An Interview with Professor Glenn Loury

Dr. Glenn Cartman Loury was not always the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences in Brown’s economics department. His story opened on September 3rd, 1948 in the South Side of Chicago and began to unfold during the heat of the civil rights movement. Though he had what he describes as “a conventional Christian upbringing” which taught him to respect his church for its role in ef­fecting social change, he underwent an (also rather conven­tional) late-adolescent falling away from the faith. A scholar­ship to Northwestern University began his swift ascendancy into the field of economic theory, which earned him a BA in mathematics from Northwestern, a doctorate in econom­ics from MIT, and ultimately a position as the first tenured black professor in Harvard’s economics department.

Then, on June 4, 1987, just days after being nom­inated to the second highest position in the Department of Education under President Reagan, the married profes­sor was charged with assault after a “lover’s quarrel” with a 23-year-old woman. Six months later he was found in possession of marijuana and crack cocaine, on which he had become dependent. And then, after months of treat­ment, self-reflection, and conversation with one Reverend Ray Hammond, he emerged from the ordeal born again in Christ.

From the outset, Loury’s faith was no half-hearted self-help experiment. With Reverend Hammond and other members of Boston’s growing black upper-middle class, he and his wife (Linda Loury, then a professor of economics at Tufts) helped to found Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Their son Glenn Jr. was the church’s first baptized infant, and the family remained enthusiastically involved in that community for several years, with Glenn leading a Bible study for adults new to the faith.

His newfound Christianity could not help but shed new light on his work as well. As he makes clear in his 2005 speech, “On Being Christian and an Economist,” addressed to the Powell Center for Economic Literacy, conversion opened his eyes to the reality and necessity of spiritual transformation and to the inadequacy of any purely secular attempt to model human moral behavior. “Now a critic will come along,” he admits, “and say, ‘Ah, but you have simply failed fully to account for all of the costs and benefits. Doing so would permit one to include value commitments within a cost-benefit framework.’ I understand this argument but think that occasions will arise where, in the nature of the case, it is impossible in principle to do such a modified ac­counting.” He continues to emphasize this theme in person, as well, pointing out that while “tinkering” with carrots and sticks “can effectively influence behavior, moral transforma­tion fundamentally changes what someone is living his life for.” Incentives, in other words, can be used to change a person’s choices, but they can never change a person’s char­acter, since his character defines what sorts of offers can incentivize him in the first place. True change of character is the work of the Spirit.

Furthermore, his faith did not simply give him a more accurate understanding of his work as an economist but “recast the work as a calling.” “Any non-secular dispo­sition shapes the questions you ask, the sense of respon­sibility you have,” he points out, and in particular, no one could take the Gospel to heart without feeling “especially obligated to think about the poor.” And he has felt this obli­gation indeed, as even his secular colleagues have observed. Trained as “a first-rate technical economist with a mathe­matical bent,” writes Princeton economist Paul Krugman in his article “Glenn Loury’s Round Trip,” “personal problems temporarily derailed him in 1987 … [and he] has ended up writing and speaking about the political economy of race.” Following years of accusations that he had abandoned his background, Loury has since turned to working with unim­peachable directness on behalf of the black poor.

Even since his conversion, Loury’s faith has not remained intact. A few years ago, he and his wife stopped attending church altogether, and for several years he turned his back completely on the faith. When he relies on his own intuitions, he confesses, the truth-claims of the Gospel can be hard to swallow. Nevertheless, since Linda’s passing in September of last year, Glenn has begun praying and at­tending services again. Once more, crisis pushed him to realize that when it comes to some of life’s mysteries, as he says, “I’m just not that smart! This is not the kind of thing you just figure out!” In hindsight, he observes, “I’m not certain that I ever really lost my be­lief.” And though he’s still unsure what ex­actly will come of this new bout of spiritual­ity, he now renounces the personal and intel­lectual independence he had so prized as a younger man and places his trust in the faith of his fathers. “I’ll go where the Lord leads me,” he says.

Professor Loury is certainly not the only person on this campus with a wan­dering and wavering attitude toward his faith; editors of this very publication have sometimes wondered whether they were liv­ing Christian lives out of habit or comfort rather than genuine knowledge and love of the Lord. When asked for any words of advice or encouragement for those in similar shoes, he offers an anecdote from his days as the president of the Center for Race and Social Division at Boston University. His secretary there, a fellow congregant at Bethel AME, had died unexpectedly, and at her funeral Loury was repulsed by the feigned joy he saw on the faces of her family and friends. In a momentary collapse of faith he found himself turning to his friend Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest under whom he had served on the board of the Christian journal First Things, exclaiming, “but this is an inescapable tragedy! Are Christians cowards after all? Do we just go around affecting to be happy, hoping in vain that the act might one day turn true?” In response, Father Neuhaus just stuck out his finger at the professor and laughed. “Ah,” he replied, “you think you’re the only one? Even Christ had doubt! But there’s faith in that doubt, and more doubt inside that faith again, and you’ll end up with God in the end: you’ll see.”

Philip Trammell ’15 is a sophomore concentrating in economics.

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