guys, but both are big within my field of study (Biblical theology) so they were easy for me to recall.

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