Volume 1, Number 19
13 August 2001

It is not that Quakers do not know economics. Rather, the economics they know is wrong. — Ken Boulding

Our Reason for Existence

Dear Friends,

Russ Nelson, publisher of The Quaker Economist, has sent me the data from 74 questionnaires (out of 204 subscribers), including the comments without names of respondents (that's the way I wanted it). How often should TQE come? Thirteen said weekly, twenty-four biweekly, and twenty-one monthly. So, I have decided to send it when the spirit moves me. I will not feel compelled (as in the past) to get it out weekly.

Most read it right away, some save for later, and a few select, not having time to read all. Thirty-one found it "very interesting," and twenty-seven "stimulating."

Do you agree with me? Never: 0, Rarely: 4, Occasionally: 16, Most of the time: 41, Always: 2.

Almost all who wrote remarks were encouraging and want TQE to continue. One, however, said he or she had expected a journal with many authors, replies and rebuttals, carrying many points of view. I sympathize with this desire, and if I were thirty years younger I might undertake that. At age 81, however, I am not about to launch a new career. Nevertheless, I owe an explanation of why TQE is as it is.

The Quaker Economist's Reason for Existence

When I joined Friends fifty-eight years ago, we were a diverse Society. Republicans sat in the benches in about equal numbers to Democrats. Men in uniform came to Meeting, then went off to war. Others went to CPS camps (for conscientious objectors) or ambulance service. Some loved Roosevelt, others hated "that man." If this atmosphere existed today, anti-abortion Friends would sit next to pro-choice, and Bush Republicans next to Naderites. All would be accepted as having God within them.

Instead, over the past five decades the "Liberal Left" has gradually taken over our Society, so that others (such as me) have not felt comfortable (BTW: I am not a Republican). As older Friends died and younger ones replaced them, the Meetings took on a leftwing political complex. They favored Sandinista Nicaragua, the Cuban Revolution, even the Soviet Union, all of which I believe have seriously damaged the welfare of their poor. Friends condemn multinational corporations and world trade, both of which I believe will be major forces lifting the poor from their poverty. Many want to protect dying American industries, such as textiles and steel. I believe we should shut them down and buy these products from poor countries where the jobs are truly needed.

Three years ago I wrote a book that I wanted to call The Quakerly Economy, meaning a hypothetical world based on Quaker business practices of the seventeenth century. The publisher (University of Michigan Press) thought it should have a wider audience, so we re-named it The Moral Economy. When I presented its ideas at a week-long workshop at Friends General Conference in 1999, ten Friends (out of twenty) walked out at midweek.

I do not aim to persuade Friends of my opinions. But I don't want them cast aside either. Five decades ago, Friends conducted active discussions on social questions, examining all sides, in institutes of international affairs (high school and adult), shipboard orientation programs (for students going to Europe after the war), Young Friends, and Pendle Hill conferences. In all of these I was a leader or participated actively. I find nothing like that among Friends today.

Kenneth Boulding (my friend and mentor, whose loss I feel enormously) once said, "It is not that Quakers do not know economics. Rather, the economics they know is wrong."

I have wondered why there are not nearly so many economists in Meeting today as there were fifty years ago. Perhaps the reason can be found in the following message, written by one Quaker economist to another, with copy to me:

"One always hates to give up something that seems quite logical and compelling, in this case what seems to be a potentially fruitful linking of classical liberal thought with contemporary Quaker concerns. But, there may be times and situations that simply do not work out, and it is my feeling that this is the current reality. I am scaling back my Quaker activities because many of the things that I care about passionately, and which I believe are consistent with Quaker insight, simply do not resonate with the majority of Friends.

"One hopes that the objectives that Jack has worked for through his writings and dialogs with Friends will in some way surface in the future in a manner and context that leads to more acceptance and open debate -- Seeking Truth Together. Jack cannot be accused of being frivolous or of not having gone the extra mile. I look back at my discovery of his Holistic Economics Pendle Hill pamphlet, and all that has come after, as being a wonderful and informative voyage of the intellect and spirit."

Here are some examples of how I have felt unwelcome among Friends.

