I think that one of the reasons that God commanded Brigham Young to build the Salt Lake Temple was to signal his discount function.
â€œDiscount functionâ€ is a fancy economics term for describing how much you value the future. We donâ€™t think about this much, but a great deal of what we think of as misbehavior can be accounted for in terms of differing valuations of the future. Generally speaking, one doesnâ€™t want to deal with someone who steeply discounts the future, ie doesnâ€™t value it much. The reason for this is that such a person has weaker incentives to avoid profitable behavior now that might have high costs in the future. On the other hand, a person who does not steeply discount the future is likely to be a better person to deal with because they are more likely to avoid opportunistic behavior with short term pay offs.
In his fascinating book Law and Social Norms, for example, Eric Posner argues that many business norms â€“ such as the fact that bankers wear expensive clothes and work in expensive buildings â€“ can be explained as a way of signaling that one does not steeply discount the future. For example, if I buy an expensive building for my business, I am in effect saying, â€œI am going to be here for a long time because I just bought this expensive building that it will take me decades to pay for. Therefore, I must have a high value on the future, and you should place greater trust in me.â€ In other words, Veblen was wrong: conspicuous consumption is not an exercise in class differentiation but rather in credibly signaling personal preference about the future.
Now consider the belief that the world will shortly end. This is likely to lead you to value the future far less in many ways. Certainly, if you examine the history of Mormons in Missouri, for example, it is fairly clear that they did not place a particularly high value on future relations with their neighbors. Indeed, Missouri is, among other things, a good case study in why millennial beliefs tend to make you into a worse citizen. Now fast forward to perhaps the greatest moment of discount functions in Mormon history: 1890.
By 1890, the federal government had incarcerated several thousand Mormons for violating anti-bigamy laws, Mormons had been completely disenfranchised in Idaho, all polygamists were disenfranchised in Utah, and congressional legislation was pending that was going to disenfranchise all Mormons regardless of where they lived. Wilford Woodruff was faced with a question that one could couch in economic terms: How steeply did the Lord wish him to discount the future? If the future was not that valuable to Him, then Wilford would direct the Saints to hang on to polygamy, accept the further legal sanctions that would result, and trust in the imminence of the millennium for a solution. On the other hand, if the Lord did not discount the value of the future, then Wilford would direct the Saints to stop polygamy as away of avoiding future costs. This is what President Wilford said:
The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question . . . . The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue â€“ to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage . . . . , at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples . . . ? . . . . The Lord showed me in vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for . . . any of the men in this temple at Logan.
In part it would seem, God did what a banker does. He signaled his commitment to the future by investing in expensive buildings. Wilford interpreted the signal (and others one assumes), accordingly, assumed that God did not discount the future, and acted accordingly.