Reprinted with permission from the Anglican Theological Review. For a list of the books discussed in this essay click Read More at the end of the article.
By Gawain de Leeuw
Last year, a member of my vestry asked me to consider purchasing Fair Trade coffee beans to serve during fellowship hour after our Sunday service. The workers who cultivated the beans owned the farm and shared the profits cooperatively. The beans were organic. Although it cost more than Folgers, a greater amount of the income would go directly to the farmers. In essence, “charity” was added as a fifty-cent tax to the exchange between consumer and producer.
Fortunately, such a tax is affordable where I live, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, in a zip code that has an average annual income twice that of other Americans. My first car, a beat up Honda Civic, was such an eyesore that a parishioner gave me a used Volvo. The disparities in our county are still apparent: in our soup kitchen we serve fifty individuals every Sunday, generally men, some undocumented, some working, and some insane, a few of whom I employ with petty cash, putting money in the underground economy.
We have a small endowment that balances the budget. From our resources we purchase services from local vendors. A few parishioners, such as our resident architect, assist the church for supernatural rewards. Volunteer labor, however, still constitutes the church’s
everyday work. The thrift shop raises the most money of any single income-generating source. It is run by a handful of women in their late 70s, who ran the church in the days when it depended on voluntary labor.
The economic work of the church is not merely about church growth and management. Economic exchanges are an intrinsic, practical part of church life from paying the plumber to offering praise and thanksgiving. Intangible incentives, such as denominational loyalty
and the merits of regular church attendance, lose to the offerings of mega churches, sports, and entertainment. Churches develop property to finance their congregational life, selling services: after school programs; the opportunity to volunteer and satisfy school community
service credit; or rooms to pay for the daily costs of maintaining the building. Clergy negotiate packages with employees, ask overworked parishioners to volunteer, compete with soccer on Sunday morning, and discern what sorts of investments to make. Churches also may participate in the underground economy through their work with individuals who are poor. If part of our mission is to ameliorate the precariousness that engulfs most of the world, or even understand how we work in our communities, we must understand the rules that govern economic analysis.
Although I consider it a brave choice to link the direction of mission, as the Presiding Bishop has done, with a clear set of economic goals, I recognize the sensibility that the United Nations represents Satan and that ending poverty is secondary to supernatural warfare. But I insist that we do not advocate any particular ideological love of the UN or dismiss a supernatural worldview. It is enough to say that for the church to be credible, it merits taking contemporary economics seriously.
Fortunately, economists have begun to examine incentives much more broadly, in a way that would be comprehensible to Christian ethicists. As theologians and mystics have explored the limits of desire, economists have begun to broaden their understanding of incentives, expanding a sense of the “good” to include personal “happiness,” “freedom,” and “externalities” including the environment. The role of incentives and the contours of desire have been more accurately mapped, with interesting consequences for clergy and theologians. Economists now incorporate research from other disciplines, with some insightful consequences.
I suspect my own suspicion of economic thinking is shared by other clergy. We are trained to be skeptical about the overarching claims that the market makes about the rational person—we know people as sinners, as irrational, as gluttons, eager to eat and consume more without thinking. We are less practical than economists, who prefer to tinker than transform. Priests envision, however, an egalitarian kingdom where the lamb lies down with the lion. There will be no more monarchies, save Jesus. Ethicists will argue that, contrary to the protestations of economists who believe that their discipline is value-free, thinking economically creates meaning around money, implicitly fragmenting the various relationships that make up society. “Economic” thinking ignores our environment, and is clumsy in computing intangibles such as social order, feelings, religious values, and beauty. It disorients and dislocates culture, hypothesizing an economic man—a consumer and producer—who is unrecognizable to those of us who encounter the daily irrationality that makes up human behavior. This man is a mythical creation that trumps all other descriptions of the human person, a person full of unlimited desire. Although the market effectively organizes the system of cooperation that enables manufacturing, sales, and services, with some public goods and relationships it falls short.
