Rather than begin each AZP post with links to the previous installments, with this prefatory section becoming more and more unwieldy, I’ve decided to put all the links up on an index page. You can find links to each installment here. I’ll update the links as I post new installments.
For the second time, I read this chapter in an airport and on an airplane returning home. With that as my full preface, let’s jump into this chapter:
If I can be frank, I’m really hesitant to address Nibley’s view of the economy in this chapter. Not because it shouldn’t be addressed, and not because it doesn’t raise any relevant issues, but because I’m afraid it (and associated ad hominem attacks and praises) will suck the air out of any discussion in the comments. If we can just accept that Nibley’s vision of Zion was better-developed than his vision of the functioning of a modern economy, though, I think we can avoid being mired in arguments about Nibley, and can instead address problems and strengths in his vision of Zion.
Are we good on that? Great.
Nibley is clearly right that the economy can be overweight finance. I don’t know that it was in 1975[fn1] when he presented this lecture, but it clearly was in 2006, and by 2010 (and notwithstanding the financial collapse, which hit Wall Street relatively significantly) it had eclipsed its 2006 peak. As of 2010, finance and insurance accounted for 8.4% of GDP.
Why is it bad to be overweight finance? A couple reasons: for one thing, too many trades may reduce the sector’s efficiency as a financial intermediary, undoing technological efficiency gains. Also, an overweight financial sector could lead to an inefficient allocation of workers, encouraging top graduates to go to Wall Street rather than doing something more productive with their talents.
So why do too many young people go to Wall Street? In a word, the money. Being an investment banker pays very, very well. Being a white shoe attorney pays very, very well. And why does it pay so well? Because, even if the societal value of the financial sector doesn’t warrant its accounting for 8.4% of GDP, it makes money for those in the sector.
Don’t get me wrong here: we need financial intermediation. The ability to help money flow to the parts of the economy that need the money makes productive work possible. But finance shouldn’t be an end itself; that is, finance doesn’t create societal value itself—its value lies in helping money get to where it needs to go.
So Nibley’s right: all of our best and brightest shouldn’t be going to Wall Street. Still, we’re left with at least two problems: first, how do we encourage those who could, but shouldn’t, go to Wall Street to do something else, something less remunerative, instead? and second, how do we know who shouldn’t be going to Wall Street? Because clearly some of our best and brightest should; it’s an important sector that needs good and talented people. And maybe a blanket denunciation is the way to do it—by creating social costs to counteract the financial draws, maybe we balance out Mormons’ incentives to provide for an optimal participation.[fn2]
Here, Nibley perhaps helps us solve the conundrums presented as he writes about economic issues: zeal and knowledge, after all, are both good attributes. But either one, alone, exaggerated, can be problematic. Nibley illustrates the problematic nature of zeal in perhapsthe best sentence I’ve seen written by Nibley:
We think it more commendable to get up at five A.M. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one—that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds. (75)
He goes on to take some swings (swings with which I agree) at Mormon devotional literature, but, before I get to comfortable criticizing it, I’m forced to look at me. Because there are areas in my life where I work hard, rather than work well, and figure that the working hard should make up for my lack of care in the hard work.[fn3]
Sometimes our zeal without knowledge hurts somebody. I’ve seen people hurt when they’re accusingly asked about when they plan to start a family, by somebody who doesn’t know their struggle with infertility. I’ve seen new members—people who gave up family, friends, and even income sometimes—hurt when they’re accused of being selfish because they don’t dress like everybody else at church.
Other times, the zeal without knowledge means we spin our wheels, not doing anything good, but not really doing any harm. I think Nibley would argue that the wheel-spinning zeal can be equally harmful, though. It leads us to engage with deep spiritual ideas at a superficial level, preventing us from seeing, much less reaching, the depth of spiritual experience we need to progress.[fn4]
In his approach to knowledge, I think Nibley is spot-on and prescient. Today (unlike 1975), we have all the knowledge in the world ready to be accessed. Do I want to know who’s in that movie? IMDb. What’s that song on the radio? Shazam. What’s that verse that talks about eternal life? Google. But there is some value ,as he says, to not just having the answer book open to us, but in working to figure out the answer. And the skill of working to gain knowledge is, I believe, a much bigger issue today than it was when Nibley was writing.
- Nibley has no patience for the idea of revelatory “discovery” trumping study and empirical testing. That is, revelation builds on a foundation of knowledge, achieved through hard work.
- He really seems into Arthur C. Clarke.
- More on that: it’s interesting to me that, even in the 70s, society was looking to infinitely efficient production leading to infinitely low cost. I thought that was just the (unfulfilled) promise of the internet, but it seems to significantly predate the internet.
[fn1] Though it looks like finance and insurance accounted for just over 4% of GDP in 1975.
[fn2] Though I kind of doubt it.
[fn3] An example: I floss almost daily. But it turns out that my flossing technique sucks. I guess I don’t do any harm flossing, but my dentist tells me that I don’t really do any good, either. If I took an extra minute each night and flossed carefully, I’d do my teeth a world of good. But generally, I floss to check flossing of my list (for whom? I really don’t know), as quickly as I can while still putting the floss between all of my teeth.
[fn4] Another sad-yet-hilarious part of his essay: “It actually happens at the BYU, and that not rarely, that sutdents come to a teacher, usually at the beginning of a term, with the sincere request that he refrain from teaching them anything new.” (75-76)