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Salt Lake Snake Oil

Mormon money-digging is the answer to inequality?
Salt Lake City

Right-wing ideologues usually mine the past for their chosen didactic set-pieces. Here you’ll find a Charles Murray bemoaning a vanished age of working-class Gemeinschaft (amid general economic security, the way God wanted); while over there you’ll hear J.D. Vance hymning the lost tribal and family folkways of the hillbilly golden age.

Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle, though, is certain that she’s stalked the true home of American ingenuity, perseverance, and upward mobility in the present-day Mormon frontier. In a stem-winding, deeply impressionable survey of Salt Lake City’s church-administered social welfare system, McArdle announces that she’s found a pristine habitat for the American Dream. The capital of the Beehive State now boasts the highest rate of absolute upward mobility in the nation—defined here as the likelihood of moving from the bottom quintile of income distribution to the top within an individual’s lifetime. This, she coos, is proof positive that Utah’s Mormon establishment has rescued the fundaments of the “American Dream” in an age of rampaging inequality: “It matters to Americans that someone born poor can retire rich. That possibility seems increasingly slimmer and slimmer in most of the nation, but in Utah it’s still achievable.”

And like other hardy conservative stalkers of the cultural makeup of the success ethos, McArdle is vastly relieved to report that it has nothing to do with the expansion of the welfare state in this land of robust, voluntarist faith:

 “Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005. . . the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending.

Instead, needy Utahns throng to the Mormon Church’s impressive welfare system, known in Salt Lake as Welfare Square, which among other things has pioneered a “Housing First” approach to homelessness by focusing less on the alleged behavioral pathologies that afflict homeless citizens and more on the simple provision of a roof and a bed. Meanwhile, out-of-work or poor Utahns can rely on the church hierarchy to effectively take charge of the conditions of their distress in a way that the hateful state bureaucracy, by McArdle’s lights, simply can’t:

The volunteering starts in the church wards, where bishops keep a close eye on what’s going on in the congregation, and tap members as needed to help each other. If you’re out of work, they may reach out to small business people to find out who’s hiring. If your marriage is in trouble, they’ll find a couple who went through a hard time themselves to offer advice. 

All in all, McArdle enthuses, the Mormon vision of social assistance is the beau ideal of conservatives—a faith of benign behavioral surveillance coupled with a “cheerfully effective bureaucracy.” Citing the research of Brigham Young University economist David Sims, McArdle insists that “the secret to Utah’s especially good mobility is not that it’s especially good at building effective public institutions. What it’s especially good at is a sort of middle classness that’s so broad that it’s almost infectious.”

Riiiight. Here we behold the culture-of-success blather so beloved by American conservatives spinning out into pure incoherence, like a demagnetized compass. In this view of things “middle classness”—a category of social description almost as exasperatingly vague as the “American Dream” —is blurred into an exclusive property of a faith community. Yes, McArdle allows, the fathers of the Church of Latter Day Saints are better able to curb poverty-promoting excesses like alcohol abuse and out-of-wedlock childrearing than their counterparts in the secular state—and the client community for Welfare Square is uniquely pliant in the face of such dictates because it, like Utah at large, is overwhelmingly white (a byproduct of the Mormon Church’s century-plus founding history of institutional racism). It appears, in other words, that the “middle classness” of McArdle’s fond cultural imagining is, for all practical Beehive State purposes, “white ethno-spiritual homogeneity”—i.e., the kind of vision of social solidarity that gets Steve Bannon’s blood pumping.

Dismissing Utah’s neo-theocratic structure of governance is like claiming that the NFL doesn’t rely on an operational regime of drug-induced collective violence.

What’s more, the administrators of Welfare Square don’t need to rely on formal state support for the simple reason that the same church authorities are already effectively in charge of the state. It’s a bureaucracy, in short, that can fucking well afford to be cheerful. McArdle dismisses Utah’s unique neo-theocratic structure of governance in a parenthetical aside, but that’s a bit like claiming that, say, the National Football League doesn’t rely on an operational regime of drug-induced collective violence. If nothing else, the enormous economic might of the Mormon Church—which possesses one of the largest real-estate empires in the nation without any concomitant tax burden—accounts for the well-staffed, vertically integrated splendor of Welfare Square that sends McArdle off into pundit transports. “The food pantry itself looks like a well-run grocery store, except that it runs not on money but on ‘Bishop’s Orders’ spelling out an individualized list of food items authorized by the bishop handling each case.”