Our economic choices matter. As globalization continues in its intensity and speed, churches seek effective ways to articulate and frame their roles as international consumers (or distributors) through mission. With the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding
Bishop, and the General Convention resolutions D022 and A010, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have taken center stage as a conversation partner shaping the mission of the Episcopal Church.
Although the MDGs might look, at first glance, to be instructions for charitable work, the many reasons for such work aren’t always obvious. How do markets or charity assist or hinder our ability to reach our goals? And what are these goals? Anglicans, in particular, have been well served by theologians who understand economics, in particular Archbishop William Temple, who gave a theological justification for the modern welfare state; the layman Paul Heyne, professor of economics at the University of Washington, who clarified the positive moral nature of capitalism; and most recently, Kathryn Tanner, who has given a very informative and useful framework for understanding the relationship between theology and economics.
The central truth in economics, and in capitalism, is that incentives work. Clergy would do well to understand the incentives in their own parishes. Economics is, first, a tool that is useful for explaining these incentives. The economist Steven Levitt, with help from the writer Stephen Dubner, demonstrates how incentives work, for example, by exploring the cheating patterns of sumo wrestlers and teachers. Through the story of a bagel entrepreneur who would leave bagels in offices—people would be trusted to pay for them by putting money in a basket—we learn what might create environments of dishonesty (morale and size seem to have important repercussions, but 87 percent of people seem to be honest). They also reveal the incentives in withholding or sharing information by real estate agents and online daters.
Levitt helps us perceive the limits of what passes for conventional wisdom. The decline in crime over the last ten years, for example, has more to do with abortions than with excellent policing; and “perfect parenting” has little to do with parental obsessions, and more to do with who the parents are (thus, perhaps, “why worry?” Jesus asks). Levitt demonstrates how we are poor at assessing risk.
Levitt isn’t taking moral stances. He simply reveals connections and incentives. Finding the right incentives and correlations is the way to understand our decisions and consequences accurately. The help for us, in churches and not-for-profits, is that incentives include more
Incentives might, for example, include happiness. In Happiness, the economist Richard Layard searches for why wealthy societies are no happier than they were fifty years ago, even though living standards have doubled. Layard examines the literature on human motivations. He discovers, for example, that extra income matters more to those who have less income. Ten dollars will bring greater happiness to someone very poor than to a millionaire. Losing hurts more than gaining feels good; that millionaire still feels bad about giving that ten dollars away. We compare ourselves to our immediate neighbors rather than fifteenth-century royalty or to a community living halfway around the world. Our values change; what is important to us in our twenties is different than what we value in our fifties. And we are inconsistent in our desires.
Layard suggests that true happiness means enjoying aspects of our lives without comparing them to any other. What are the root aspects of happiness? Family, work, community, health, freedom. He shows how we are easily misled by television, which creates discontent. And he demonstrates that social trust decreases where there are great differences between the classes.
There is ultimately one common strand that can make us happy: “it is love,” Layard says (p. 199), concluding that we need a common good. Happiness means being a “pilgrim” who “fights the evils in the world out there and cultivates the spirit from within” (p. 235). It is not the hedonic treadmill, but relationships, that matter. This should sound familiar to Christians.
The hedonic treadmill is referred to as the “insidious cycle of work and spend” (chap. 5, pp. 107-138) by Juliet Schor. In The Overworked American, Professor Schor explains the history of how modern workers are working more. She illustrates how our urge to consume is robbing us of time. Is this simply our fault, our inability to control our desires? Against those who argue that workers are getting what they want, she argues that workers “want what they get” (p. 127). We thoughtlessly spend what we have.
Schor discusses the incentives employers have to keep hours long and the reasons employees work those hours. Like Layard, she illustrates that the perpetual consumer is not easily satisfied. She argues that “Americans need time for unpaid work, for work they call their own. They need the time to give to others. . . . Today many haven’t got the time to care” (p. 160). People are too tired from their jobs to participate in their communities, preferring resting and television to activity. She advocates a “right to leisure” which seems a lot like what God demanded of us on the Sabbath. There seems to be an implicit reminder for us: the market is made for humanity, humanity is not made for the market.
