Pretty simple math. The great chemist-become-philosopher Michael Polanyi once said that 2+2= 4 is a moral equation. What he was arguing was that it is a description of reality; it is the way the world really is. The best and worst postmodern fantasy falls on its face here, as we are not able to choose which universe we will live in. “Reality does not adapt accordingly,” to remember the poet Steve Turner again.

A few years ago I was in a meeting at the headquarters of a global corporation, thinking with some of their executives about the way business is done, and even more importantly, about the way that business ought to be done. Central to the conversation was the thesis that the purpose of business has to be more than maximizing shareholder profit, that economic well-being requires a more complex bottom-line.

I offered them Polanyi, and his simple math, full of moral meaning as it is. There was a smile from the chief economist, and he said, “That’s exactly it. That’s what we are saying.” Their corporate ambition is to continue making profit, over the long haul. But they have come to realize that economic flourishing is more than math; there is something about the moral meaning of the universe that is critical to the future of their business plans; it is a moral equation, not just a mathematical equation—and therefore one that changes the way we think about people and the planet, as well as profit. In the end, they were asking: are we telling the truth about our numbers, and what sustained economic flourishing will require of us?

I thought of this again in reading the Washington Post this morning, and the economics analyst, Robert Samuelson. Not one of the notably conservative or liberal commentators who write regularly, he has a different vision, and it allows him a deeper critique, one that is not ideologically-driven by the knee-jerk need to defend a partisan position. He wrote about the Obama/Romney debate of two nights ago, and the failure of both to honestly address the financial mess we are facing, complex as it is. “Not a peep from either on which tax increases or spending cuts should be postponed, why or how long; or how to win support from the other party.”

Taking up Obama’s critique of Romney’s math, and agreeing in part, he also said that, “Obama’s budget never balances.” And it won’t, he argues, only a deepening dissonance between what we make and what we spend that will compound over the years.

“Obama and Romney can evade these unpopular subjects now, but the victor won’t be able to avoid them after the election.”

For everyone everywhere, 2+2=4 is a moral equation, and it has political implications.


Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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