Posts tagged with: economics

In a recent Reuters opinion column, Mark Thoma faults academic economists for their failure to predict the housing crash. He says their failure can be attributed to the disconnect between academia and economic forecasters. I don’t agree with Thoma, but I do think he gets it right when he says the failure of modern day economics,

May have something to do with the desire among economists to become more of a science – a heavy focus on theory and math is the result.

During the classical period, economics was closely linked to psychology. In the early 20th century, neoclassical economics veered from the study of psychology as economists sought to reshape the discipline as a natural science.

Modern neoclassical economics draws influence dating back to René Descartes. According to Dr. Robert Nelson’s review of Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street by Tomas Sedlack, Cartesian thought encouraged a belief that mathematical equations are equivalent to religious truths. The economic man is seen as,

 ‘A mechanical construct that works on infallible mathematical principles, … and economists are [therefore] capable of explaining even his innermost motives’ through mathematical methods.

Philosophical implications suggest modern economics is essentially attempting to reduce individuals to numbers. Economic models that operate in a perfect abstract framework with absolute assumptions conflict with the unpredictable and sometimes irrational behavior of human nature. This may explain why data forecasting without a full picture of the human person is not sufficient in predicting major market failures like the housing crash.

Karen Ho takes an anthropological approach to the financial crisis in her 2008 book  Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. As an anthropology graduate from Princeton, Ho is hired to work at an investment bank and writes about the corporate culture on Wall Street prior to the housing collapse. Homogenous recruitment, constant downsizing, high risk/high reward job liquidity, short-sighted bonuses, and deception of shareholder value were among many behaviors she observed. Such irrational and risky behavior should have been a red flag for any economist, shedding light on a major incentive problem.

Though it can be argued that the separation between modern economics and behavioral economics is necessary for empirical data and analysis, some economists want to see the gap close. According to Sedlack, modern economics should deemphasize the role of mathematics. Math is only the tip of the ice berg; it is vital, but not sufficient in economics. Nelson quoted him saying,

‘Below the mathematics lie much more fundamental issues’ of institutions, culture, and basic belief — even of religion. These issues do not readily lend themselves to mathematical methods.

Some human desires simply cannot be fulfilled by economic objects. A price value cannot be placed on the community, family, knowledge of God and so on. It is impossible to commodify or quantify these desires into an economic model. Richard Neuhaus famously said,

To attribute everything to the economic factor is to perpetuate the terrible lie of the Marxists. In addition to the economic is the political and, most important, the cultural. At the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual.

The number one failure of modern economics is an understanding of the human person that is incomplete. Economists must draw on anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology to better understand what drives human behavior and decision making. Forecasters will never be able to predict the future the way they would like, but social studies coupled with empirical economic analysis may help economists better understand the why questions that numbers cannot explain.

Here’s the piece I contributed to today’s Acton News & Commentary:

Fertile Ground for Farm Subsidy Cuts

By Elise Amyx

With debt and budget negotiations in gridlock, and a growing consensus that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable, political support for farm subsidies is waning fast. What’s more, high crop prices and clear injustices are building bipartisan support for significantly cutting agricultural subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill.

The New Deal introduced an enormous number of agriculture subsidy programs paved with good intentions to help struggling farmers, create a stable food market and alleviate poverty. While many other industries have been deregulated since the Depression-era reforms, agricultural subsidies have grown. Now considered by some to be America’s largest corporate welfare program, it is obvious that the government has failed to meet its original goals.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral. Subsidies reward large commercial enterprises — in good times and bad — and shut out small farmers. Developing countries that desperately need to boost agricultural exports cannot compete with subsidized, over-produced crops from wealthy nations. Subsidies also drive up the cost of food for the poor and working families.

Iowa farmer Mark W. Leonard, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, described how he brought a farmer from Mali to talk to local church gatherings about the adverse effects of subsidies. “From a Christian standpoint, what it is doing to Africa tugs at your heartstrings,” he said. The bottom line is that the large, commercial farmers win and everyone else loses.

Rural communities dependent on farming seem to have the long end of the stick, but this isn’t true. According to an Iowa State University study, the most highly subsidized areas in the United States are seeing little to no economic growth. In counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income, job creation is very weak. This can possibly be attributed to highly subsidized agribusiness buy outs of family farms. It is ironic that farm payments are intended to foster growth but instead they appear to be linked with subpar economic performance.