The rationale for the Millennium Development Goals is explored in Jeffrey Sachs’s book The End of Poverty. Using personal vignettes, historical analysis, and economic data, he demonstrates how the right social investments can end extreme poverty. Sachs examines his own participation as an advisor to governments, candidly describing the
myopic decisions of donor institutions. He cuts through the myths—that Africa’s corruption is the main problem, that enough has been given already. If anything, we have been miserly and neglectful. He makes the case that small investments by us can save millions of lives a year. If we made deliberate, public investments in different sorts of capital—including health, machinery, infrastructure, agriculture, legal institutions, and education—impoverished households could break the poverty trap that inhibits development. By providing primary education, proper nutrition, anti-malarial nets, safe drinking water, and paved roads, we would offer more freedom. All this would cost $110 per person in the developing world—peanuts to us, but a grand sum to the poor—per year until 2015. But for donor nations, this is deemed to be too much. Sachs offers a comprehensive understanding of what the MDGs are, their practical basis in policy and data. What we lack is the political will.
Amartya Sen offers the philosophical foundations of development economics, describing development as freedom—a precursor to markets. Sen responds to those who would make economic wealth, as measured by imperious international banks, the main benchmark for
development. Economic freedom and social freedom cannot be neatly disentangled, Sen demonstrates. Sen describes freedom carefully. Freedom is both the means and the end of development. Not merely instrumental for wealth, it is of intrinsic value (p. 37). Poverty
is not freedom because it is deprivation of capability, where people cannot lead lives that they themselves value. He then examines how famines, fairness, education, and basic health came before broad economic growth as examples of types of freedom. Sachs emphasizes that investment in public institutions will result in greater wealth, whereas Sen demonstrates how this investment develops freedom. Sen also describes how women’s literacy and work are crucial to establishing freedom to live lives that women will value.
Communities experience many sort of exchanges, some of which are not easily measured. Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, a sociologist, explores how the inner-city poor make economic exchanges in an underdeveloped neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Through the
lens of major players in the underground economy—the “hustler,” the “preacher,” the “entrepreneur”—he explains how these economies survive their own poverty. He details hiring “off the books,” exchanges for security and public space, and why people decide not to move out of the underground economy.
Venkatesh’s book reveals how the dimensions of human feeling and relationship become a part of economic exchanges. “Hustlers,” for example, men we might call “squatters” or more pejoratively “the homeless,” have clear roles in the local economy and create exchanges (through offering safety) in public spaces. Clergy provide their own services: connections to political power and mediation skills. They may retrieve stolen property, mend a broken relationship between a pimp and prostitute, and prevent a gang battle (p. 259).
The urban poor make choices to keep their public spaces safe and food on their table. The shady economy brings goods and resources into the home through the available field of social relationships. But by creating dependency upon each other, resources run out in the short term, and violence becomes part of the exchange. The poor accommodate and fear underground work, understanding that, eventually, the loan shark must get paid. The violence is a consequence of being abandoned and marginalized by the rest of the economy.
How would we create a political environment that would be sympathetic to investing in poor neighborhoods? Benjamin Friedman’s answer to the question is that greater prosperity leads to moral progress. When we believe our lives are improving, our tolerance and generosity increases. When our economy is deteriorating and there is greater economic disparity, intolerance increases. Arguing that “economic growth matters because it enables the majority of a society’s population to feel better off compared to benchmarks that are still recent enough to be meaningful,” he derives his argument from another insight: we adapt to our incomes. Growth, which may bring better health care, more vacations, or larger salaries, makes our lives happier because we have more hopeful futures. Our satisfaction depends less on the level of income and more on how it changes for the better (pp. 82-83).
Friedman provides a welcome corrective to an anti-global sensibility. Advanced globalization may foster cooperation and force people into recognizing shared interests (p. 390). He doesn’t offer easy answers to the challenge to both increasing the freedoms of the developing world and ensuring environmental sustainability, stating plainly that markets and policy must work together, especially as policy helps account for the externalities that markets are clumsy in calculating.