It’s teeth-grindingly painful to have to spell this out for an economics columnist at Bloomberg, but here goes: Just because the money isn’t being visibly exchanged doesn’t mean it’s not there. Indeed, the same lavish resources that permit the Mormon Church to subsidize the whole of Welfare Square’s operating budget also prompted the Church to launch a luxe shopping mall development directly opposite its spiritual headquarters in downtown Salt Lake. Any conservative estimate of the church’s investment in that property runs into the hundreds of millions. Is this, too, testimony to the hardy, can-do spirit of voluntarist charity, one wonders—or just maybe, is it the expression of a worship of spiritualized wealth that goes all the way back to the church’s founding under the gold-embossed prophecies of Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century?

Indeed, any responsible survey of Mormon economic thought will rapidly disclose that, for all the church’s generous social provision for its own, Mormonism is a uniquely austerity-minded, hard-money gospel. As Joseph Smith’s biographer Fawn Brodie notes, “the desire for money in gold and silver became almost an obsession” for the founding Mormon prophet, who began his spiritual career as a money-digger on the frontier of upstate New York.

 And the pursuit of individual wealth, far from spurring reveries of egalitarian opportunity, became a hard-and-fast talisman of spiritual worth in the formative Mormon past. That’s why Smith founded a Mormon bank during the Church’s sojourn in Kirtland, Ohio, and exhorted Church fathers in Nauvoo, Illinois, to greater feats of civic entrepreneurship in terms that now sound positively Trumpian:

You will then be on Pisgah’s top, and the great men will come from the four quarters of the earth—will pile up the gold and silver . . . until you are weary of receiving them . . . and they will cover up and hide all your former sins and, according to scripture, will hide a multitude of sins; and you will shine forth, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, and you will become terrible, as an army with banners.

To call this “compassionate conservatism” is a bit like praising drone warfare for its humanitarian wisdom.

Smith’s economic disciples continue shining forth in like fashion unto this day. Mormon financial adviser Howard J. Ruff made his reputation as an inflation bear and gold bug in the 1970s, and while his business-cycle prophesying proved spectacularly wrong, he inveighed mightily against the fiscal crimes of Social Security and welfare spending, which he characterized as nothing less than the “rape” of the American investor class. Mormon economist Mark Skousen, a doctrinaire libertarian, frankly avows that “one of the reasons I rejected Keynesian economics and Paul Samuelson’s [macroeconomic] textbook is that I immediately felt that they were contrary to church doctrine.” And for all his recent anti-Trump political peregrinations, Glenn Beck—the best-known Mormon convert on the American scene—still preaches a core economic gospel of hard money austerity, and his media properties are overrun with gold-bug investment come-ons. Meanwhile, in 2012, Utah’s Mormon Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation permitted state business to accept payments in gold and silver specie in lieu of debt-funded Federal Reserve greenbacks. 

To baptize this faith tradition in the image of “compassionate conservatism,” as McArdle does at numbing length here, is a bit like praising drone warfare for its humanitarian wisdom. And to offer it as a model for the struggle to undo the civic damage of rampaging wealth and income inequality is so fundamentally delusional as to beggar belief. Conservative estimates place the modern Mormon Church’s wealth at somewhere between $25 and $30 billion—a sum that stands in marked and instructive contrast to the holdings of, say, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a denomination with a comparable membership base, which as of the mid-aughts were assessed at around $152 million, mostly in pension investments for its employees. I’m pretty sure that there’s a parable in the New Testament that neatly distills the moral import of such yawning disparities. Something to do with a rich man, the Kingdom of Heaven, and a camel going through the eye of a needle. I’d explain it to Megan McArdle, but she’s always preferred to take her homilies straight from the mouth of Ayn Rand.