Volume 4, Number 97
29 February 2004

My Spiritual Journey

Dear Friends,

The response to TQE #96 was so overwhelmingly positive (see comments, below), that I have decided to make TQE more biographical: to show how I came to the economic and spiritual beliefs that I hold, not (as previously) only what those beliefs are. I have gone through several stages in my long career. In high school I was a socialist. In college and grad school I was a Keynesian, believing in government intervention to make this a better world. But after my long career in the developing world, I become a Hayekian (for free enterprise). I learned that governments everywhere are more concerned with their own power than they are with the economic well-being of their people. They create economic messes more than economic solutions. The next few Letters will tell you how I came upon that thought.

I began to see the reason in Cyndy and Bill Blumenthal's daily inspirational messages: "Gandhi insisted that if his people wanted independence, they had to start acting like they were free and take responsibility for their own lives, their own local communities, and their own local, concrete issues of poverty. He would not let his people wait for some glorious independence day down the road before they started to reform their nation; he demanded that everyone pitch in right now."

The next several TQEs will explain economic development on a less-than-government level. For the Blumenthal messages, write to willyblu@enter.net .

The present essay condenses my entire life into this one chapter. After that I will dwell upon meanings. Age 83 is when my friend and mentor Kenneth Boulding died. Since I have reached that age, either I should write my life story now, or shift my mentorship to Gilbert White, who is 91 and still counting. I decided to do both.

I was born September 3, 1920 and after a year followed my parents to Syracuse, N.Y., where my father founded a business school known as Powelson Institute. It is still alive but has lost its name, being absorbed into a chain of business schools whose name I forget.

My father died in 1933, when I was almost 13. My mother, a Scottish farm girl who had had to leave school after the sixth grade, wanted her three children to have the best education possible. In her mind that meant private schools: Pebble Hill (near Syracuse), Andover (where both Presidents Bush went to school), and Harvard (where my father graduated in three years because he couldn't afford a fourth). I'm not sure that going to the "best" private schools was good for me, since I did not belong to the same social class as my classmates, and I was frequently "picked on." Harvard was more cosmopolitan, however, and I found a niche there.

My father died bankrupt and in debt; he had lost everything in the crash of 1929. My mother worked as a nurse to finance our educations, and all three of us (one brother, one sister, and I) got scholarships. In the first fall mid-term at Andover I was flunking four courses, so my scholarship was reduced, and I had to work in the kitchen. Starting from a low base, I won the improvement prize.

At Andover I was a socialist and a pacifist. I gave up my socialism when I saw how the socialist world functioned, but my pacifism has stayed with me. Since World War II was coming on, I debated my fellow Harvard students, who gradually slipped into believing that only a war would stop Hitler.

I wanted to be an accountant, like my father, but Harvard College offered no courses in accounting. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania would allow me credit for my undergraduate work in economics, so I could get the MBA in one year if only I had studied accounting principles first. I was sure I would be drafted before the two years for an MBA at Harvard. So, during my senior year at Harvard I walked in to Boston University three times a week, to study first-year accounting. While I was at Wharton (Penn), Pearl Harbor occurred, and the United States was at war. (See TQE #96 for my experience with the draft.)

Not being in the war, for the next several summers I was on the faculty of AFSC high-school institutes in international affairs, where I called square dances, gave lectures in the economics that I thought I understood, and led the singing.

For two summers after the war, I led student groups to Europe for the Experiment in International Living. Living in families in France and Germany, I felt more internationally-minded than ever. We traveled on troopships made available to students (no airplanes or regular ships in those days), where I participated in an AFSC "orientation" program. I called square dances, lectured on the economics of postwar Europe, put out the ship's newspaper, and (on east-west trips, which we called the "occidentation" program) taught the Irish how to play baseball with a ping pong paddle and tennis ball ("over the rail was out"). I also taught European students how to use the subways in New York. ("What is a nickel?")

In a tent camp in Paris that year (1948), I met Robin Roberts, who was about to spend several years in Quaker service. At an AFSC reunion at Westtown School four years later, we re-met and were married five months after that (May 31, 1953). Her service with Quakers was the strongest point in making me believe she would be a good mother to our children (which indeed she was, and still is!).

After finishing my course work and taking my prelims at Harvard, I taught accounting for a year at the University of Buffalo. All my friends in Buffalo were married, and I found no single women. Since I was looking for a wife, when I returned to Cambridge for my oral PhD exam, I asked my professors about working in Washington.

