Chapter 2 of Wicked Rich Wicked Poor: the Economic Crisis in the Book of Job
Feasts are made for laughter;
wine gladdens life,
and money meets every need. (Ecc 10:19)
The financial collapse of 2008 altered my understanding of how to get along in American society. The change did not immediately happen. For a while, I still balanced two part-time jobs and proactively worked toward finding one job with a decent salary and benefits. Within two years, I was completely out of work and struggling to find anything. Working a temporary minimum wage job, I worked with a wide variety of folks all saying the same thing: “I never imagined that I would be in this situation.” Whether the situation was temporary or a sign of a more permanent shift, we were reluctant by-products of a systemic breakdown. My wife and I went from decently getting by to just treading water. We no longer had confidence that our situation could improve; instead, we struggled to not lose more ground.
More significantly, people began to view me differently, especially those not struggling financially. At best there was suspicion about my circumstances; at worst, I found myself among the “takers,” the “moochers,” the lazy people of society who deserve their wretched state. Most significant for me, however, is the experience of becoming invisible. Time after time in social circumstances, I noticed how much people ignored me if the whiff of money was faint. I had become one of the disposables of economic vitality along with plastic containers, junked cars, abandoned toxic mines and industrial plants, homeless or criminals in jail. Like our waste dumps, we don’t recognize the mass of garbage we produce because we don’t see it. It is as anthropologist David Graeber aptly describes: “Reducing all human life to exchange means…that the vast majority of the human race…melts away into the background.”
Waste is generally not recyclable. Many people experience the painful truth of this once they have been “let go.” In the local paper today, a woman related her descent into homelessness due to her husband’s illness. She sadly reports that “no one wants to hire the homeless.” In the slums of Brazil, people must lie about their residence and social status if they want any chance of employment.
It took awhile for American society to feel the impact. But slowly, the political and social climate polarized. Suddenly, every social institution was under intense financial scrutiny. The battle cry still resonates to this day: “Why should I pay for them?” Everything in human life from education to sanitation, from health to recreation, and from committing crimes to having sex are reduced to solvency and affordability, to the intense social scrutiny of the ledger sheet. America now suffers from wholesale denial of interdependency. “All human values,” Dupuy protests, “are reducible to a single question: how much are you willing to pay for this value?”
Exchange: What mediates human existence?
The objection is standard—money is just a tool; it is neutral. It can be used for good or bad depending on the user. How ironic, then, that the sole purpose of a piece of paper to designate a value, like a 1 dollar bill, should be viewed as valueless! Even if money was neutral, economist Tomas Sedlacek reminds that “being value-free is a value in itself, a great value to economists anyway.”
Limiting the understanding of money to mere utility runs along the same vein as the logic of technology and for a simple reason: economics and technology feed off each other. We obsessively deny that the device, especially a power tool, radically changes the kind of work done and the way the worker proceeds. Even more so, the automated tool alleviates the worker all together while excessively producing goods that cannot be reasonably consumed. It inevitably blurs the distinction between master and slave. Who is serving who?
Money, whether virtual or physical, is a tool, but it is much more. Tell a person with little money or access to technology that money is not everything. They won’t believe you and for good reason. For them, money is the absolute gatekeeper to all resources and viability. Hungry and want food?—Got money? Homeless and want shelter?—Got money? Need to defecate and need a toilet?—Got money? Unemployed and need a phone, computer, transportation, someone to watch your children and a network of business connections to get a job?—Got money? Have a mental or physical disability and need medication or therapy?—Got money?
Money does not just give access to resources; it mediates worth to a human. Notice, for instance, that street people never ask for anything other than money. It is not just to buy booze. It also means that they can be treated with some level of decency when they can buy a hamburger rather than eat what is given to them.
In his book The Economics of Good and Evil, economist Tomas Sedlacek forcefully argues against the presumption of modern economics that it occupies some objective, neutral position in modern society. “It is a paradox that a field that primarily studies values wants to be value-free. One more paradox is this: a field that believes in the invisible hand of the market wants to be without mysteries.”
Along with the homeless, the ancient writers of the Hebrew scriptures understood much more than some proponents of free market capitalism about what mediates life. The Bible calls it blessing. Blessing is the critical conduit in order to survive and thrive. One must be in good standing with this sacred realm, this invisible hand in order to procure blessing.
Procuring blessing from a patron god is a dominant concern in the book of Genesis with the semi-nomadic clan of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Blessing in this biblical sense is, according to Claus Westermann, a critical element that enables a human to grow, prosper, maintain and contribute in the world. Blessing is a “vital power without which no living being can exist.” Blessing secures survival and enables growth. It is “both internal and external—the inner power of the soul and the good fortune that produces that power.” One economist calls it freedom: “it is the freedom to live a good life and to do the things that make life worth living.”
