The Approaching Zion Project: How to Get Rich

July 9, 2013 | 9 comments
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Donald-Trump-How-To-Get-RichAs always, you can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project (including a link to the text of the book Approaching Zion) here.

So here we are, a day early (or, um, six days late, if that’s the way you want to look at it). Since we’re here, let’s take a look at Nibley’s next approach toward Zion:

Merit and Gifts

Sunday during the third hour, we talked about obedience. Our quorum being small, the discussion was relatively informal and veered toward the scriptural idea the blessings are predicated on said obedience. But what about gifts? Some gifts, at least, seem to be gifts, freely given, irrespective of merit.

Nibley would certainly agree with that conclusion: he uses King Benjamin and the Israelites to illustrate the idea that we don’t earn or merit the gifts we receive from God. We can, in fact, receive His gifts even when we are clearly unworthy, when we don’t merit them.

So what do we do? For one thing, we must “never fail to recognize the pure gifts” (182). But not only should we be grateful for the gifts we receive, but we shouldn’t use them as a measure of our righteousness, of of others’ wickedness. Sometimes, it turns out, the Lord blesses His people irrespective of merit. Again, notwithstanding the pride/wealth cycle of the Book of Mormon, the Prosperity Gospel is not consonant with our theology. That is, we get rain and sunshine whether we’re righteous or wicked.

A Right to What We Need

Across Seventh Avenue from where I worked in New York, somebody had slipped a printout into a newspaper vending box calling for a new constitutional amendment to guarantee affordable housing. It was, if I remember right, pretty standard New York crazy-person language, but it sat there, undisturbed for months.

Nibley takes the idea of gifts from God and moves in a similar radical direction. If God gives everything away, he says, then everybody has the right to what they need to live on (184). He goes back to Deuteronomic law to support this: the owner of a vineyard couldn’t deny a passerby from taking what she could eat (although she couldn’t take more than she could eat), and every seventh year, Israel had to forgive all debts and release all slaves (and slaves had to be released with a generous severance payment, as it were).

Nibley seems to view necessities as quasi-public goods. Note here that I’m putting words in his mouth: he never says public good. And if he had, he’d be wrong: while he claims that, under Deutoronomic law, necessities were to be non-excludible, they were not non-rivalrous. That is, if the passerby eats ten olives as she passes through my vineyard, those are ten olives that I cannot eat.

The problem with public goods is, they tend to be underproduced, because the producer cannot internalize her full profit. That’s why even the most dyed-in-the-wool libertarian agrees that government can and should produce (or subsidize the production of) public goods. Similarly, if the owner of the vineyard cannot prevent the traveler from taking (for free) olives and grapes, the owner may shift production to something that she can fully profit from.

Likewise, the Sabbatical Year’s forgiveness of debts would seem to injure potential borrowers: as you get closer to the Sabbatical Year (where you are required to forgive all debts), credit will freeze up; lenders, knowing they won’t get their money back, just won’t lend, or, if they will lend, will only lend for short terms at high interest rates (to compensate them for the very real possibility that they won’t be paid back).

Nibley recognizes the impracticalities of his view of the right to necessities: “The question is never raised, ‘Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?; Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him . . .” (187). But maybe that’s the point, at least rhetorically. Because clearly this won’t work.[fn1] But God has told us to put off the natural man, who may be, in part, homo economicus. Because our goal is not necessarily efficiency; rather, our goal is to create Zion.

That doesn’t mean that we need to pursue economic inefficiency; reflexively running away from the efficient solution is just as wrongheaded as pursuing efficiency as the end goal. Instead, we need to work through what our (read: God’s) goal is, and pursue it using the best path possible. And, if positing a world of radical inefficiency is what it takes to shake us from our blind faith in efficient solutions, so be it.

Miscellany

  • Nibley talks briefly about the mezuzah; it jumped out at me because our neighbors have one, as did several neighbors in New York. Having seen them in person helps me grasp what they are and, to some extent, what they mean.
  • If we’re looking to create a society that produces public goods and quasi-public goods sufficiently, we need to have some incentive. Government works, but Nibley seems to posit a Zion that inculcates those norms through reputation and familial instruction (188). And really, in Mormondom, we do a lot of that: I teach my children to put off the natural man, in spite of the fact that the natural man comes more, well, naturally. And they interact in a society that rewards them for acting according to these norms.
  • My etymological disagreement du jour[fn2]: Nibley mentions D&C 59:20‘s proscription on obtaining the things of the earth through extortion; he defines extortion as “to squeeze the last drop out of a thing” (193). As best I can tell, he’s right about the underlying Latin. But I suspect we get a better picture of the meaning of the verse by understanding the word as Joseph would have understood it; Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines extortion as “wresting any thing from a person by force, duress, menaces, authority,or by any undue exercise of power.” That is, we’re being told not to take the things of the earth by violence or other abuse of power. It’s still bad, just flavored slightly differently.
  •  I didn’t spend time on it, but my favorite part of this discourse is Nibley’s assertion that God doesn’t tolerate meanness of spirit, doesn’t tolerate our taking advantage of our neighbors (192).