Though meant to support the incomes of farmers and promote rural economic growth, subsidies are making rich farmers richer. Subsidies don’t usually end up where they are most needed because the top 10 percent of recipients receives 74 percent of the payments. Instead of helping those most in need, farm payments are just another failed government welfare program.

Agricultural subsidy programs are funded by taxpayers’ dollars and end up raising the cost of food for the domestic consumer. In other words, we are paying for subsidies twice over. Even though price supports are intended to stabilize food production and thus prevent wild price swings, a Heritage Foundation research report found that consumers actually end up spending more on food in the long run when all price distorting effects are considered. Commodity subsidies encourage overproduction and lower prices, but the Conservation Reserve Program encourages underproduction and raises prices. Tariffs raise the price of imported food. For example, the sugar program operates as a cartel by controlling prices and limiting imports, which significantly raises the cost of sugar.

It is poor budgetary stewardship on the government’s behalf to fund a program with taxpayer dollars that makes food more expensive for consumers. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates the average household spent “$216 in annual taxes in addition to $104 in higher food prices.”

Subsidy payments are commodity specific, so unless you’re growing corn, wheat, soybeans, or another subsidized crop, you’re on your own. Jack Thurston, co-founder of FarmSubsidy.org told Time Business, “The bigger you are, the more subsidies you get. It is the reverse of what you think a subsidy is.”

Because farm payments often encourage overproduction and consolidation of agribusinesses, the price of land is inflated, which makes it very difficult for would-be farmers to enter the market. Rather than giving them a fair opportunity, subsidies undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of young domestic farmers.

Commodity price supports, export subsidies and tariffs drive commodity prices below the world price, which makes it difficult for foreign countries to compete. Surpluses of overproduced U.S. crops are dumped on the international market at prices well below the cost of production, creating even more price volatility. Many poor nations have few other options outside of subsistence farming. Subsidies keep poor nations poor and dependent on developed countries.

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty — and so are many other successful industries that do not receive any government hand outs. Farmers receiving payments should be careful not to view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

A farmer from Mississippi by the name of Lanier, in a recent call in to NPR, said he doesn’t need the government to help him run his business: “I’m not going to be very popular with this comment, but my family has farmed [6,000] to 8,000 acres every year. We own about five of that and lease the rest depending on what we think the market conditions will be. But, quite frankly, we don’t need these subsidies … we being the larger farmers; we’re getting paid seven digits to not farm areas of our farm. That’s ludicrous. […] We cry, hey, it’s a risk. But tell me what business there is out there that doesn’t have a risk.”

Agricultural subsidies make little economic sense and they display many of the problems that characterize other large welfare programs: injustice, dependency and a slew of unintended consequences.

But, good news might be just around the corner. Recent reports suggest agricultural subsidies will see drastic cuts in the upcoming farm bill due to high commodity prices and the budget crisis. Americans should be cautiously optimistic that America’s largest corporate welfare program will take a big hit in 2012.

We live in the information age, or more accurately referred to as the age of “information overload.” Anyone who has a Twitter account knows what I’m talking about. You may feel like you’re drowning in a flood of Facebook statuses, emails and YouTube videos. With information coming at us every which way, how can we process it all? How do we even know it’s true?

Neoclassical economics assumes people act on the basis of perfect information. With all the information that’s out there, this might seem like a good assumption. Dr. Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, does not agree with this theory. In his critique of neoclassical economics at Acton University, he said,

Perfect ignorance is a better starting assumption than perfect information.

Rather than perfect information, perhaps we only need “good enough” information. Economist Vernon Smith claims markets converge toward equilibrium by trial and error. Experiments outlined in his book Rationality in Economics show equilibrium can be reached with a limited amount of information. Similarly, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argues that prices are sufficient in signaling value and enabling efficient economic decision making.

An experiment conducted by Paul Andreassen in the late 1980s tested two groups of MIT business students to see how information affects stock investments. One group could only see changes in prices while the second group was allowed to read The Wall Street Journal, watch CNBC and consult experts on market trends. Unexpectedly, the group with less information earned twice as much as the well informed group. His analysis suggests the high-informed group was distracted by the rumors and insider gossip from the extra information. The excess information encouraged them to engage in much more buying and selling than the low-informed group because they were confident their knowledge allowed them to operate more efficiently in the market. In this case, price signals and the invisible hand of the market proved more efficient than an overload of information.