Friedman ends his book by arguing that governments promote growth. He demonstrates how law and policy are essential for markets, protecting the law-abiding entrepreneur, and helping to reward initiative. By protecting movement and rights and discouraging crime and corruption, governments encourage growth. Friedman advocates repealing the recent US tax cuts and restoring the estate tax to restore fiscal sensibility and investing in human capital. America’s greatest need, he ends, is to restore the idea that people are moving forward (p. 436). Even saying “enough” to our consumptive patterns presumes that saying “enough” means our environmental economy will improve.
Christians can easily cobble together an ethic that affirms the portrait offered by these diverse economists. Christians especially challenge economists to examine the limits (or the lack thereof) of desire. Standard economic thinking, while considering itself valueless, implicitly frees desire from any moral constraints. Timothy Gorringe, who is antagonistic to capitalism, argues that it is fundamentally predicated on human inequality (p. 48). He states, “the only ultimate satisfaction is life together, in peace and justice, with others. The market needs not only to forget this, but to cause others to forget it” (p. 153). The market, as described traditionally, rewards greed, ignoring competing incentives such as community, sabbath, or other values.
Does economic thinking—or capitalism—implicitly reward greed? Isn’t greed “good”? Christian theologians would argue that greed corrodes social exchanges. But we should be careful: desiring luxury objects, like John Lobb shoes or fancy cars, does not implicitly indicate greed. But an economy that lets greed run rampant destroys the community that has made these goods possible. Desiring them in opposition to human needs is intuitively analogous to idolizing them. It is such idolization, not the desire itself, that is at the root of Christian ambivalence toward accumulating wealth. Greed illustrates a culture’s narcissism, because commodities, rather than relationships, identify the self (Schweiker, p. 267).
Mark C. Taylor is sympathetic to markets, holding them almost in awe, as he describes the way markets and exchange have become infinitely complex. Confidence Games explores money as sign, unpacking its use in a virtual world, examining the relationship between meaning and money. How does money become light within the power of the internet? What are the consequences of moving money around instantaneously? Disrupting easy interpretations of work and reward that are part of the capitalist myth, in his world “casinos, it seems, were more responsible than banks” (p. 175). “As the economy evolves from level to level, it becomes increasingly spectral until it is virtually nothing but the play of floating signifiers endlessly recycling in recursive loops that are unmoored from what was once called the ‘real’ economy. The real, however . . . is temporarily repressed and eventually returns to disrupt what seemed to replace it” (p. 180). Is money real? Or is it merely an idea, a consensual illusion? This is the specter.
Examining the growth of Yahoo and the failure of Long-Term Capital Management, Taylor demonstrates how the financial world makes people more interrelated and interconnected. The consequence is a world that is always moving from chaos to order to chaos. He states, “insecurity is unavoidable. In such a world, to call investments ‘securities’ is to misunderstand the dynamics of markets” (p. 301). Taylor reveals how the idea that investors are rational and markets operate efficiently is, in effect, a “religious vision in which the market is a reasonable God providentially guiding the world to the Promised Land where redemption finally becomes possible.” Not that Taylor opposes such a vision. His is one that is virtual, redemption against endless, eternal life.
Risk, uncertainty and insecurity are pulses of life . . . For the canny player, life is not a crapshoot but a game of poker. Since one is never sure when the chips can be redeemed, the best strategy is to keep the game going as long as possible. In the final analysis, the problem is to learn to live without redemption in a world where the interplay of light and darkness creates infinite shades of difference, which are inescapably disruptive, overwhelmingly beautiful and infinitely complex. (p. 331).
Such a vision makes the Christian vocabulary of “eternal life” comprehensible in this networked world. Still, it says little about being on the margins, about those struggling for food, or about the unlucky who do not operate in the virtual world.