FYI: This will probably be the last AZP post until sometime in August. As much fun as I’m having with it, the next month or so will be crazy for me. But I hope to see you all again when it picks up again.

[fn1] And please don’t argue that it will; it won’t.

[fn2] And what is more fun than an etymologic disagreement?

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9 Responses to The Approaching Zion Project: How to Get Rich

  1. Mark B. on July 9, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Better stick to tax law, and not olive cultivation. Olives on the vine are too bitter to eat. After harvest, they’re soaked in brine or lye or fresh water for a minimum of several days or packed dry in salt for about a month, and only then are they ready to eat. In any event, if a passerby plucks 10 olives from your olive trees, it’s quite certain that she’ll find them inedible. So that will be 10 olives that neither you nor she could eat.

    If the rule is that she must eat and not carry off, then she’d do better to stick to grapes.

  2. Sam Brunson on July 9, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Wait, olives grow on trees?!? I always assumed they grew in big white buckets, the way they do at Fairway.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on July 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Sam, another very nice set of thoughts; I really appreciate you doing this series. This essay by Nibley is pretty short, so it’s appropriate that the resulting comments are on the brief side.

    Likewise, the Sabbatical Year’s forgiveness of debts would seem to injure potential borrowers: as you get closer to the Sabbatical Year (where you are required to forgive all debts), credit will freeze up; lenders, knowing they won’t get their money back, just won’t lend, or, if they will lend, will only lend for short terms at high interest rates (to compensate them for the very real possibility that they won’t be paid back).

    There is, of course, a side benefit to this from Nibley’s way of thinking, whether or not even ever explicitly makes the connection: to remove the incentive to provide credit will result in an under-financialization of the economy (less borrowing, less risk, etc.), and as someone who at various points expresses sympathy for the old Christian ban on usury, that’s something that he’d no doubt like to see.

    Nibley recognizes the impracticalities of his view of the right to necessities: “The question is never raised, ‘Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?; Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him…” (187). But maybe that’s the point, at least rhetorically. Because clearly this won’t work.[fn1] But God has told us to put off the natural man, who may be, in part, homo economicus. Because our goal is not necessarily efficiency; rather, our goal is to create Zion.

    I think the distinction between market efficiency and a Zion community and economy is an important one to keep in mind, but I would insist that Nibley is not simply sticking “Zion” out there as a model whose very functionality, much less efficiency, is a big unknown. Following on from my point above about Nibley’s dislike of banks and money-lending generally, I would suggest that what he thinks is most appropriate for the creation of Zion-type social and economic relations is a “steady-state economy,” one where efficiency and specialization and maximizing are discredited in favor other economic mechanisms, like extraction regulation, labor guilds, severance taxes, and the like. Nibley never discussed such, obviously, but just because he didn’t doesn’t mean we need to create some kind of absolute (and unmanageable) dichotomy between an economy with financial incentives and one with an absolute absence of such.

  4. James Olsen on July 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Seconding RAF’s comments – and some of your allusions – one of Nibley’s clear points here (and elsewhere) is to inspire us to think a little more seriously about the basic ways in which we organize and incentivize our economic and “public goods” activities. That is, he’s challenging our lazy complacency with our familiar economic models and motivations (the kinds you call “natural” in your son and that the world will reward your son for developing). Note that altruism and non-usurial forms of giving and public development are just as “natural” and surely as common (at least anthropologically) as anything else. The question, then, is not only how to build a system that makes productive our naturally selfish aspects (like free markets), but how to build a system that likewise accentuates and motivates our naturally altruistic capacities (like value systems and socially institutionalized public projects). That is, Zion. Prerequisite to this is surely helping us to get over the common place, shoulder shrugging notions that “there’s not really any other way to do it.”

