NYT: Brat’s Theory of Protestant Work Ethic Has a “Surprisingly Distinguished History”

One of the biggest buttresses of the current ideological regime, broadly defined, is the widespread assumption that dissenters, even tenured economics professor David Brat (victor over former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor), can’t be very smart.

This appeals especially to people who don’t seem exceptionally smart themselves.

One of the funnier example of this phenomenon is the urge, which I’ve noted before, to cite Brat’s work on Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant Work Ethic as evidence that Brat isn’t smart (at least not by the high standards of Members of the House and spergy economists).

From the New York Times Magazine:

David Brat’s Hand-of-God Economics
JULY 8, 2014
By BINYAMIN APPELBAUM

Even before David Brat’s out-of-nowhere victory against Eric Cantor last month, there was plenty of skepticism about whether he merited the label of academic economist. Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, is certainly not in danger of winning a Nobel Prize: He writes discursive papers devoid of math; he has cited Wikipedia as a source; and he has never been published in a significant journal. But his big idea — that Protestantism is good for the economy — has a surprisingly distinguished history.

“Surprisingly?” Max Weber’s 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is cited on 1,670,000 webpages known to Google. In a 1998 “Books of the Century” list, members of the International Sociological Association ranked it 4th (with Weber’s own Economy and Society 1st).

The financial crisis of 2008 shook an abiding faith in the free markets that had dominated policy making for a generation. Liberals responded by calling for increased regulation. Conservatives, distrustful of both Wall Street and government, have struggled to articulate their own alternative. But Brat, who describes himself as a “100 percent free-market-Milton-Friedman-Chicago-School-Hayek economist,” saw confirmation of his longstanding idea that markets are perfect places inhabited by imperfect beings. On the campaign trail, Brat declared that bankers should have gone to jail and that “crony capitalists,” like Cantor, had undermined the system. “I’m not against business,” he said. “I’m against big business in bed with big government.”

Instead of arguing for any specific regulation, however, Brat said that the system simply needed more virtue.

Saying that bankers should have gone to jail is to argue for enforcing current laws. This is similar to his position on illegal immigration. (It’s illegal). Both contrast sharply with the Obama position.

… Weber’s view has since fallen out of favor, but Brat, who studied at a Presbyterian seminary before pursuing a degree in economics, has tried to carry on an extreme variant of this tradition anyway. In his doctoral thesis at American University, “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth,” he argued that Protestant countries grew more quickly because they were particularly supportive of scientific exploration. The role of religion was “not large compared to other factors,” but ignoring it would “be a significant omission.”

I’ve always wanted to see a comparison, apples to apples style, of the prosperity of neighboring Protestant and Catholic regions in Germany and Switzerland.

Similarly, I’d like to see some analyses of the effects of George H.W. Bush’s Bratian response to the savings & loan fiasco (put hundreds of S&L execs in jail) and Barack Obama’s response to the mortgage meltdown (put hardly anybody in jail).

… Brat’s political success suggests a fundamental evolution in the Republican Party. During the late 1990s, Senator Phil Gramm and Representative Dick Armey, former economics professors, played key roles in the government’s deregulation of the financial industry. Gramm helped write the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which cleared the way for the emergence of financial supermarkets, like Citigroup, that offered banking and brokerage and insurance services.

That worked out well … for Robert Rubin’s net worth, and the governmental careers of Jack Lew and Stanley Fischer. Other than that, I’m kinda drawing a blank. But, that’s not the point, the point is:

But neither of them identified closely with the Christian right. Free-market economists, after all, are explicit that companies are held accountable by customers, competitors and shareholders: They don’t need the government’s help, and they don’t need God’s either.

Oh, boy …

Religious voters effectively ended Gramm’s bid for the presidency in early 1996, when he was upset by Pat Buchanan in the Louisiana caucus.

And we all know what that means …