David Brat’s economic dashboard is more like a moral compass.
The Randolph-Macon College economics professor who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor yesterday in a Virginia Republican primary sees the world’s largest economy as having reached that pinnacle primarily because of ethics and values.
“The one source of economic growth is virtue,” Brat, 49, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2012. “It is not property rights, not law or resources, but virtue.”
The intersection of ethics and economics is a theme that runs across Brat’s research, teaching and consulting, as well as an academic career that includes degrees in business, divinity and economics. His message resonated with Virginia Republicans, who handed him a victory over an incumbent seen as an ally of Wall Street.
In the general election in November, Brat’s rival will be another professor from the college: Democrat Jack Trammell, who teaches in the Sociology Department. The Republican-leaning district takes in part of Richmond and some of its suburbs.
Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Virginia, in 1996 and since 2005 has been chair of the Department of Economics and Business, according to his curriculum vitae posted on the school’s website. He teaches microeconomic theory, international economic development and public finance. There are more than 1,200 full-time students at the college, which was founded in 1830 and bills itself as the oldest United Methodist Church-affiliated college in the nation.
In his classes, Brat “ties in philosophy to everything,” especially the moral foundations of economic and governmental systems, said Sydney Jones, a 2010 graduate who was advised by Brat and co-wrote a research paper with him on the mortgage crisis and credit crunch.
“He had us learn about different philosophers, helped us connect things in a different way and understand why countries have different” outcomes, Jones, now a business development coordinator at a law firm in London, said in a phone interview.
Brat studied business administration as an undergraduate at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and earned his Master of Divinity at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He got his Ph.D. in economics at American University in Washington. His campaign website says he attends a Catholic church.
While morality and religion are central themes in his work, his research ranges across more idiosyncratic topics, from the moral foundations in Ayn Rand’s work to freshman retention rates among colleges to student test scores in Eastern Europe.
Brat said in a 2004 paper that economists are “slow to acknowledge perhaps the most powerful institution in Western civilization: religion.”
European economies prospered over the past four centuries under the influence of Protestantism, he said in the paper titled, “Economic Growth and Institutions: The Rise and Fall of the Protestant Ethic?”
“Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant-led contest for religious and political power and I will show you a country that is rich today,” he wrote.
“I predict that it is a democracy, has high human capital endowments, a parliament that is independent, an insulated judicial branch, a fairly independent central bank, high marks in political liberty and civil rights, high investment in women’s human capital, high levels of innovation and productivity, a mature system of property rights protection,” he said.
Brat said at a gathering of Republicans in January that he should replace Cantor because the U.S. economy, labor markets and financial system are “broken,” according to the Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville. Even so, he added that the U.S. remains “the greatest nation on the face of the earth” because of its “combination of ethics and economics.”
He also disputed the rival campaign calling him a “liberal economist,” saying it’s untrue. “My colleagues at the college have wanted to fire me the past five years for bringing in conservative free market economists,” Brat told the Culpeper County Republican Committee, the paper reported. He didn’t respond to requests from Bloomberg News for an interview.
Brat’s research isn’t widely known. His work doesn’t appear among the 2,000 most-cited economists in the world, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Cantor, a seven-term House veteran, was an ally for Wall Street on issues ranging from the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program to supporting the Export-Import Bank. Those connections also made him vulnerable to a challenge from the small-government Tea Party movement that emerged after Congress passed a bank bailout in response to the 2008 financial crisis.