In a world that seems to have all the technology and science to answer life’s greatest questions, we realize it is still imperfect and demand more. For example, many believe that overwhelming forensic evidence was enough to convict Casey Anthony of the murder of her daughter Caylee, but the verdict proved otherwise. The jury demanded more than just DNA; they wanted the exact time of death and a stronger motive.  

Information is a necessary prerequisite for belief, but we must be careful not to fall into the trap of doubting Thomas (though we have all been there). Always demanding personal evidence and more proof in order to believe something will only lead to skepticism. A skeptic says he will only believe it if he sees it, but rarely do we ever experience information from a primary source. Should we believe the facts we read in our textbooks? Should we believe what the experts say on the news? Belief always takes a step of faith.

In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II asks,

Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

In the age of technology and information overload, we should be humbled in our human limitations. Because information is imperfect, it takes a little faith in the invisible hand to reach equilibrium in the free market. But we should not center our faith in free markets because markets are imperfect and will fail as everything else in the world. Information, which is necessarily imperfect, and faith is required in the human pursuit of truth. Whoever knew markets could teach us so much about faith?

I had the pleasure of appearing on Relevant Radio last Friday to talk to Sheila Liaugminas on her show, “A Closer Look.” I discussed the idea of “intergenerational justice,” a term favored by evangelicals (Roman Catholics tend to talk about “intergenerational solidarity”), and how that concept relates to much of today’s discussion about the federal budget.

One thing you hear from many is that we need a “both/and” solution: we need to both cut spending and raise revenue in order to close the annual deficits. I’m not really convinced of this, in part because the federal government has historically shown that increased revenue always results in increased spending. The government spends what it takes in, with a little bit more to boot. There has to be something structural and meaningful to stop this from continuing to happen, especially since we can’t count on the political culture to do so itself. Whether that structural obstacle is a balanced budget amendment or some other kind of binding agreement, something like that has to be put in place.

I don’t think it’s fair on the other side, though, to say that closing some tax loopholes, making tax avoidance more difficult, and simplifying the tax code is tantamount to “raising taxes” either. So in that sense there might be a case for raising revenues in this limited sense if it gets the tax system focused on what it is supposed to do (raise revenues) rather than using it as a tool for rent-seeking, social engineering, and pandering to special interests.

What’s more important than the question of revenues vs. cuts, however, is recognizing that the size of the federal government has stayed about roughly constant when you look at it in terms of tax receipts relative to GDP. Anthony Davies does a nice job illustrating this. He points out that the government basically takes in amounts roughly equal to 18% of GDP (+/- 2%). So that’s essentially what the government needs to learn to live on. By contrast, we’re spending about 24% of GDP this year, and that number only goes higher as entitlement promises come due.

So how about this for a both/and solution: we cut spending to get within a couple of percentage points of 18% of GDP and we focus on tax policies that will grow GDP in a sustainable way in the longer term.

Blog author: eamyx
Thursday, July 14, 2011
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Back in February 2008, then candidate for president Barack Obama addressed a crowd at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wis. He said,

…I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue out individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

It is ironic that Obama preached a “we’re-in-this-together” economic philosophy yet three years later, Main Street is carrying Washington’s debt burden.

Debt negotiations are currently at a deadlock in Washington over taxes. President Obama doesn’t want to follow through with $4 trillion in spending cuts without a $1 trillion tax increase, while Senate Democrats are asking for a whopping $2 trillion in new taxes. Democrats also do not want to sacrifice entitlement programs. Top leaders worry they will not be able to reach a deal in time to avoid a government default. With the predicted default deadline of August 2 creeping around the corner and unemployment on the rise at 9.2 percent, citizens feel a sense of urgency about the debt crisis.

When Obama said “I am my brother’s keeper,” what did he really mean? If the government is to act as our brother’s keeper, this means it should be accepting responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. Raising taxes to cover up Washington’s nasty spending habits is certainly not accepting any responsibility.

