Category: Economics

long-spoons“How can we explain this emporiophobia—a fear of markets—given the overwhelming evidence that such institutions provide the greatest wealth, health and happiness for humankind?” When economics professor Paul Rubin asked that question last December he answered by saying that we need to shift the metaphor of markets from “competition” to “cooperation.”

Cooperation isn’t just more important in the economic sphere—it’s also more common. We cooperate with everyone involved in making all the products we buy and sell, millions of people we’ll never know.

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This discussion may seem semantic, but words have meaning and power. People would feel much more favorably toward a “cooperative economy” than a “competitive economy.”

To emphasize the cooperative aspects of the market in order to provide a more accurate perspective requires that we apply new metaphors and symbols when explaining how markets work. A story I believe can be especially helpful is the “parable of the long spoons.” Caritas Internationalis created a video about the allegory that brilliantly emphasizes the utility of cooperation.
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Today at Ethika Politika, I caution against the sort of scapegoating that justifies ideologies at the expense of human effort:

Do you support capitalism? Socialism? Distributism? Something else? Wonderful. What does that look like among the mess of market forms that actually constitute the economy you participate in every day? Rather than criticizing those policies that fall short of your saintly ideal or align too closely with your Hitler, what ones constitute a first step in the right direction for you? And why? And what are the actual consequences, intended or otherwise, that may come about?

While there is a place for simply outlining one’s ideal, if we wish to actually do some good ourselves, we need to get our hands dirty in the mire of material reality. Gnostic scorn for the concrete and this-worldly boasts a broad road with a wide gate, but it is the narrow road of reality that leads to life; not only for ourselves, but for the common good; not just for this world, but for the kingdom of God.

In his recent book Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action), Jordan Ballor begins with a similar call: (more…)

French economist Thomas Piketty

This summer’s issue of The City, which includes an article by myself on Orthodoxy and ordered liberty, opens with a symposium of five articles on “The Question of Inequality.” These include two articles on Pope Francis, two on French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and one on the Bible.

Having recently written a two part article on the subject for the Library of Law & Liberty (here and here), I took copious notes as the topic is an ongoing subject of research.

In order to recommend the symposium to our readers here, who no doubt have interest in the topic, I compiled the following highlights:

Josiah Neeley, “What Does Bono Know That the Pope Doesn’t?”

Argentina is now the world’s only “formerly developed” country.

[E]ven in the United States a great deal of inequality is the result not of the heroic innovator but of government favoritism.

Donald Devine, “Does Pope Francis Hate Capitalism?”

[B]y 1910 … Argentina’s per capita Gross Domestic Product [was] number ten in the world.

Peron’s Argentina [in the mid-twentieth century] was perhaps the first comprehensive welfare state…. [And] the result has been a much poorer country.

The actual experience of markets [contra Pope Francis] is hardly autonomy. The U.S., one of the freer countries, has 300,000 regulations.

[B]etween 2005 and 2010 the total number of poor in the world actually fell by half a billion people as trickle down prosperity lifted millions from absolute destitution.

Today’s reality is the over-regulatory welfare state, not wild markets. (more…)

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, September 4, 2014
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Imagine if a scientist was able to create technology that turns corn into cars. As economist Bryan Caplan explains, we already have such an innovation: foreign trade.

Caplan argues that foreign trade is a form of technology that lowers our cost of living and increases our standard of living. In fact, claims Caplan, from a broader perspective trade is even better than most technology since it not only makes us better off, it makes foreigners better off too.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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City Summer 2014In the most recent issue of The City, I have an essay on Orthodoxy and ordered liberty. I argue that Orthodox theological anthropology, which distinguishes between the image and likeness of God and two forms of freedom corresponding to them, fits well with the classical understanding of ordered liberty.

In particular, I examine these freedoms with regards to the family, religious liberty, political liberty, and economic liberty, arguing that the Orthodox ascetic tradition has much to offer to modern Christian social thought with regards to how best to order the freedom we have by virtue of being created after the image of God toward that freedom from passion and sin that finds its fulfillment in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of interest to our readers here, with regards to economic liberty, I write,

We are created with a capacity for freedom, autexousio, to be used for the purpose of the moral freedom of theosis: eleutheria. Thus, just as we ought to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices to God (cf. Romans 12:1), so also we are to offer up God’s creation to him through our labor. God has given us the earth in order “to tend and keep it” in a paradis[ai]cal state (Genesis 2:15). Thus, acknowledging … our propensity for failure, we nevertheless have a duty to make of God’s creation what we can, imitating the creativity of God and exercising the dominion he gave us (Genesis 1:26).

