Today over at Think Christian I explore how Christmas relates to material goods, and specifically how we are to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33).
Over at his blog, Peter Boettke writes, “The idle rich are never really idle in a free market economy.”
Now while we might want to distinguish between the rich and their riches, could it be that even in their consumption, conspicuous or otherwise, the rich are contributing to a rising tide that lifts all boats? Wesley Gant makes that related case over at Values & Capitalism: “Is It Possible to Waste Money?”
Gant seems to conclude that it isn’t possible to “waste” wealth. “Humans do not consume resources; they create and exchange them,” he says.
One might argue, however, as John Mueller does, that humans create and exchange things, but that they also consume and distribute them. It’s a truncated and reductionist economism that doesn’t do justice to that fuller picture. A basic problem with this kind of view is that it cannot distinguish between types of consumption. Maybe we need “ethics” rather than “economics” proper to do so, but that just goes to show the limitations of the economic way of thinking.
On Gant’s account, it would seem that there is no such thing as bad stewardship. Now it may be that consumption of luxuries is not always bad, or that such consumption often does have some redeeming virtues. But is it the case that such reasoning can justify any exchange or consumption? (As long as it doesn’t involve the government, of course!)
Perhaps the guy who got the one talent and buried it in the ground should have just given the wealthy owner a basic lesson in such economics.
At Reason Thaddeus Russell argues that Macklemore and Lorde embody a kind of progressive cultural critique of capitalism, captured in the attack on “conspicuous consumption” made famous by Thorstein Veblen. Russell traces the “progressive lineage” of this critique: “Their songs continue a long tradition, rooted in progressivism, of protests against the pleasures of the poor.”
Having never listened to him, I have no opinion about Macklemore. Russell’s piece makes me want to take a moment to hear “Thrift Shop.” But over at Q Ideas today, I argue that in Lorde we find some cultural resources to inoculate us against the corrosive effects of envy.
The Christian tradition has long recognized that the poor can be just as materialistic and greedy as the rich. The poor just don’t usually have the same resources to bring those vices to such “conspicuous” manifestation. And it really is a stewardship problem to spend money on luxury goods when basic necessities are given short shrift.
Yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press had an attention-grabbing feature graphic, which highlights an online interactive “game” that gives more information about each of the candidates for the “economic blame game” bracket.
The four brackets are broken down by group, so the four major categories at fault are 1) the financial industry; 2) consumers; 3) government; and 4) inexplicable forces.
Notably absent are the media (except perhaps as personified in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”) and government over-regulation, including especially the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and variations on that theme in the intervening decades. To be sure, “deregulation” is a top seed on the government side, and makes the blame game Final Four. But the summary for that option manages to lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and his dictum: “Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem.”
The Press’ pick for the blame game champion is “Fear and Panic.” Writes Press copy editor Dan Hawkins, “So for your consideration, we rounded up 32 suspects and arranged them in a tournament bracket, as we did for White House scandals and the presidential race. For the first time, however, we decided to declare a winner. This crisis, this worst-of-the-worst competition, is too awful to leave without a scapegoat.”
There isn’t really a good representative for what I consider to be greatly culpable, the culture of consumptive capitalism (as opposed to democratic or entrepreneurial capitalism). Consumptive capitalism adds “spend all you can” to the more stable triumvirate of flourishing: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
And today comes news that confirms that the recession of the US economy began in December of 2007. The Press’ advice for the ordinary American citizen is “Don’t panic.” If that’s true for the everyday American, how much more so for the Christian.
One reality saves us from the necessity to assign blame to others and enables us to accept responsibility. As we begin the season of Advent in 2008, it is proper for us to reflect on the ultimate “scapegoat,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
This is not to say that we ignore the hard economic realities of our world. But the “fear and panic” created by material concerns need to be put into proper perspective, relativized and mitigated by hope in one whose kingdom will have no end.
Last week the Providence Journal ran a piece by me on the forthcoming “rebate” checks from the government intended to be an economic stimulus, “The mandate is to ‘spend all you can’.” I take issue with the idea that the government gives us money that is our own in the first place, and then tells us how we ought to spend it: on consumables and retail goods to spur growth in the economy.
Instead, I propose that people “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing. And if it makes sense for you and your situation, you should feel free to buy that hi-def TV if you so desire.”
“But you certainly should not feel obligated to do so as if mere consumption is a civic responsibility,” I add.
The real problem with the package is that it perpetuates a view of the government’s role in the economy as the final arbiter of how markets ought to work and what people should be doing with their money. No doubt this is in part a response to the idea that the federal government in general, and the president in particular, has a primary formative influence on the shape and health of the nation’s economy.
Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,
Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service…. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess.
Thus comes the idea that the president is a kind of “economist in chief,” who directs the nation’s and the world’s markets by executive decree (compare that idea with the presidential job description given by the Concerned Women for America here).
Update: It’s 3 am…and this time the crisis is economic…
Of course, if we’re really concerned about someone answering a phone in a crisis, maybe we should elect a Wonder Pet:
Many of us have yet to finalize plans for our Christmas decorating this year. If you haven’t yet decided what kind of tree to put up, consider the truly environmentally-friendly choice: cutting down a live tree.
While that might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, the fact is that the alignment of consumer demand for live trees combines with the environmental interest in growing them to create a powerful alliance.
“Buying a real Christmas tree is the next ‘green decision’ the public can make,” said Mike Bondi, University of Oregon Environmental Science professor. “In fact, a real tree is the safest choice since the tree is helpful to the environment from the time it is planted right up to the recycling process.”
Industry trade groups are also touting live trees as the next “green” thing, including special labeling for trees grown in a particular way. Gayla Hansen, Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association president, says that when you buy a live tree, typically “you’re helping independently owned, family farms.” One way to ensure that there will be lots of evergreen trees grown around this country for years to come is to have a booming and consistent consumer demand for such trees.
This is a clear case of fiscal incentive combining with an environmental interest to create a synergy of economic and ecologic good. We have good reason to think, therefore, that economic and environmental concerns shouldn’t be viewed as polar opposites, but rather complementary aspects of the same basic issue.
While a live tree is maturing, it takes in CO2 and produces oxygen, in addition to providing natural wildlife habitat. And when the Christmas season ends, trees can be easily mulched or composted (HT: The Evangelical Ecologist).
You might even choose to buy a tree that you can re-plant after its indoor use is finished. When I lived in Virginia where the climate was more temperate than here in Michigan, my mother and I often would reuse a Norfolk Island Pine (which admittedly sometimes looked like a Charlie Brown tree).
When there is reliable consumer demand for a product, there is additional incentive to motivate producers to have a sustainable source to meet that demand. That’s as true for Christmas trees as it is for African Blackwood (a preferred source for many woodwind instruments, including the bagpipe).
John Stossel must have been on vacation last week.
Schadler pointed out that even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s energy. It’s a typical canard trotted out by those who want to depict us ugly Americans as “energy hogs.”
But instead of taking a deeper look at these kinds of statistics, the stats usually appear at the intro of a news piece as a hook leading into some other point about alternative energy.
But let’s take a brief look at the implications of such statistics. Let’s even accept them at face value. What such conclusions about the wastefulness per capita of American energy consumption overlook is the inherent connection between economic productivity and energy usage.
Yes, let’s say America’s share of worldwide energy usage is 25%.
But what is America’s share of the global economy? Somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of gross world product. So just maybe there is in fact a link between economic output and energy consumption.
Another aspect of this relationship appears when you run a historical series comparing per capita CO2 emissions and income growth on Google’s Gapminder software.