If the government was really acting in the best interest of its citizens, it would stop raising taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Americans will need to work from January 1 to April 12 before they have earned enough to pay off their taxes. Tax increases may seem like a quick way to reduce the deficit as opposed to spending cuts alone, but the bottom line is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. A Goldman Sachs report found that tax increases usually fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging to economic growth while spending cuts correct fiscal imbalances and boost growth. Milton Friedman explains in his essay titled Fallacy: Government Spending and Deficits Stimulate the Economy why government spending does not mean “stimulus”:

Getting the extra taxes, however, requires raising the rate of taxation. As a result, the taxpayer gets to keep less of each dollar earned or received as a return on investment, which reduces his or her incentive to work and to save. The resulting reduction in effort or in savings is a hidden cost of the extra spending. Far from being a stimulus to the economy, extra spending financed through higher taxes is a drag on the economy.

The $2 trillion tax increase Senate Democrats are pushing has the potential to suffocate economic growth and job creation, which would not be good news for 14 million unemployed Americans. Today, the Great Recession now has more idle workers than the Great Depression. An article in The Fiscal Times claims the employment level is nowhere near where it should be for a typical recovery:

In a typical recovery, we would have had several hundred thousand more hires per month than we are seeing now—this despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus (including the rescue of the automobile industry, whose collapse would likely have lost a million jobs).

If spending binges don’t work for a family, why would they work for a government? When a family spends more than they are making, the only sensible solution would be to cut spending. Bureaucrats should take House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s advice and be willing to share the sacrifice:

Everyone understands that Washington has been on a spending binge of late and we’ve got to start spending money the way taxpayers are right now and that’s learning how to do more with less.

The debt crisis is not just an economic hazard but a prodigious moral issue of poor stewardship as explained in an Acton commentary by Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine titled The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats:

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Our economy will continue to hobble along until Washington is willing to truly act as a brother’s keeper in showing that it too can share the sacrifices necessary for getting spending under control. Until then, we will pay the price for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and millions of Americans will continue to struggle.

Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Istituto Acton in Rome, was interviewed by Vatican Radio to discuss the Italian budget. Italy has a large budget crisis, and if it isn’t resolved, it may face serious financial problems similar to those experienced by Greece.

Lawmakers in Italy have begun working on austerity measures, which was the topic of Jayabalan’s interview:

“Austerity is fairly important for the Italian economy,” says Kishore Jayabalan, the director of the Rome office of the Acton Institute. But he says even with austerity, Italy will need economic growth to pay its debts.

[…]

“They are creating all kinds of impediments for economic growth. If you want to get the Italian economy reformed, the political class not only is going to have to do things like get rid of regulations, but really cut down the bureaucracy, because that is what is really bringing down the Italian economy,” Jayabalan said.

Click here to read the full article and listen to the interview.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the annual conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and expressed particular concern over rising food prices and the instability of the global food market. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope issued this challenge: “The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”

Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg has done much to illuminate those structural causes and their effects on the agricultural capacity of developing countries. In an interview with EWTN two months ago, he talked about two of the most important drivers of high food prices: farm subsidies and energy costs.

“All the subsidies that go into agriculture—through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies—have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” said Dr. Gregg. African farmers cannot compete with their counterparts in the first world who are able to sell their produce at artificially low prices, and so developing countries end up turning away from food production. In the long run, this decrease in supply causes prices to rise.

Energy prices also affect the cost of food: the more a farmer pays for gasoline, the more he has to recoup from the sale of his crops. Again, market imbalances are causing prices to rise—OPEC, the cartel that controls a substantial amount of the world’s crude oil, determines its supply, and so “there’s a disparity between supply and demand,” Dr. Gregg explained. “OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices”

U.S. energy policy is also to blame: from drilling moratoriums to ethanol subsidies, the federal government has effectively introduced inefficiency to energy markets.

Developing countries must be allowed to produce food without being undercut by Western protectionism and too-costly energy. When free markets are hindered, the poor suffer most.

This year’s Acton University was very successful, and we are still seeing its effects through blog posts, tweets, and Facebook messages. Some of our PowerBlog readers may be wondering what they missed out on, or would also like to think back a few weeks to their favorite Acton University moments.

To listen to a favorite lecture, or to find out what was missed, remember that Acton University 2011 lectures can be purchased and downloaded for $1.99.

Joe Gorra of the Evangelical Philosophical Society compiled nine interviews with different Acton University faculty who lectured on countless invigorating topics including, sustainability and the environment, ethics, Nietzche’s critique of Christianity and Caitalism, and free markets. Gorra’s post helps of relive some of the memories he had at Acton University, along with give those who weren’t able to attend the conference a taste of what was missed.