Blessing is always mediated. It is not generated from within. No one could just go out and get some and bring it back to his house for private consumption. If this sounds like hocus-pocus, one only need listen to a business news channel to come away with the same impression about the mediating presence of “the market.” After all, the Dow is merely an indication of how people ‘feel” about the way things are going. Yet, as Pope Francis complains, we are more concerned that the Dow has dropped a few points than that hundreds of people die each day on the street. It is what Dupuy calls “economystification.”
This critical element that humans need to survive and thrive, this generative force, is essentially religious because it mediates human interactions and survival itself. There must be and always has been some “presence” that stands between the “goods” that every human needs or wants and an all out and violent free-for-all grab for them. This “presence,” can be, but by no means necessarily so, called gods or goddesses. It can equally be named a temple, a monarchy, a bank, luck, providence, fate, good fortune, the way things are, or the global economy. In almost all cases, IT is spoken of in terms of having a certain will, mind, or logic which is always communicated through a story. The story is absolutely essential when the distribution of “goods” inevitably proves disproportional. The story provides the explanation and logic for why this is so.
Blessing or quality of life or the ability to survive and thrive is religious because it mediates, and it mediates through sacrifice. Sacrifice, however, holds no meaning outside the context of the primary story a community tells itself. Temples, above all else, control the narrative. Communal stories and economics are essentially the same or at least after the same thing according to Sedlacek: “All economics is, in the end, economics of good and evil. It is the telling of stories by people of people to people. Even the most sophisticated mathematical model is, de facto, a story, a parable, our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us.” The primary communal story must appease or mediate to some level the anger, frustration, consternation, anxiety, and potential violence of the community. It explains why some abundantly thrive while others (often the majority) barely survive. It does this by means of sacrifice and the story encasing it.
Sacrifice is a commonly used word today and holds the same essential meaning as those of ancient times when tribal communities eliminated, either by slaughter or expulsion, selected members or representative surrogates of the group. The selected victims are necessarily and reasonably disposed of for the good of the rest. Sacrifice redirects the collective anger and potential violence away from the community. The best sacrificial victims of the community function as the representation of the mediating presence when it is viewed as the unfortunate “waste” of doing business. It is invisible and voiceless to the community that expelled it. The common phrase, “he needs to go,” is a telltale sign of the sacrificial society we are inundated with.
The sacred mediating presence of the distribution of “goods” is not only evident in the biblical patriarch’s pursuit of blessing but also in the ubiquitous presence of temples in the ancient world. Viewed as an absolute necessity for cities, temples are always situated behind walls and next to the king’s palace. They determine the value of goods based on sacrifice, i.e. a relationship to the sacred. In some ancient societies, the very concept of a metal coin holding a certain value came into being by its association with temple sacrifices. Temples were the sacred deposit boxes of wealth and sacrifice the “absolute value” behind any currency.
Economy or the Market has now become the purveyors of the sacred, supplanting politics and religion. Economists are the makeover of prophets and financiers are the new priestly class. When people say that money or technology is just a neutral tool, they simply miss the profound level that the sacred has always played in human societies where the means to survive and thrive are inextricably bound to social (and most often arbitrary) arrangements of distribution and exchange. Jean-Pierre Dupuy regrets the capitulation of all human activity to economic terms. Humankind is now completely transformed into homo economicus, and he warns of dire consequences for us if we fail to comprehend that transformation.
The reality that humanity is now becoming homo economicus is increasingly recognized in a wide variety of circles from philosophers to entertainers, from economists to politicians, and from theologians to the homeless. Leon Wieseltier declares that even “the discussion of culture is being absorbed into the discussion of business” where “quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything.” In his book Jesus Goes to McDonalds, theologian Luiz Rossi observes the “commodification of life” where everything is reduced to economic terms. Jurgen Motlmann echoes the sentiment. We are now in a total market society. Dupuy declares: “The role Economy plays is exorbitant by any reasonable standard…Not only has the influence of Economy spread throughout the world, it has taken over our very ways of thinking about the world.” Even entertainers understand the transformation. In an interview, comedian Dave Chapelle responds to the worn-out adage that money isn’t everything. “Money is the fuel of choices. Money gives me choices, so that’s not nothing. That’s something.” Anthropologist David Graeber also speaks of the “quantification” of all aspects of human existence and the tendency of money “to reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal.”
And many perceive the religious or mythological feel of this new climate calling it “an idolatry of data,” or an “antitheology.” In response to the statement on the American dollar “in God we trust,” Bill Maher retorts: “Americans don’t worship God, they worship money.” In satirical fashion, Maher astutely observes the sacred connection of money, noting the redundancy to printing God on it. Dupuy compares the plural use of “the Market” in a similar way to a mythological monster: “What are we left with? Men and women in positions of power who, by prostrating themselves before a phantasm, transform it into something real and, at the same time, endow it with extraordinary power.”
