Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Block vs. Blundel: Atheist Economist vs. Christian Theologian

The above debate pits two colleagues from Loyola University (New Orleans) against one another in an academic disputation on the minimum wage law.

Dr. Walter Block (left) is an Economics professor, and Dr. Boyd Blundell (right)  is a Theology professor.  Dr. Block, a free-market economist of the Austrian School, believes the minimum wage should be abolished, whereas Dr. Blundell believes it should be raised, and is sharply critical of the Austrian School and its libertarian underpinnings.

Dr. Blundell sets the tone of the debate early on by calling Dr. Block a "fundamentalist."  He posits that Block is opposed to any scientific inquiry or the use of statistics in Economics - an assertion which Block denies.

Part of the reason behind Block's critique of the minimum wage stems from his understanding of Economics.  Block believes Economics is a branch of logic, and he believes that as it is a social science rooted in human action, that certain axiomatic principles don't need statistical verification.  In other words, Block believes that some things are just plain true on their face and don't need to be proved.  They are economic law, and are as much a given as gravity.

Block doesn't oppose minimum wage because he's mean, he hates the poor, he has some rich crony buddies he wants to help get richer, or any of the other common assumptions and assertions as to why people would oppose the raising of the minimum wage.  Block's argument is that minimum wage legislation hurts the people it claims to help, by increasing unemployment among the poor.  He believes this is a self-evident truth based on the demand curve.

In a nutshell, the demand curve says that as something becomes more expensive, demand drops.  As something becomes cheaper, demand rises.  In the case of wages, if employers are required to pay workers more than their productivity, they will lose money.  And in order to stay in business, those workers who are paid more than their productivity warrants, will eventually be done away with - often through automation - and entry level jobs disappear.  And this hurts the poor in the long run.  Block cites examples of this phenomenon, such as the disappearance of elevator operators and service station attendants.

Blundell denies that this is the case when it comes to the price of labor, and he claims that there are studies which deny this relationship between minimum wage and unemployment.  Blundell claims that demand curves hold true for the cost of material goods, but fail in the realm of labor costs.  When Block points out the principle of the demand curve, and explains why studies in the real world are very hard to isolate direct correlation between shifts in unemployment and shifts in minimum wage, owing to the complexity and volatility of costs and prices (the real world is not a controlled laboratory after all), Blundell dismisses him as a "fundamentalist."

Here is an example of an axiomatic truth: If I hire a hundred people to work for me, and if I give every potential employee a choice between accepting the exact same job for $1 per hour or $100 per hour, it doesn't take a double-blind experiment or a longitudinal study to state the fact that the vast majority (if not all) of the people would choose the latter salary over the former.  This is because, all things being equal, people act in their self-interest.  The same is true with the demand curve.  This is not rocket science.  If Walmart has a surplus of eggs, they know what to do: lower the price.  That will cause demand to increase and will relieve the glut.  Walmart doesn't have to hire Ph.D.s in Economics to run their business.  And if studies were to show that raising egg prices increases demand, or if most people would choose to work for one dollar instead of a hundred dollars, it would suggest a flaw in the study - because such a study would simply defy logic, common sense, and human nature.

The demand curve is axiomatic.  It is a fact of human nature.  But Blundell calls Block a "fundamentalist" for believing it.

I find Blundell's approach to this debate especially interesting given that Block is an Atheist and Blundell is a theologian.  I'm going to go out on a limb and presume Blundell to be a Christian, likely a Roman Catholic.  And if he isn't, he is certainly swimming in the waters of Roman Catholic Christianity as an instructor of religious studies at a Jesuit institution and himself bearing a Ph.D. from a Jesuit institution.  At one point in the debate, Blundell mentions God to make his argument.

But Block is the "fundamentalist" for believing in the demand curve.

The two men have two differing philosophies of epistemology, or approaches to knowing.  Block does not believe in the supernatural or in divine revelation.  He believes in logic and reason.  Blundell believes in logic and reason but adds faith.  Blundell (assuming he is a Christian) believes in God and that God reveals some things to men through prophecy, scripture, and (assuming he is a Catholic) through the teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

Christians believe in the epistemological value of faith.  They believe in revelation.  They believe in a God that cannot be proved philosophically or scientifically - and this faith shapes their worldview.

In mocking Block as a "fundamentalist", Blundell also took a jab at Christians who believe in the creation account of the Book of Genesis and likewise labeled them as "fundamentalists."  Most Roman Catholics deny the historical veracity of Genesis 1-11, considering that portion of the Old Testament to be mythological.  Most modern teachers of Roman Catholicism accept Darwinian evolution in conjunction with faith in God.  But what kinds of things does Blundell actually believe from the Bible?  He believes that in first century Roman Judea, a Jewish girl named Mary was visited by a creature that has never been captured or shown to exist: an archangel.  This archangel (named Gabriel) appeared to Mary, and the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Triune God) came to her and she conceived a child without any genetic material from a male human.  In other words, she was a virgin who became pregnant.