We must, then, have liberty in society to freely cultivate the resources of the earth for the sake of the higher good of self-sacrificing love. Helen Rhee affirms in Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, the consistent patristic teaching of both the affirmation of private property rights and our moral duties to use our property for the good of others (what is known in the West as the “universal destination of goods”)….

You can read the full article online here.

And while you’re at it, take the time to subscribe to The City. It’s free and published in print and online three times a year. Subscribe here.

fast-food-strikeWould you be in favor of a pay increase of 107 percent for your current job?

Most of us would be thrilled at having our pay more than double, and would readily support such a change. Imagine if all that was required was to vote for your industry to become unionized. Who wouldn’t support unionization if it resulted in a bigger paycheck?

But what if the change came with one caveat: If the pay increase were approved you’d not only lose your job, you’d no longer be qualified to work in the same industry. Would you still support the pay increase if it cost you your job?

That’s the choice a lot of food-service workers face—though few understand the true implications of their decision. Most fast-food workers going on strike for higher wages simply believe they are deserving of more money and aren’t aware of the basic economic factors that could cause them to become unemployable.
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save-to-winPeople who play the lottery with an income of less than $20,000 annually spent an average of $46 per month on lottery tickets. That comes out to more than $550 per year and it is nearly double the amount spent in any other income bracket.

Those who have the least spend an inordinate percentage of their income every year on lottery tickets (estimates vary from 4-9 percent). Yet while it is irrational for those in poverty to waste their limited resources on a one in 176 million chance, there is something almost rational in the reasoning for doing so. In 2012, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted that,

For the desperately poor, lotteries perform a role not unlike the obverse of insurance. Rather than pay a small sum of money in exchange for the guarantee of protection that you’ll need in the future, you pay a small sum of money in exchange for the small probability that you’ll win money to help your lot right away. It is, for lack of a better term, a kind of aspirational insurance.

But what if the poor could pay a small sum to themselves (in the form of savings) and still reap the “aspirational insurance” benefits of the lottery? As the New York Times reports, some credit unions and non-profits are doing just that:
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ISSchk0825_280More than 100 million Americans are getting some form of “means-tested” welfare assistance, reports Investor’s Business Daily:

The Census Bureau found 51 million on food stamps at the end of 2012 and 83 million on Medicaid, with tens of millions of households getting both. Another 4 million were on unemployment insurance.

The percentage of American households on welfare has reached 35%. If we include other forms of government assistance such as Medicare and Social Security, almost half of all households are getting a check or other form of government assistance. The tipping point is getting closer and closer.

So much is shocking and dismaying about these numbers. How is it that the number of recipients and the price tag for many of these programs kept skyrocketing though the recession officially ended in 2009? Normally, you’d expect welfare caseloads to fall in a recovery as the unemployment rate dips, but this time welfare participation keeps expanding.

Read more . . .

On Tuesday, the Acton Institute welcomed Ron Blue to the Mark Murray Auditorium to deliver an address on the topic of “Perpetual Generosity.” In his lecture, Blue draws from his nearly 50 years in the financial services world, with 35 of those working almost exclusively with Christian couples, in order to lay out some basic principles and strategies for developing and wisely distributing wealth. Over this time, he has observed that those who are consistently generous over the long term exhibit three characteristics that have nothing to do with money: contentment, confidence, and the ability to communicate with each other, their children, and advisors if they use them.

Watch Blue’s full lecture below:

lego-people“Can you explain that important economic concept using Legos?”

Apparently, someone must have said that to Richard Reeves, an economist at the Brookings Institution economist, because he’s made a brief video using Legos to visualize social mobility.

There are two reasons I really appreciate this video. First, I love to see important economic issues explained in an accessible and entertaining manner. Second, as I’ve repeatedly said to anyone who will listen, social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than focusing income inequality, a topic that gets far too much attention nowadays.

The one drawback to the video is that it’s far too pessimistic. Yes, social mobility is still a huge problem. But the video makes clear, that social mobility is possible for almost all people. That has not been true for most of human history and it is not true in most parts of the world today.

Also, I am far less concerned with whether a person can go from the bottom quintile to the top as I am with going from the bottom quintile to the middle. Like many Americans, I was born in the bottom quintile and worked my way to the middle quintiles. The fact that I’m unlikely to ever join the top quintile is of absolutely no importance to may life. None at all. What we should care about is whether people can get out of poverty and flourish economically, not whether they can join Beyonce and Jay-Z in the billionaire’s club.

But those quibbles aside, I’m grateful this video is helping to spread the message about the importance of social mobility.