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I’m not a Christian at least in any formal way but I do read the Bible. In this I agree with Christopher Hitchens (RIP).

“A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it ‘relevant’ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare,” he wrote. “‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?”   Atheist Christopher Hitchens Admits Admiration For ‘timeless’ King James Bible

Bibles differ greatly and my preference like Hitchens is with the King James.  However, most any bible will do for our purposes here.  When I read the Bible I must say I’m often baffled by  the disconnect between what I read and the expressed thoughts and actions of those who declare fervently that they are Christians.  For just one example, take Matthew 25:40-45.

Matthew 25:40-45 King James Version (KJV)

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

It seems to me very clear what is being said here though I am no expert.  The passage is oddly out of step with what is going on today in America.

As an American visiting Mexico, a Christian (Catholic) country, I have often been impressed at how the Mexicans practice what they preach.  I recently had a health issue and needed a doctor.  I couldn’t find the office at first and went into a restaurant to ask for directions.  A waiter took me by the hand and walked me right to the door of the doctor’s office. I wonder what an American would do if the roles were reversed.

There is a popular phrase “paying it forward” that describes what the Bible has to say in Matthew 25.  In America today we seem to be engaged in something like the reverse of paying it forward, something like take now, pay later.  We wrote a bit about this in Eating the Seed Corn.

Any businessman or politician knows what can be done to pump up cash flow in the short term. Run down the inventory.  Ignore deferred maintenance.  Spend down reserves.  Incur debt.  Ignore risks.

Everyone, especially businessmen, wants to get rid of “absurd regulations.” Absurd regulations is code for “if you make us clean up our messes it will cost us a lot and of money so enough with all the regulations if you want the stock market to go up.”  And, the party in power wants the market to go up because they own most of the stocks.  That everyone benefits from a rising stock market or even a growing economy is a perfect example of the “a rising tide lifts all ships” fallacy debunked by the innocent question “where are all the customer’s yachts?”  Its the old average versus the median or ignore the distribution phenomena so well explained by our friends at Global Macro Monitor.

When corners are cut we all suffer even if a few make higher profits.  If, for example, you like to eat fish consider that “the plastic problem is even worse than we thought.”

The President has a grand idea to handle all the debt we’ve incurred due to the tax cuts for the rich—negative interest rates. Aside from what that does to old folks and conservative investors who hope to live off their savings, do you really think we can incur trillion dollar debts while convincing investors to pay us for borrowing from them?  It just doesn’t sound right to me but I’m no expert as I said.

I keep hearing all the economic numbers are good yet serious people keep saying a recession is coming.

With such good numbers, why do so many Americans have that queasy feeling that things aren’t as good as all that for them? One reason is that there has been a colossal shift in risk from corporations and the government to the individual.

And that brings us back to the question that our title raises: are we living in an artificial world.  Without giving a tutorial on economics let me just say that Adam Smith’s great argument in Wealth of Nations has been greatly misunderstood. Smith argued that, when set free people acting in their own self-interest would produce a common good and would maximize the country’s economic potential as if guided by “an invisible hand.”

True as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough as almost every elementary text book points out.  Smith assumed a moral structure to society that he felt was even more important than the invisible hand.  He wrote a book about it, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  And, he knew the economy was not as competitive as it should be nor as efficient nor capable of dealing with major effects outside the system such as pollution.  He believed that we need both an agreed upon moral system and a representative government where we could work out the failures of capitalism if we really wanted capitalism to work.

Sadly today we lack both the moral structure and the representative government, the cohesiveness, to keep the system going.  We had it once and maybe we can get it back but I’m skeptical.  And that’s why I would say we live in an artificial world, a world where we say everything is okay when it isn’t.  And who’s responsible for that?  Certainly our President but we are too every time we ignore Matthew 25.