  5. Abu Casey on July 9, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    While I always like to see someone discuss public goods in an economic sense, I don’t think you can legislate a good’s excludability. You can try, but the fact that the good in question is actually a private good means that your legislation is going to generate the underprovision of the good in question, not any aspect of the good itself. I think what you’re doing is arguing that there are externalities or public goods in a citizenry that has access to all of their basic needs. These people can now be economically productive in ways they couldn’t have been without subsidy (and others will be more productive in turn, through both competition and collaboration). As you argue, that’s going to generate some economic inefficiency, but it might generate sufficient economic benefit to counterbalance at least some of the efficiency losses.

    Of course, I don’t think Nibley’s at all concerned with our economic productivity, so the real question (for Nibley, at least) is whether providing such a subsidy generates spiritual growth. I think he’d gladly eschew the efficiency losses in favor of such growth.

  6. Sam Brunson on July 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Abu, that’s partly my point: you certainly can legislate a good’s excludibility, but, without more, that will cause the producer to shift her production to private goods, leading to underproduction of the public goods.

    RAF and James, interesting thoughts that I’ll try to address later tonight.

  7. John Hancock on July 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    This chapter is a modern midrash on Deuteronomy in which Nibley approaches the essential doctrine and attribute of Zion, namely charity, the pure love of Christ: “The key to all this is the spirit in which it is done and which alone can make it workable. The first and most common word in every decree is, surprisingly, love.” and “This is the main theme of Deuteronomy, and it is an admonition against that very legalism which later became the obsession of the rabbis as well as our own society.” Looking forward to the next chapter…

  8. Jax on July 9, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Nibley recognizes the impracticalities of his view of the right to necessities: “The question is never raised, ‘Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?; Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him . . .” (187). But maybe that’s the point, at least rhetorically. Because clearly this won’t work.

    Why so flippanly say “clearly this won’t work”? It HAS worked before, Zion has been built before… why resign ourselves to it not working again? for us?

    Laman and Lemuel surely thought, “clearly this won’t work” about getting the plates (even after seeing an angel. All of the theories and realities said it couldn’t be done… yet it did. Perhaps all of us need some Nephi like faith where WE say, “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” He has clearly commanded we build Zion, no? Will he not therefore prepare a way?

    Why then will it “clearly” not work?

  9. Sam Brunson on July 9, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks, John.

    Russell, I agree that Nibley would see the elimination of lending as a feature, not a bug. But I don’t think he’s thought it through sufficiently; there are real problems to incurring debt (as Pres. Clark’s famous statement points out: for some scary (and by “scary,” I mean aesthetically scary) YouTube illustrations of his debt-never-sleeps talk, see here and here), but not every debtor-lender relationship is exploitative.

    For example, many corporations issue commercial paper (and, therefore, borrow money from the market) as a way to meet short-term obligations like payroll. Essentially, borrowing levels the employer’s income over time; it may be that the employer earns money at unpredictable or uneven intervals. Nonetheless, I, as a selfish employee, like to get my monthly paycheck at a set time each month. By borrowing, my employer can pay me on the 15th of every month, even if it collects its income on the 10th one month and on the 20th the next.

    Lending money also makes it possible for individuals to keep their money safe from inflation; a retiree shouldn’t be subject to the fluctuations of the equities markets (as we’ve seen) (even though bonds pay so little now that it’s almost not worth having them).

    Are there other ways we could arrange the market? Sure, but they all impose costs. The cost of not having a functioning credit market is too much for me to take seriously, but I can accept that we need to look closely at what our goals are. Being able to save without having our money lose value in real terms is a good thing (and, honestly, a savings account is us lending money to the bank and receiving interest in exchange, while a checking account is us lending money to the bank and getting, well, checks), but, per Nibley’s idea of a right to necessities, it doesn’t obviate society’s obligation to provide a safety net, and our obligation to help the poor and other who need our help.

    And James, I agree: the most productive reading of Nibley, imho, is as challenging our entrenched beliefs. You’re absolutely right that altruism exists; the principal point of behavioral psychologists seems to be that we don’t act in a purely rational and self-interested manner (whether because of altruistic impulses or because we don’t understand our self-interest or whatever).

    That said, I was curious (and forgot to ask): did Israel ever do the Sabbatical releasing of all debts? From what I’ve read, letting the land lie fallow happened (and happens), at least occasionally, but I’m not clear about the debt side of things. If it did happen, how well did it work?

    Planet Money has laid out the case pretty convincingly that money is a near-universal thing, whatever the culture. I’m not sure that there have been any significant number of societies that engaged in interest-free lending—even the anti-usurial Christians ended up finding non-Christians to lend them money.

    That said, you’re right that shoulder-shrugging won’t get us to Zion. But so far, I read Nibley more as a prod to find Zion than a roadmap to how it should look (and I don’t mean that at all to criticize him).

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