Providence, presidents, and the fundamental fallacy of pop economics
Religion & Liberty Online

Providence, presidents, and the fundamental fallacy of pop economics

When running for president, candidates often makes outlandish promises about how we’ll benefit once they have power.

For instance, vice-presidential candidate John Edwards said in 2004 that, “when John Kerry is president people like [quadriplegic actor] Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” And in 2008, then-candidate Barak Obama said we’ll look back on his winning the Democratic nomination as the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.”

The most absurd claims, though, are often about matters of economics. A prime example—and one of the silliest ever—was made the day after Christmas when president-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!”

Only someone with an ego the size of Trump could truly believe he was having such a massive positive effect on the economy even before he took office. And only someone with Trump’s profound ignorance of economics could believe he possessed such abilities. Unfortunately, such illogical thinking is not unusual. Noah Smith calls this idea that the President of the United States controls economic outcomes the “Fundamental Fallacy of Pop Economics.”

“The Fundamental Fallacy is in operation every time you hear a phrase like “the Bush boom” or ‘the Obama recovery,’” says Smith. “It’s in effect every time someone asks ‘how many jobs Obama has created’. It’s present every time you see charts of economic activity divided up by presidential administration.”

Smith provides three broad reasons why this type of thinking is fallacious. But what is harder to explain is why we fall for such nonsense in the first place. What leads us to put our faith in the idea that the president can control the economy?

For the most part, the fallacy can be attributed to simple (and simplistic) partisanship. As Smith notes, a lot of this type of thinking is “instinctive and tribal – it’s ‘Republican President = good economy’.” But I think more broadly, the issue is theological. We want to believe some human is in control of the economy because we seek a substitute for God.

No one thinks the president, whether Obama or Trump is an actual deity. Yet there are some supporters of every president who seem to credit American presidents with god-like powers of control. The reason, I suspect, is that we’re extremely uncomfortable with God’s actual providential engagement in the economy. (The idea that there is such providential engagement strikes many people as unimaginable, which leads them to look for a human to take command.)

Finding providential action in economic affairs is not difficult if we only open our eyes. Take, for example, a large but often overlooked area of the economy—the price system. Economist Alex Tabarrok says, “If it had been invented, the price system would be one of the most amazing creations of the human mind.” The price system is indeed an amazing creation—but a creation of the divine mind. It’s one of God’s means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing.

Humans may set individual prices but it was God who designed the price system as a means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing. As with most good gifts given by God to humans, we are able to corrupt it and use it in ways that harm our neighbors. Yet for the most part, the price system is an ingenious method of communication that has been used to improve the human condition.

What is awe-inspiring about this system is that no human is in control of the price system. No president (even Richard Nixon, who tried) has the power to control prices. For some of us, this is comforting. For others, it’s anxiety producing. Those who reject the idea that human (economic) behavior is guided (at least in part) by providence are terrified by the thought that no one is in control. To compensate, some adopt made-up economic “laws” (as in Marxism) and provide a reified abstract substitute (e.g., History) to replace the providential function of God.

But others, including some Christians, have a simpler, and even more naïve belief. They believe that if a Great Man (or Great Woman) is simply authorized to take action, they will be able by sheer force of will and political policy do things like “create jobs” or “grow the economy.”

We laugh at primitives who worship man-made gods of wood and stone (Deuteronomy 4:28) and think such carvings can control phenomena such as the weather. Yet we moderns impute god-like abilities to men of flesh and blood and think they can truly control even more complex phenomenon like the American economy. If we would only give the issue the most perfunctory consideration we would see why the idea that Barak Obama could bring “hope and change” to our economic lives or that Donald Trump will “make America (economically) great again” is embarrassing superstitious nonsense.

This is not to say, of course, that presidents do not have an influence or impact on economic outcomes. They certainly do—and unless such intervention is used to reverse previous policies, the effect is almost always detrimental. Trump, for instance, has repeatedly promised to limit trade and impose protectionist restrictions—actions that will harm economic growth and the well-being of the average American citizen. Trump is delusional in thinking, as many others do, that by his mere wishing a policy would be effective he can make it so.

Such wishful thinking is ancient and hard to overcome. A few thousand years ago the psalmist said, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3). We still haven’t learned that lesson; perhaps we never will. But it would be a major step forward if we would merely recognize this fundamental fallacy of pop economics and admit that no matter how much we wish it were so, princes nor presidents cannot save our economy.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).