Dave Brat does not understand economics, Christianity, or how to write things


EARTHQUAKE! They kept saying that on NPR this morning. I was worried for friends in California, but it turns out they were only using a metaphor: what really happened is an Ideaquake, for Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader and the only non-Christian in the Republican caucus, has been felled.

By a self-funded millionaire? Another prominent Republican politician with years of experience? Batman?

No. By a humble college professor: Dave Brat.

So who is Dave Brat? I wanted to find out, but I cannot trust the MAINSTREAM MEDIA, so I went ahead and read a paper he wrote, “God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?,” which was published in the April 2011 issue of the quarterly journal Interpretation. It’s behind a paywall, so you’ll just have to trust me (I don’t work for the MAINSTREAM MEDIA anymore, so that’s probably safe). Let’s explore, shall we?

One thing that strikes me right off the bat is that this is not written in the style of most academic papers one is likely to encounter in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dave Brat is chatty and conversational: “I consider myself to be a fairly orthodox Calvinist (in theory, not practice) and I am also a fan of Adam Smith and the market system he so eloquently elaborated over 200 years ago.” There is a footnote to this sentence, but alas, it does not explain what it means to be an orthodox Calvinist in theory but not practice (whatever it means, Calvin would probably have jailed you for it).

Brat, whose academic CV lists “Many TV interviews” under “Publications and Research Work,” goes on in this manner through pretty much the whole article. I at first thought his use of “types” in the title of the paper was some erudite jargon deployment – you know, how scholars talk about typology and types in the Bible, that sort of thing – but no, he uses it the way Joe Friday would: “[W]hen it comes to particular issues like usury, a lot of theological types want to revert to systems of planning and control.”

This is a very strange paper. Instead of citing actual works about usury and theology, he writes what he describes as “the typical lines a seminary student might hear from their thought leaders,” and goes on, in a block quote, to write “Usury is bad. Usury is morally bad … Many grow rich by usury. The poor are hurt by usury. Therefore, usury is bad. We should get rid of usury. (Who is this we?).”

I realize it’s going to be hard to believe that exists in an article in a peer-reviewed journal, but it’s true: Dave Brat’s paper is literally a matter of arguing with himself.

“This is a caricature, but I think there is something to it,” Brat writes. Three pages in, and so far we have a single footnote (identifying Adam Smith as the author of The Wealth of Nations).

It gets better (“better”?). Brat argues that his fictional seminary “thought leaders” are making a “category error” in regards to usury, but never defines what he means by “category error.” In fact, the wealth of laborious definitions one typically finds in the beginning of academic articles (even economics papers – especially economics papers) is notable by its absence: Brat never even really defines what he means by “usury,” which is the ostensible topic of his paper.

“In the story above,” he writes, referring to his imaginary seminary instructor, “usury is judged and not only is it judged, but also public policy is next on the agenda.” He continues:

To get right to the heart of the issue, the Jews have over 600 laws on the books, and Jesus said that one might sink in the ocean if one messed with those laws. Should we move to pass all of those laws through Congress? The liberally educated gasp can be heard from afar.

Just want to cut in for a moment here and note that Interpretation, published by Sage on behalf of Union Presbyterian Seminary, describes itself as “A Journal of Bible and Theology.” I am searching my translations in vain for the citation where Jesus tells us we’ll sink in the ocean if we mess with 600 laws.

Brat’s argument essentially boils down to reassuring Christians that usury is OK, as long as you do it for the right reasons:

As a Christian, can I charge interest and be OK with God? Well, as a Calvinist, the answer would be found by asking God. God is the source of morality and ethics. In brief, I think that God tells us that if we intend to love and help our neighbor by such an action, then the answer is “yes”; to harm, “no.” More on this later, but if individuals lived under this simple system, the world would be pretty good.

Dave Brat is the chairman of the Department of Economics and Business at Randolph-Macon College.

It’s hard to tell exactly what his point is, because again, he never really describes usury: after urging us to love and help our neighbors, he goes on for two pages in a potted history of US political development from a God-given Constitution and protection of private property to our current low estate of high taxes and ever encroaching bureaucracy. He doesn’t really discuss usury again until the following section, “Major Stakeholders in the Argument” (he identifies God as the first major stakeholder).

In this section, he finds a couple of quotes from the Old Testament and the New Testament that seem to suggest, in his words, a “tension” over the lending of money at interest. Then, instead of quoting any of the Church Fathers on usury (they had a lot to say on the subject) or even John Calvin (who thought it was only acceptable to loan money at interest to rich people), Brat enlists that major work of Christian thought …. Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and NOT the Problem, by Jay Richards. I’ve never heard of this work, but it agrees with Brat, so it must be right.

Perhaps Jay Richards gives him the insight necessary to uncork this summation of what happened in 2008:

In the news, the recent economic unpleasantness called the “Global Financial Crisis” was set off by weaknesses in the housing market. Basically, we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses. Sounds good. Banks made loans to anyone. Liar loans.

Liar loans!

The paper (Essay? Blog post? Comment on a blog post? Hastily scrawled proclamation of the Day of Judgment?) ends with a series of recommendations for Christians, which includes the need to love capitalists as they are, and, somewhat bizarrely, extended praise for Nietzsche’s criticism of the modern church. “I have no magic bullet on usury,” Brat writes, after having failed to define, explore, or even address the concept. “It is not the major problem.”

“So now, I hope you are feeling even more a bit ill at ease,” he writes.

Oh, I am, Professor Brat. I am.

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6 Responses to Dave Brat does not understand economics, Christianity, or how to write things

  1. sharon says:

    Ill at ease? It seems to me the goal was to put Mammon-livung Christians at ease. Mission Accomplished!

  2. Dan says:

    So he’s a quasi-Calvinist quasi-Nietzschean with mysterious, quasi-Gnostic Gospel translations who mounted a quasi-Tea Party campaign to unseat the GOP’s quasi-leader on Capitol Hill?

  3. HC Here says:

    As a Virginia resident, I find it a shame the Tea Party put someone against Cantor. (I am a little mad at them right now.) We are losing the number two guy in the Hous. There is no way either Brat or his opponent can promote the interests of the state as well as Cantor.

    Similarly, I can’t imagine a sober resident of Mississippi ditching Thad Cochran who, if re-elected, would chair the Appropriations Committee in a Republican Senate. Same goes for Mitch McConnell. I think the leader of the Senate can do more for locals than Alison Slimes.

    Retiring Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia summed things up nicely. He said he felt bad for the state, losing himself (a senior member of the Appropriations Committee), the retirement of my representative Frank Wolf (also a ranking member on Appropriations) and now Cantor being traded for a freshman either way. Moran said the salad days of largesse coming to Virginia are over.

    We here in the Commonwealth are so screwed.

    • Susan Campbell says:

      It wasn’t the most strategic vote cast by Brat’s supporters, but it’s interesting how the outcome seems to confound people. I don’t mess with election predictions much, but I didn’t think Brat had a shot.

      • HC Here says:

        The Tea Party donors didn’t think Brat had a shot either. He got hardly any funding from them. The Democratic candidate accepted the nomination in a conference call after no one else on the call spoke up. (Think Alan Schlesinger drawing the short straw and having to give up weekends to run for Senator before Lieberman lost the primary.) Cantor’s polling firm didn’t see anything. They told Cantor he was thirty points ahead the morning Cantor was fund raising down at Starbucks. None of the news outlets – national or local – saw this coming.

        None of us saw what hit us.