The Book of Job and Late Modern Economics
What do post-modern homo economicus, ancient religious notions of blessing and sacredness and the book of Job have in common? I propose a lot.
The concerns addressed in the book of Job are best understood in the context of the post-exilic Jewish community seeking to reconstitute a national identity as a frontier province of the Persian Empire (roughly 530 – 400 B.C.E). Like our post-modern and perhaps post-religious and post-political world, some ancient Jewish elites struggled for clarity in a time of deep social crisis exacerbated by the complete breakdown of long established social structures relied on to mediate the production and distribution of the good.
Job is about a crisis of narrative, a crisis like our post-modern situation over economics. There is, as Sedlacek says, “a battle of stories and various metanarratives.” And Sedlacek approaches our current tendency to reduce everything to the ledger sheet with nearly the same torturous anxiety as Job. “Is there an economics of good and evil? Does it pay to be good, or does good exist outside the calculus of economics?” 
As I explore the book of Job, we will soon enough discover how elusive the essential question is. In fact, most of the book is a strong protest against framing the question of how best to secure “the good” in a particular way. Simultaneously, Job struggles deeply and perhaps unsuccessfully to reformulate the question. The tedious cycle of point and counterpoint between Job and his “friends” is intended to draw us into the struggle. We too must forcefully rend ourselves from the nearly ubiquitous convention to frame our procuring of the good in the language of economics. And if we are willing, we too must listen to a mysterious voice in the whirlwind that refuses to be circumscribed in human language, whether alphabetical or mathematical.
 Jean-Pierre Dupuy also notices the invisibility of low-consumption humans, labeling it “the statistical dissolution of personal identity.” Our insistence on self-sufficiency has created the environment where: “We ourselves are constantly telling other people that they do not exist for us.” Jean-Pierre Dupy, Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith, trans. M.B. DeBevoise (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 76, 123.
 David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years (London: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 127.
 Rossi. Jesus Goes to McDonalds, 82.
 Dupuy, Economy and the Future, 72.
 Tomas Sedlacek, The Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 7.
 In my view, Jacque Ellul effectively challenges the very notion of the neutrality of technology. Ellul argues that technique is driven by its very nature toward the most efficient way regardless of ethics or human will. Jacque Ellul, The Techological Bluff, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1990.
 Yes, this is a crude example, but one need only work with homeless people for a brief time to realize how the daily need to relieve oneself requires considerable negotiation. In many large cities, one must pay to use a toilet.
 Sedlacek, The Economics of Good and Evil, 7.
 The book of Genesis, where the mysterious power of blessing is prominent, places the story of faith in the context of wandering , “homeless” Arameans in the land of Canaan.
 Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978, 18.
 Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, 2.
 Dupuy, Economy and the Future, 34.
 The mediating role of religion in society is not the only defining characteristic of religion, but it is certainly fundamental. The historical relationship between religion, the state, and economic life is of course complex. David Graeber’s book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, effectively grapples with the complexities. In the most ancient of societies, the complex distribution of goods and services were first centered in temples and later alongside monarchies. David, Graeber, Debt, 43-87.
 It is no accident that writing developed in temples along with sacrifice and the distribution of goods. There, the primary function of writing was to keep record of inventory and debts and to aid in the telling and retelling of the primary stories to enculturate the elites. See: Graeber, Debt, 42-87 and David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: the Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005),
 Sedlacek, Economics of Good and Evil, 6.
 Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind : Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (New York: 338 Cambridge University Press, 2004).
 Graeber, Debt, 59.
 Dupuy deliberately uses a capitalized plural singular in order to emphasize the mythological nature in which economics are spoken of on the world stage. “What could this plural form, the “markets,” really signify, if not the manifold and intertwining tentacles of a great monster, sluggish, craven, and dumb, which takes fright at the slightest noise—and in this way brings about the very thing that it shrinks from in terror: turbulance in the global markets?” Dupuy, Economy and the Future, ix.
 Dupuy, Economy and the Future, xii. The term homo economicus was first coined by critics of John Stuart Mill’s political philosophy. They objected to Mill’s seeming reduction of humanity to mere utility.
 Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html
Jan. 7, 2015
 Jurgen, Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 250-251.
 Dupuy, Economy and the Future, xii.
 Graeber, Debt, 18.
 “If there’s one place God should not be, it’s on money. One is a supreme, all-powerful entity that Americans worship above all else. And the other is God.” Huffingtonpost, “Bill Maher’s New Rule About ‘God’ On Money.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/15/bill-mahers-new-rule-about-god-and-money_n_1886688.html
 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, ix.
 The awkward use of the phrase “the good” instead of “goods” or “the good life” is deliberate. As Sedlacek argues, there has been the tendency in economics to move completely away from philosophical categories of morality and ethics toward the veneer of science (Economics of Good and Evil, 7-9). By using the phrase “the good,” I remind of the interrelationship between moral, political, and economic choices.
 Sedlacek, Economics of Good and Evil, 6.