12/17/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Economists and Innkeepers

As our nation focuses on economic issues such as fiscal cliffs and tax rates, it is odd to see the topic of faith, underlying election issues just six weeks ago, recede completely from sight. It's odd because in contrast to hot-button topics like gay marriage, gun-control, and reproductive rights, Christian scriptures have much to say about economics. In fact, few topics are more important.

Granted, Jesus was no economist. But open any Bible and within a few seconds of reading, economic matters surface. Its teaching is unambiguous. Page after page of Gospel accounts of Jesus' life are filled with his fierce denunciation of gross inequality and his unequivocal condemnation of those who turn their backs on the poor. He wanted society to be better for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable. And he demanded that faithful people make it happen.

If this is true in Jesus' time, why, then, is it not part of our shared conversations about economic life today? What are we missing? This is the ground covered in the new lecture series on Economics & Theology co-sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking and the institution I head, Union Theological Seminary. Two Nobel Prize winning economists, Joseph E. Stiglitz and George Akerlof, delivered the first two lectures, to packed audiences, eager for fresh thought and guidance.

What has emerged? Two lessons. One, Economic theory is replete with theological and moral assumptions about human nature and society. And two, economics is too important to be left to the economists.

Economics has many assumptions about the purpose of life and about how "good or bad" people are. These judgments rarely catch the attention of our economic theorists ... but they nonetheless condition and shape everything that economists say. In their work, both Stiglitz and Akerlof discuss these values and their implications. Both challenged the rosy economic notions that preceded the collapse of 2008, among them the idealized belief in the stability of unfettered capitalism. They also have challenged the idea that free markets were somehow inherently capable of self-correction and don't need government regulation to function fairly. Given human nature and given our present system, they both point out that it's no wonder that the economy went off the rails.

Stiglitz is correct when he says that government policies favoring the America's top 1 percent are morally indefensible and ultimately undermine the well-being of everyone, including the rich. As it is, the top 1 percent control 40 percent of the country's wealth. In addition, the 1 percent has overwhelming access to policy makers who rig the rules in favor of those with the highest incomes. America's rising inequality at the top means an increasing number of people in the middle and at the bottom have fewer opportunities, which challenges the fundamental moral values of fairness and equality that most Americans have traditionally taken for granted.

Akerlof also weighs moral issues. He talks about so-called "animal spirits" in economics, analyzing the manner in which psychology, emotions and even "irrational exuberance" influences capitalism. Akerlof was one of the very few economists who foresaw the housing bubble before the collapse. He combines the science of economics with a clear-eyed vision of the fallibility of human beings.

Listening to both of these expansive thinkers makes it clear that understanding economics must not be treated as if it is beyond the moral competence of ordinary people. The subject is complex, but not unintelligible. Just as war is too important to leave to generals, it's clear that economics is far too vital to leave solely to the economists.

Thinking critically about economics requires that we question our underlying values and their impact on society. For example, I would argue that rather than being merely faceless economic units, we all have a moral responsibility for the care of each other. At the same time, I also have a profound faith-based belief that people are inescapably motivated by greed and self-interest and can (and inevitably will) act in deeply harmful ways. And people, with all their flaws, run markets. Why, then, could anyone believe that they were above manipulation -- or error? Given this, we should support regulations that constrain our greed and protect our neighbor. Although we are incapable of creating Utopia, we are morally bound to create a world in which all people have a chance to flourish.

Since it is the holiday season, I'd like to end up with this timely image. If the current economy were the original Christmas scene, the innkeeper -- in the form of the wealthiest among us and the economic theorists supporting them -- would turn away the 99 percent. The result? It would be a mighty crowded manger. Does that seem right?

Shift the lens slightly ...

We live in a democracy in which we supposedly share of work of innkeeping. This nation is our shared living-space, and its up to us to see that there are healthy clean rooms for everyone.

A wild dream? Maybe. Merry Christmas.

Serene Jones is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.