  • Chuck Fager (a well-known Friend) invited me to a conference on Peace at State College, PA, last April. When he reported to the committee, they vetoed me. I was told that my economics does not lead to peace.
  • One reader of Seeking Truth Together wrote me the following: "I must say I found Seeking Truth Together to be among the most dishonest works I have read. What I found most offensive was your use of 'the manner of Friends' as a disguise for indoctrination. To pretend that everyone's view is given a fair and even ear, and then to conclude with your dogmatic pronouncement, as if that is the consensus, is so objectionable that the word 'obscene' comes to mind." (STT reports all positions, and when there was no consensus, it says so).
  • In the midst of the overwhelmingly positive comments to the TQE questionnaire, the following appeared: "Please remove me from Jack's mailing list — Jack's views of global issues are extremely uninformed and opposed to the Quaker intent of world peace. I believe further dissemination of his larger view is beyond a mis-service (sic) to the Society of Friends and particularly to FCNL's missions." (So, it is a "mis-service" to hear ideas other than one's own?)

One respondent thought the Newsletter should be named The Classic Conservative Quaker. But "conservative" refers to one who wants to keep our society as it is. I am anything but that! "Liberal" means free, but in two centuries its usage has changed. Those who call themselves "liberal" today do not want freedom; many think the world is evil enough, and government good enough, so that government should regulate us in many ways. The liberals of the seventeenth century (the Quaker century) wanted to be free of government, so a classic liberal is akin to a seventeenth-century Quaker.

[Editor's note: At the time this letter appeared, TQE was known as The Classic Liberal Quaker. — LC, February 2005]

Just as Robin and I taught our children to think for themselves and take care of themselves, I believe people should choose their own social security, own health care, and own education. (Saving the environment requires some regulation, however.) Just as we stand behind our children when they are in need, I favor subsidizing the poor with cash for some or all social services, and counseling them on how to spend it wisely. I sometimes wonder if most "liberals" think the poor are pretty dumb. I have spent a lot of time with the poor, and I think that mostly, they are pretty smart.

If the political monoculture among Quakers were everything, I would have left the Society of Friends three decades ago. But other values overwhelm that temptation.

Chief among them is that I believe in that of God in every person. I am committed to silent worship and Friends' ways of doing business.

Next, I feel loved in Boulder Meeting. It is my home. So long as I don't mention economics, I get along very well with Friends here.

I see two rays of hope. At Friends General Conference two months ago, I co-led a workshop with twenty participants who understood my dilemma and even felt it themselves. They too wanted a more open, less biased Society of Friends. At worship sharing the final day, one by one they expressed appreciation that I had continued to "hang in there." The other ray of hope is you, readers of the The Quaker Economist. Obviously the political monoculture does not engulf you. (Are you exceptions, or have I misjudged the wider society?) I am overwhelmed by your positive responses, and I am encouraged to hang in a bit longer, God willing.

What about the commentator who "expected a journal with many authors, replies and rebuttals, carrying many points of view"? Try Friends Bulletin, whose editor, Anthony Manousos, is committed to just that. What about the reader who criticized my "whimsical" way of editing the responses? My aim is to present an economics of which most Quakers seem to be innocent, even though my economics is overwhelmingly espoused by the world's economists. If a response is lengthy, I select the paragraphs that contain the kernel, to show the reader's thinking. But (again, at age 81) I'm not about to launch a tit-for-tat journal.

If you want the "modern Quaker line," you have a variety of Friends' publications that present little else. TQE is my only medium to help bring Friends back to their spiritual origins. We are all children of God.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

You write that the "'Liberal Left' has gradually taken over our Society." You might want to qualify that as unprogrammed Friends, or FGC. Keep in mind that a majority of American Friends are in pastoral bodies. If anything, the opposite is the danger for them — many are at risk of being subsumed in the Christian Coalition.

— Thomas Hamm, Earlham College.

Referring to the Society of Friends 58 years ago:

A most moving, charitable and inspiring note. A wonderful summary. What it must have been like to be in a loving circle of Friends with diverse interests and views and the Love to share them in constructive and open ways! I was simply 40 years too late, or possibly just not up to the task.

— J. D. von Pischke, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.

I feel considerably enlightened by the explanation contained in your last email, which described the questionnaire results, and I look forward to reading future TQEs with that knowledge. Regardless of any difference in our views, it is always good to understand where the other person is coming from. Thank you very much.

— Michael Jack, Alexandria (VA), Friends Meeting of Washington.

Compassion, empathy, Christian love, and egalitarian society will tend to appeal to those holding to a liberal religious view that says we are bound by a spirit that cares for all. Those holding fundamentalist religious views tend to see a stern and judging God of rigid rule, favoring some nations and individuals and approving conquest of other nations. Sure, this is a hasty generalization, but politics and religion do seem to line up in those rows, don't they? No wonder then that Quakers, given the content of the testimonies and queries (that tend toward caring and compassion and responsibility for each other), land on the liberal side of that field. And I am thankful for that fact.