Taylor’s ability to connect high finance, art, and architecture is dazzling. He illuminates our current state of affairs, revealing how high finance is a religious enterprise. It seems that the God that inhabits the world of the internet and the financial markets is analogous to the fickle and volatile God of our Bible, one that is alive, that moves, that brings us together, if only virtually. Yet, I wonder if the world without redemption Taylor offers is also a world without hope, a VIP room in a casino where there are many out in the back alley, waiting to consume what is discarded by the anxious gamblers inside.
Kathryn Tanner’s smaller book Economy of Grace, however, is much more relevant. It is, in my view, the most important recent book on theological economics and ethics: brief, precise, and useful. Mark Taylor demonstrates the limits and the death-dealing of redemption.Tanner, however, offers a reflection on God’s grace and abundance. She describes the nature of property relations, contrasting a market view of owning property to one that understands God as loaning property. She explores the relationship to property and grace. God’s giving demonstrates his desire for us to be givers also. Tanner’s vision is firmly Trinitarian; our economic cooperation mirrors the noncompetitive relationship between the persons of the Trinity. We share ourselves for the good of others (p. 85).
She suggests a comprehensive yet simpler welfare arrangement: a distribution of the tax burden. The consequences of generosity, such as a strong welfare provision and universal health care, allow for more security among persons and less pressure on corporations. The benefits outweigh the costs of the imaginary moral hazards that fester in the conservative imagination.
Tanner recommends policies that could be justified to both corporations and the impoverished. After describing how International Keynsianism was sabotaged, she suggests that international institutions provide cash and investment to increase employment and demand, the same provisions that resulted in the West’s economic growth after World War II. I would also relax international intellectual property rights to encourage the development of indigenous technologies, and support international initiatives like the Tobin Tax, to discourage volatility.
By drawing attention to the internal tensions in our societies, we can choose between different sorts of capitalism, for the market, despite its ambitions, cannot address all social modes. As a nation, we can make decisions about employment, the tax rate, health care, social security, and regulation—those parts of our social life that help people live more happily. What matters is if we want to or not.
Economists, however, remind Christians that numbers matter. Appeals to beauty and charity, while commendable, require empirical defense. Christians must support programs that can be evaluated; and we must hold institutions accountable. It may seem that this dehumanizes the work of caring, but such rigor will clarify the complicated desires that human beings have. Although commodities may depersonalize aspects of our every day life, we could become better counters in measuring these costs. Counting admits that we make many value judgments, and that some choices will make us happier than others.
Christians do not oppose the creation of wealth. We merely insist that any conversation about wealth and the formation of our economy must attend to categories missed by some economists: freedom to make choices, better health (healing), education (wisdom), and economic security (social trust). Merit, incentives, and competition have a place in public life for the purpose of creating social value, but they do not replace the simple fact that we are responsible for each other.
I have not examined environmental economics at any great length. With economists such as Joshua Farley and intellectuals such as Bill McKibben, I have great hope that we can talk about what economic “costs” are, and what it means to say “enough.” Where capitalist
economics and Christian economics diverge is in the understanding of desire: capitalism does not make any judgment on whether desires are good or bad, merely allowing that more is more. This has consequences, also, in the way our culture is framing sexual ethics. Although conservatives distinguish between sex and property, isolating desires of status, wealth, and power from genital pleasure, this is empirically untenable. What is evident is that people make decisions about sex and sexuality for reasons not limited to pleasure or children. Fortunately, economists are creating more accurate models of human desire and social incentives, models that can find suitable examples in Scripture.
An examination of biblical ethics in the light of contemporary economic thought merits serious work. I wonder if the parables of Jesus reveal aspects of our economic life that had been formerly counted as social wisdom rather than as economic insight. Clearly the parable of the talents, “rendering unto Caesar,” and the laborers in the vineyard were examples of exchanges and incentives. How can these be described? Scripture tells unmediated stories about human desire for wealth and God. God blesses our wealth, but wealth alone does not bring redemption. Perhaps when Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he was not merely making a moral judgment. He summarized the economy of the world.
The Rev. Gawain de Leeuw is rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, White Plains, New York. He blogs occasionally at http://stbartswp.dioceseny.org/saltyvicar. This piece is reprinted with permission of Anglican Theological Review.
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