Many people think economic theory is the exact opposite of soulful, heartful love and spiritualty.  To them, economics is the hard science of money grubbing and the farthest point possible from the magical mystery of the pure, precious and intangible realms where love happens and spirit reigns. They believe that if we just stopped thinking like economists, greedy and grabby we’d focus on what counts, what’s of true value.

But true value is what economics is at core, really about.  What do you really and truly value? How can we tell? And what really happens when you get a bunch of us interacting in the webs, ebbs and flows of our true values?

The spiritual say “Truth waits for eyes unclouded by desire,” and since economics is about tracking desires, it must seem like exactly what clouds our thinking. But then desire is pretty fundamental to life.  Though the tiniest bacterium has no conscious desires, it acts like it wants things, indeed acting in ways that very much parallel the businesses and households what economists most commonly track.

Organisms and organizations aren’t things so much as processes that have to be kept going or they fall apart. For both, the first order of business is staying in business. They’re go-getters and what they go get, first and foremost, is whatever keeps them going. For the bacteria it’s a little sugar, for a person it’s a variety of sugars, from love to loaves of bread. For businesses, it’s bread that they can spend on whatever they need, more hires, more production, anything.

When you get your own desires out of the way, you notice that desire, appetite, value and preference are what make the living world go round.  Economics, at core is an attempt to study desire unclouded by desire, in other words, the value-neutral study of how, why and what living things value.  Economics, to me is the fundamental life and social science, encompassing all of what living things do as distinct from what strictly physiochemical things do.

While many spiritual paths are attempts to transcend value, (don’t be judgmental; accept things as they are) they never succeed, because frankly you can’t.  Even their preference to overcome preference is a preference. And while many spiritual paths are attempts to transcend worldly preference so that the universe or God’s true values shine through, that won’t work either, because the universe, from what we can tell has no values and looking at the blank slate value-neutrality of the universe the spiritual can’t help but impose their own values, claiming them to come from some higher or universal source.

Economics is a different, and I’ll argue better spiritual path. It’s rigorous in its methodology as a way of getting the economists’ preference out of the way to understand what our preferences really are and how our preferences interact, shaping life as it really is.  Among economic’s sources of methodological rigor is its emphasis on what we do over what we profess to value. Economists track true value by looking at the work we’ll do to get what we value. They quantify demand in terms of what we’re willing to pay for things, but our money doesn’t grow on trees. It comes from our work.  Money is a proxy for exertion, for effort, the business we do to stay in business.

Economist don’t have a spiritual reputation partly because, in practice many economists, like psychologists play the role of social engineers, more than social scientists. As engineers, they often try to shape how preferences play out, often in the service of particular values and agendas. For example, the economists who work for political parties or corporations apply what they learn about how preferences interact to make them interact in ways their employers prefer.  Still, as a science, economics is an attempt to describe what is, not to prescribe what should be.  It’s the purer science of economics that I believe makes for a beautiful spiritual path.

Economics also gets its tawdry reputation from Econ 101, which emphasizes the simple early models economists developed, models that are often way too simple and biased to accurately represent the breadth and subtlety of human desire.

But economics has evolved. Behavioral economics, bounded rationality, decision theory and social psychology converge on better models of the variety and complexity of true value, factoring in all sorts of non-tangible values, including our need for love, and our quest for spiritual meaning.

The earlier simple economic models distorted in part by assuming that we’re all rational actors which makes many people think economics only pertains to those values we weigh consciously, tallying pros against cons, benefits against cost. Economics remains about rationality but more broadly defined, not about conscious reasoning and valuing, but rather ratios– this compared to that, the value of this effort compared to that prize, the value of this prize compared to that prize, the value of this effort compared to that effort.  While we rarely do this kind of calculation consciously and numerically, we seem to do it at the gut level all the time.  The guiding question in economics is “compared to what?” a recognition that true values are relative values. We like this more than that, but less than this other thing which, should it become available would change our behavior.

Why do we compare? Why not just value everything?  Because we express our values through our exertion, the work we do to make things happen, and our work is finite. The work you do to help one person is often work you can’t do to help another. Yes, there are win-wins in which you leverage your work to achieve multiple values, but there are inescapable win/lose situations too.  At the end of the day, the day ends, so you have to prioritize.  There’s only so many 24/7s in a week (one, I’m told, though I’ve petitioned for more). You’ve got to decide how to spend it.

To some, that’s all the more reason not to taint love and spirituality with economic thinking.  Love and spirit are infinite. There’s more than enough to go around, so it doesn’t pay to think of love and spirituality in economics terms but as transcendent of economics.

Notice the paradox, even hypocrisy in saying that it doesn’t pay to think about how love and spirit pay, but rather pays to think of love and spirit as transcendent of what pays.

Apparently those who think that love and spirit transcend cost-benefit analysis, make their case using cost-benefit analysis. Apparently like the rest of us they love or value some ideas more than others. 

Why can’t they love all ideas equally?  Because love is actually a finite resource. Many people pretend it isn’t, beaming their love out to everyone and everything in the world. You can say you love everyone equally, but you can’t exert yourself equally for everyone.  Supplying love to one often means not supplying love to another.

Economics aims to be value-neutral about valuing one than another. One person wants a solution to world hunger, the climate crisis, and social injustice; another wants a McMansion, Ferrari and trophy wife, and still another wants wisdom, love and spiritual growth. Economists try to avoid weighing in on which values are more virtuous because imposing their own values would likely distort their models of how valuing happens.

That’s another reasons economists have a tawdry reputation. In their effort to understand true value, unclouded by their own values, they seem to be promoting the status quo. If you wish our economy worked differently and that people were less greedy, you may not like hearing economists describe how our economy actually works and how greedy people actually often are.  You might wish that economists were more committed to your values than they are to trying to describe how economies really work.

Here’s a confession:  I wish that more people had my values and I don’t feel much like acknowledging that they don’t. It’s so damned discouraging to hear that people don’t agree with me when really, I wish they did.

Since most people share my sentiment (though alas, not my values) there’s competition among those of us who feel the world’s values should mirror ours.  One thing we would value is ways that we can assert our values as superior.

And one way to assert our values as superior is to claim that they are made from a higher, or transcendent realm:  “My values aren’t merely my preference derived in some crass cost-benefit analysis. They’re based on my exceptional access to some higher truth.”

People value exceptionalism, the belief that they are somehow exceptional and deserve more credit and credibility.  Economics is a devoutly un-exceptionalist practice, and in this respect humbling, even spiritually so. Economists say that, though people have different values, their values seem to operate in similar ways,  the allocation of their finite work, attention and resources in order to be supplied with whatever they value most.

The spiritualists who deny that this has anything to do with love and spirituality are in love with an exceptionalist’s escape clause.  By claiming that their values transcend cost benefit, they can claim exceptional neutrality.  Their behavior still manifests their preferences, but they have a way to ignore and deny that they have those preferences.  Think of the power this affords them in debates over whose values should prevail.  The spiritualist can say, “Your values are crass and greedy; Me, I don’t do that economic valuing thing, I tap into a higher calling—love and spirituality.”

That’s a valuable idea to embrace. But is it spiritual?  No, not really.