The son she bore (so would claim Blundell) grew up and was perfect.  He could defy the laws of nature and physics by changing water into wine, spontaneously healing cripples and lepers, and on at least two cases, raised the dead.  He was also to rise from the dead himself.

Now, I don't know if there are longitudinal studies or metadata or double-blind experiments regarding human parthenogenesis, transformation of chemical substances, unexplainable healings, or resurrections, but these do seem quite contradictory to science - at least as much as belief in a six day creation or Noah's Ark.

Blundell also believes that this man named Jesus is still bodily alive today, being nearly 2,000 years old, and that he mystically appears when a priest says words over bread and wine.  Jesus is the second person (the Son of God) of the Holy Trinity.  These dogmatic beliefs he is willing to accept, but scoffs at the demand curve and argues that it be subject to scientific studies.

For Walter Block is the "fundamentalist" for believing in the demand curve.

Now, I don't say these things to mock Blundell.  In fact, I agree with him.  I'm a Christian.  I'm a Lutheran pastor.  And I say Mass twice a week.  I believe Jesus is alive and is physically present according to His word in Holy Communion.  I believe in miracles.  I believe in revelation.  I believe the Bible is inerrant - including Genesis 1-11.  I perhaps recite the scientifically-unverifiable Nicene Creed more often than Blundell does as part of my liturgical duties.  But I find it bizarre that Blundell would mock an opponent for accepting the demand curve axiomatically when he has an entire epistemology that defies science and reason.

Moreover, as a Roman Catholic, Blundell may be more of a "fundamentalist" than I am.  For he holds to other dogmatic beliefs apart from scripture, such as the immaculate conception, a teaching that the virgin Mary was herself conceived without sin.  I have no problem with this belief, and lean toward it myself - but I'm not dogmatic about it as scripture is silent on the matter.  Blundell (again, presuming his Catholicism) must accept this dogma because it has been declared ex cathedra, infallibly, by the bishop of Rome in 1854, as a matter of faith and morals.  Again, I don't know if there have been any studies on immaculate conceptions or papal infallibility, but I suspect not.  Roman Catholics also believe in transubstantiation, which posits that the bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they are consecrated, that the body and blood of Christ only appear to be bread and wine, a kind of illusion to the senses.  I wonder what a scientific study of consecrated elements taken from a Catholic altar would show?

But Block is the "fundamentalist" for believing in the demand curve.

Blundell also attempted to change the topic of the debate into a debunking of libertarianism.  He based this largely on a statistic in which he claims a study shows 94% of libertarians are white.  Most of them are also male.  Therefore they are wrong (is his implication).

The fallacious (if not racist) logic is pretty clear here.  And I think it is rhetorically quite obvious that Blundell is seeking to appeal to emotion instead of reason.  I wonder if the 94% figure is limited to Americans or includes the entire world?  Korea is nowhere near 94% white.  And yet, the South is much more libertarian than the North - and is also much more prosperous than the North, which is by contrast repressive and very un-libertarian.  This great libertarian divide across Korea has nothing to do with being male or Caucasian.

Likewise the difference between East and West Germany, or between capitalist Hong Kong and mainland Communist China - are not race-based and clearly show (or at least strongly imply) the superior power of markets to raise the standard of living far greater than legislative "solutions," which based on the twentieth century alone, are a proven path to poverty if not the concentration camp and the Gulag.

And if being white and male is an indicator of being wrong economically, there is one area in which I might be tempted to agree with Dr. Blundell.  For the whitest, most male bastion in history is the papacy.  And the bishops of Rome are pretty dismal when it comes to the "dismal science" of Economics (though to give my Roman Catholic brethren credit where credit is due, there was a school of 16th century Jesuits who would have tracked with Block in this debate!).

Perhaps Dr. Blundell isn't cut out to debate Economics with an economist - especially the likes of a Walter Block.  It becomes painfully apparent upon watching this debate.  It was a rather one-sided affair, and is almost embarrassing after a certain point.  Dr. Blundell is simply outgunned intellectually.  And though Dr. Block is in no wise a Christian man, I would like to take the liberty to describe his gracious and gentlemanly demeanor toward Dr. Blundell - who, by contrast, displayed rather crude and provocative conduct toward his opponent, in my opinion - to have been truly "Christian" in his respect, humility, restraint and human decency in response.

Jesus told us to be loving toward those who hate us.  And I admit that Dr. Block seems to do a better job of it than I do.

Thank you, as always, to Dr. Walter Block for defending liberty even when it is unpopular to do so.

1 comment:

Rick Fitz said...

What an eloquent and brave defense. Thank you. Dr Block is humble and non-dogmatic, and as you say, behaves in a more Christ-like manner than his ordained opponent.