My Harvard professors helped me become a research economist at the International Monetary Fund. There I was put in charge of the training program, which included national income accounting. I wrote my first book, Economic Accounting, to explain how national income accounting employed the same principles as business accounting. It happened to be seen by professors at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. They invited me to teach a new course on economic development for U.S. foreign aid officers. One of these officers invited me to Bolivia as economic advisor. "Quit teaching all that blackboard stuff," he said. "Come and see what the real world is like." From then until retirement, I divided my time between foreign assignments and university teaching.

Thus began my international career, which took me (on longer assignments) to Bolivia, Kenya, Philippines, and Mexico (all with Robin and children), and on shorter ones to lecture in universities in all the Latin American capitals except Cuba, plus several in Africa, and in the Philippines and China. These will be the subjects of future chapters. Economic Accounting, translated into Spanish, was used widely in Latin American universities, where I was frequently invited to lecture (in Spanish). I also finished several more books, and these got me other assignments abroad. Finally – via the University of Pittsburgh – I moved to the University of Colorado, where I taught for thirty years and took early retirement at age 71. That was twelve years ago, and I still teach one course ("Global Issues in Economics").

At a conference in Córdoba, Argentina, Ken Galbraith of Harvard and I were the speakers. I argued that inflation was robbery, but Galbraith said a little inflation was necessary for prosperity. So I told the audience that Galbraith favored a little robbery. However, he was speaking in English and I in Spanish, so he did not understand me.

All of our five children brought us great joy. The saddest part of our marriage was the death of our eldest daughter, Cindy, of stomach cancer, in 1992. But our other four — Judy, Ken, Carolyn, and Larry — keep on bringing us joy.

In 1955 the American Friends Service Committee asked me to review their new pamphlet on Latin America. I was shocked. It contained serious errors and exaggerations, all biased against the United States and multinational corporations. I asked them to withhold publication until we could talk it over. They would not do that, but they invited me to Philadelphia to consult anyway. I could make no headway with them. Then, and on later occasions, I became aware that unprogrammed Quakers had turned themselves from a religion into a religion-cum-politics and seemed to be an adjunct of the Democratic and Green parties.

I wrote several articles for Friends Journal, Quaker Life, and Friends Bulletin on this sad evolution, but again with negative (if any) responses. For awhile, FJ asked me if they might invite a Friend to "answer" me whenever I submitted an article. Being in favor of free discussion, I could not say "No," but I did wonder why they did that only with me. I traveled around the country to speak at Yearly Meetings, as well as in New Zealand and Australia. My economics was rejected by Quakers everywhere, even though I was pretty mainstream among economists. Quakers, it seemed, did not want to learn economics; they sought only an economist who agreed with them, and an economist who did that was hard to find.

Whenever I spoke at a Quaker gathering, it was because I was traveling under concern. Never once was I invited as a speaker, as I had been frequently while in grad school. In the meantime, I had many invitations to speak at universities at home and abroad and for free-enterprise organizations such as Cato Institute, George Mason University, and Acton Institute.

I have often been told: "Quakers are political. We are for peace, and we opposed slavery." True, and I agree. But when we extend our "religion" to include minimum wage, recycling, same-sex marriage, damnation for multinational corporations, and much more, we have gone too far. Those who disagree with us are not comfortable with us, so they take their Inner Lights elsewhere. My own Meeting has approved same-sex marriages, and I concur. But we have also lobbied Congress to force others to behave as we do, and doing that is not traditionally Quaker.

Friends who agree with same-sex marriages (as I do) should gain their spiritual insights in Meeting and take their political consciences to lay organizations.

If Quakers rejected my economics, however, they did not reject me. Nor did I reject Quakers. I still believed in the three fundamentals of unprogrammed Quakerism: that of God in every person (the Inner Light), the Meeting for Worship, and Sense-of-the-Meeting decisions in business. So I began to write an on-line journal, The Classic Liberal Quaker, to teach Quakers some economics. Later it was re-named The Quaker Economist. The first responses from readers were negative, but as time went on they became increasingly positive. Although the main organizations of Quakers (American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation) have never accepted my economics, I believe that ultimately they will. Why? Because that is the way the world is going. Too bad we cannot be the leaders we once were, instead of the followers we now are.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson


Readers' Comments

You once asked me a semi-rhetorical question "Why do I remain in the Society of Friends?" One answer is that within the Friends' world I have met so many marvelous and interesting people, even the many with whom I seem to be even more politically and economically out of step than you are. In your case, I don't even have to add this disclaimer, since we are very much in agreement about quite a few things.