— Steve Willey, Sandpoint (ID) Friends Meeting

Reply: Do you really believe that anyone who fails to adopt a modern liberal view cannot be among "those favoring compassion, empathy, Christian love, and egalitarian society?" Are only those of the "liberal religious view ... bound by a spirit that cares for all?" — Jack

I felt moved by your biography and analysis. I have thought the same things for several years, that the Society of Friends was taken over by our left wing "revolutionary" 1960's culture. I include myself in that takeover because I was drawn to Friends because of its left wing quality. Now I see that the "left wing" quality has really eroded any sense of a tradition which can be passed down to other generations of Quakers. Our present Quaker culture emphasizes a highly individualistic orientation towards values while at the same time supporting the notion that "society" is at fault for individual behavior (and is responsible for correcting those faults!). It is probably the reason why we have taken God out of our lives and out of our worship, because God makes demands on us and we are loathe to see ourselves under the jurisdiction of anyone; let alone a deity whose existence cannot be physically proved. What we have tried to do is substitute a political philosophy for a spiritual way of life.

The other day I was thinking how strange not many of our children were drawn to doing missionary work in "hot" or destitute spots overseas, like Africa, the Middle East or the Balkans. There are not a lot of liberal Quaker services that the Quaker young flock to these days. Why? Because we have concentrated for so long on doing "activist" things which lift up those who do non-violent civil disobedience, we no longer see it as our individual duty to go and help others less fortunate in the world. We are drawn to the heroic rather than to the mundane and the heroic better have quite a lot of "kick the butt of the powers that be" in it for us to give it our support.

— Rich Ailes, Middleton (PA) Meeting.

The irony is that both the far left and the far right in this country want the government to solve the social ills that they perceive. It is no wonder that you find yourself under siege a good deal of the time — as a (dare I say) traditional Liberal you come at issues from a point of view that is outside the current framework of what passes for political/economic debate. Your belief that individual human beings are capable of determining for themselves what is in their own best interest without the dicta of those who think they know better remains a radical idea in this world of ours. But, as I say, there are hopeful signs. I suspect that you reach more ears, and accomplish more, than you know.

— Kenneth Allison, Episcopalian, Paradise Valley AZ.

I agree completely with your assessment of the attitudes among "liberal" Friends today. While we accept and encourage a virtually unlimited scope of spiritual beliefs, when it comes to economics and politics, most FGC Friends seem to demand a rigid, "politically correct" lock-step conformity. My Meeting, Friends Meeting of Washington, was created out of two other meetings so that then-President Herbert Hoover could have a place to worship. This is now somewhat of an embarrassment to many of our members, because Hoover was, heaven help us, a Republican! As were many of the Quakers of his day. Like you, I despair that anything will change or improve. It took me over twenty years to come to clearness that I could join my Meeting in spite of this attitude. It was only when I realized that my own beliefs are what really matter, and that no one can tell me what to believe either spiritually or politically. But it does make it very difficult quite a bit of the time, especially when certain Quaker organizations claim to speak for all Friends. Unfortunately, this seems to be a phenomenon which affects all organizations.

— Dick Bellin, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

Your experience with the critics — your sense of unwelcome among some Friends who describe your thinking as "dishonest" or "obscene" or a "mis-service" — reminds me of John Adams, the Adams portrayed in David McCullough's recent and feted biography. When Adams bluntly questioned the revolution in France in 1789, for example, Philadelphian James Callender, championing the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, was not content to disagree with Adams on the merits of his case. Callender wrote instead that Adams was a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," and "in his private life, one of the most egregious fools on the continent," McCullough reports.

— Roger Williams, Ft. Myers (FL).

RIGHT ON, Jack! Although not an official Quaker (only in heart and mind) I agree with you completely. The Bouldings first interested me in getting involved in Peace Protests and efforts here in Colorado. I was a bit more active in Wisconsin before retirement. Please don't give up! Our world needs you.

— Lorna Knowlton, Boulder (CO).

With reference to the changed meaning of "liberal:"

It's all part of the theft of the term "liberal." Freedoms are lost not through direct government action against the idea of freedom, but instead by redefining "liberal," "freedom," or "rights" to have a meaning opposed to the traditional ones. People oppressed in this manner think they are liberals, that they have freedom and rights. But instead of having freedoms to and rights from, they have freedoms from and rights to.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

I enjoyed reading your letter — all of which I read. Back in Dunster House [where you and I lived in college] I was convinced that Keynes had the right view of our sick economy — lately I have come to the conclusion that I should have learned more from Milton Friedman. You support giving people the help they need for them to use as they see fit. Stay with it!

— Dick Wolf (college classmate of Jack's).


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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