Gorra interviews James Otteson, a professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University. Otteson’s course at Acton University was titled, “Adam Smith: Philosopher and Political Economist.” In the interview Ottenson explains some of the misconceptions associated with Adam Smith:

As you know, some hold various misconceptions about Adam Smith and his work. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying Smith and his objectors, what would you say are the top misconceptions that scholars or non-scholars often assert about him and his work and how would you respond?

Misconceptions of Smith come from both political directions, as it were. Some have portrayed Smith as a doctrinaire laissez-faire libertarian, while others, more recently, have portrayed him as something like a contemporary progressive liberal. Neither is accurate. His review of the available historical and economic evidence led him to conclude that, after providing protection for people’s lives, liberty, and property, minimal government interference in people’s lives led to prosperity for all—including especially the poor. So he was genuinely concerned about the least among us, and his policy recommendations were based primarily on concerns about their welfare. Yet his recommendation of limited government was presumptive, not absolute: It served as a default to which exceptions could be made if the evidence for the particular case warranted it. I call his position “pragmatic classical liberalism.”

John Bolt, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, was also interviewed by Gorra. Bolt’s course, which delved into the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, was called “Centralization and Civil Society.” In the interview, Bolt discusses what the concept of “intermediary institutions” means:

Tocqueville’s concept of “intermediary institutions” is central to his vision of civic life and human flourishing. Can you explain the meaning and significance of that in Tocqueville and how it is indispensable to the maintenance of liberty and social cohesion in a civil society?

Tocqueville realized that the great danger in modern, egalitarian democracy lay in our tendency toward what he called “individualism.” In the U.S., at least, we don’t normally consider this a dangerous notion. But for him, individualism implied not heroism, but a kind of retreat into isolated nothingness and an evasion of responsibility for one’s fellow man. This kind of isolation poses dangers to liberty because as lone, equal individuals, we come face to face with our tremendous weakness. We need someone or something to save us, and having denied God (isn’t God the ultimate affront to a deep belief in equality?), we turn to the state.

Intermediary institutions (clubs, local political organizations, community activities, churches, etc.) tie us – really oblige us – to our neighbors. They train us to recognize the ways we can satisfy our various needs without turning to political power to provide the goods we require. He says these associations teach the art of being free and living responsibly. Without them, we will fall out of practice at self-government.

And in a testament to the success of Acton University, Gorra explains in his blog post, “Why the Acton Institute? Philosophy’s Good Beyond Philosophy,” his reasoning to attending the conference:

The work of the Acton Institute (www.acton.org), and especially their annual Acton University conference, is highly hospitable to this sort endeavor. Over the last several years, I have attended Acton University (second time this year, and happening now!), their Toward a Free and Virtuous Society events, and also co-sponsored Liberty Fund and Acton Institute events.

Honestly, I don’t know of any other conference or organization that intentionally affords the Christian philosopher the unique opportunity to engage in such interdisciplinary work at the intersection of theology, economics, and social policy. As a matter of enrichment (personally and professionally), I “come alive” at their gathering, my imagination is cultivated by the possibilities of how the theoretical and practical  goods of philosophy can converge and collaborate with other bodies of knowledge.

Acton’s intellectual architecture is intelligently designed to permit – no, encourage! – the good of philosophy to be utilized in this way.

Click here to read Gorra’s nine interviews with Acton University faculty.

 

Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Moneyed Yuppies. Source: Hipster Christianity


 
An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against

…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.

Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:

…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.

As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.

So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:

Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.

The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.

In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says,

Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.

Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).

I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ,

My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)

Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.

Earlier this week on the Acton Institute Facebook page, Rev. Sirico’s archived article “What is Capitalism?” was posted and sparked a lively discussion between two people (click here to see our Facebook page and the discussion). This blog post is to serve as my response.

Your idea of communionism, at least from what I understand from your comments, bears some resemblances to communism which has the end goal of society or the community possessing property in common. This, however, doesn’t preserve human dignity properly; nor does not foster interdependence among people. Instead it creates a society dependent on a centralized government.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains some of the core the problems with common property. Like Aristotle, he notes, that individuals are better managers of property because it allows for a more orderly fashion of management, and as he states “human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common not individually.” The quarrels can arise because no individual is specifically responsible for the care of the common property. There is no person who feels like he or she has stake in the property. A direct result, and historical example, of common property is the tragedy of the commons.