— Dick Bellin, Washington (DC) Friends Meeting


I enjoyed your piece.

— Daniel Klein, Department of Economics, Santa Clara (CA) University


Jack, are you going to come out with a second volume of your letters?

— Pat Schenck

The Author Replies:

I am thinking of an autobiographical volume to contain the present series only. I will not do all the Letters, since the previous volume did not sell well. Thanks, Jack


This piece is titled "Spiritual" journey and yet it does not speak of the ways in which the spirit has guided you. Rather, it seems a chronological account of your career as an economist, not as a spiritual being. Can you let your readers better understand what insights were granted to you to lead you to align your views with accepted world economic thought rather than be led from the teachings of Jesus?

— Nancy Bratrud, Duluth (MN) Friends Meeting.

The Author Replies:

I usually do not answer readers' responses, even if I disagree. However, this one hit a sensitive spot. I believe that what is "spiritual" and what is not should be decided by the person concerned, not by someone else. Thank you, Jack


Thanks for sharing your story of personal discovery. Knowing the context that shaped your economic and spiritual beliefs helps me understand and evaluate those beliefs for myself. Your story is inspirational and humbling at the same time. Inspirational because it shows what a career (or a life) based on principles can accomplish. Humbling because it is clear that luck plays not a small role. It seems you have had more than a little bit of luck, but more importantly, you’ve had the good sense to recognize and snatch up that luck as it came along.

— Mark Milotich, Zurich, Switzerland


It looks wonderful as an official Letter too (as well as a chapter in your life). Did you see Signe Wilkinson's article in this month's Friends Journal? I loved it.

— Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.


Thanks for sharing your spiritual story in TQE#97. I would like to have a better understanding of your economic theory. Suggestions?

— Chaplain Chandy, Chicago (IL) Friends Meeting.

The Author Replies:

You might try my book, The Moral Economy, a nontechnical description of the world economy that I favor. It is out of print, but university libraries have it. Also, amazon.com has five copies (as of now).


Thank you again for your willingness to "share your story." It helps me have some context for your ideas and as a result I can be more open to them, even when I don't understand or agree with them. Also, twenty years after you were in France and Germany leading groups with the Experiment in International Living, I went to Germany, then France through the Experiment, which was a turning point in my life. Thanks also for mentioning our daily messages. Several people have already contacted us and asked to be including on the list.

— Cyndy Blumenthal, Gwynedd (PA) Friends Meeting.


I recently attended the Triennial of the Friends World Committee for Consultation in New Zealand. Wonderful to share so much light with Friends from so many different cultures and beliefs. But I experienced the same rejection of any desire to understand economics in the group. Great efforts are made to bridge the theological differences between the faith of unprogrammed meetings and that of our pastoral and evangelical believers. But when I expressed disagreement on the more "political" concepts that are commonly expressed, it seemed this kind of diversity is much less welcome. Some of these concepts where I am called to see a different view include that government provided health care is assumed to be superior, that wealthy economies derive their wealth by "exploiting" poor economies, that corporations are bad, that governmental intervention does not create negative unintended consquences, and that market based profit incentives causes more harm than good.

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake City Meeting.


It disappoints me to think that your views have often been rejected out of hand by Friends. Even honest disagreement requires consideration. I'm glad you've been able to keep your mind open when others have not granted you the same courtesy. It inspires me to do the same. My grandfather was a Quaker and an economist. I would have been curious to hear his related thoughts, but he died many years before I was born.

— Michael Jack,  Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.)


Jack, you write lucidly and sparsely--like our old friend Keynes and more recently Milton Freedman.  So  much  for the kudos.   I have been having second thoughts about the supposed benefits of Globalism and the multinational  corporations.  In the March Harper's there is an essay titled The Collapse of Globalism on which I would appreciate your opinion.  Basically what John Ralston Saul  says is the the increment of wealth whcih free trade creates in a wealthy society may bring with it  social costs which are more of a minus than the  plus of the profits which enrich the top executives in the multinationals, and to a lesser extent the shareholders.  The  nation may decide that it prefers to make decisions on where to  put its resources  to maximize satisfaction of the citizens  desires.   That however gets you back around to  who makes the decisions, and if we elect  Bush  again god forbid  we all have a problem.

— Dick Wolf


Note: With a volume of emails greater than I can handle, I am sorry not to answer questions asked of me. — Jack


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Publisher and Editorial Board

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

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.


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