In Capital Marx argues that there is no value in human labor per se. He states “human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” This is contrary to Christian beliefs. There is intrinsic value in human labor itself. To work is a calling and a form of stewardship. In the encyclical Laborem Exercens, (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II explains how working is a direct expression of our human dignity. Such preservation of human dignity cannot be found in a system that devalues work.

The idea of property that you advocate is also found in Marx’s Capital and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This idea is flawed on many levels. It doesn’t take into account that the entrepreneur purchases the raw goods that the workers use to make the end product. As a result, based on any definition of property, the entrepreneur is the sole owner of the raw goods and it is his or her private property, not the worker. The worker engages in a contract with the entrepreneur in an exchange of services. Just because the worker uses his or her services, which he or she is paid for by the entrepreneur, does not translate into the worker becoming the owner of the raw good which becomes the final product.

The idea of private property that you advocate, rescinding property rights for all corporations, is dangerous on many levels. It puts political rights, religious rights, and all private property rights in danger. Marx notes that the abolition of private property for the bourgeois leads to the abolition of family because, according to his argument, the family is rooted in property and private gain. Furthermore, Marx articulates that his beliefs, which bring forth a communist centralized system, also abolish religion.

In Federalist Paper No. 10 James Madison argues how the first object of any government is the protection of property. Furthermore, in Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville explains that what makes America successful is its protection of private property for all. No landed property class exists. He articulates how the protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. Furthermore the right to property fosters “…obedience to established law, of the influence of good mores in republics, and of the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom…” What makes America special and successful, according to Tocqueville, is the protection of rights for all people. As Tocqueville demonstrates, the right of property needs to be protected because other rights stem from it. This right extends to even corporations. Rights should be guaranteed for all, not winners and losers picked by the government.

Again, private property should be protected at all levels, for both individuals and corporations. Hernando de Soto explains this in his book and in an essay both titled, The Mystery of Capital. Through examples found in his essay, book, and case studies (which can be found by clicking here), de Soto effectively argues using proven facts, statistics, and real world examples that the protection of capital and private property rights has led to economic prosperity in the west, whereas the lack of protection is a leading reason to the economic disparity in poor countries. If we fail to protect private property rights on all levels, then we begin down a path of economic decline. Without the protection of private property rights, and an effective legal structure to guarantee such protection, the wrong message is being sent to businesses. No business will want to invest in an economic climate that is hostile towards them.

A market system, which is what Rev. Sirico argues for in his article “What is Capitalism?” actually fosters virtues that all Christians value. This is articulated by Stephen Grabil in his essay “The Market, School of Virtue.” Here Grabil shows that greed is not what makes a free market churning, but instead it is virtue. Some of the virtues fostered in a free market are trustworthiness, self-control, sympathy, and fairness. Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, demonstrates that greed is a vice which even Adam Smith condemned. Richards also shows why greed does not lead to a successful market economy, but actually destroys it.

In regards to the referenced Fulton Sheen article titled “New Slavery” it is important to note that the article was written in 1943 when many monopolies were present in the market. Acton has never believed in or supported crony capitalism. Monopolies do not allow competition which is bad for the consumer and the worker. Also, Sheen does not advocate for the end of private property in his article. Instead he says we have a right to private property and our use of it should be righteous “Possession [of property] has two faces, two aspects: we all have a right to private property, but this is accompanied by our responsibility for its righteous use.” As Sirico articulates in the posted article, when the market is structured successfully it is the consumer who has primary control and then next is the worker. This is because of competition. Monopoly capitalism comes when the government gets into bed with businesses, and essentially block new entrepreneurs and potential new competitors from entering into the market.

Free markets are not just about an economic system. It is something greater than economics, it is about freedom. The freedom to choose what to purchase, the freedom for the worker to find an employer and not be forced into employment with the state or a monopoly, and the freedom to hold property and have it protected, this freedom is what capitalism is about. Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America and correctly articulated how the protection of private property, in all levels, has led to the great freedom Americans enjoy. However, Tocqueville also recognized the need for virtuous men and women because he knew America cannot succeed, nor its structure of government without them. As he states, “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people: one can almost say that there is no society; for what is a union of rational and intelligent being among whom force is the sole bond?”