During a season such as Christmas, where hyper-consumerism and hyper-generosity converge in strange and mysterious ways, it’s a question worth asking: How much of our gift-giving is inefficient and wasteful?
For some, it’s a buzz-kill question worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge. For an economist, however, it’s a prod that pushes us to create more value and better align our hearts and hands with human needs.
For Cowen and Tabarrock, gift-giving typically suffers from knowledge and incentive problems. “When people buy something for themselves, value is created, because the buyer values the good more than it costs the seller to produce,” Tabarrock explains. “But when people give gifts that aren’t wanted, the recipient values the gifts at less than the cost. Gift-giving: it can be kind of a negative trade.” (more…)
In a new video from TED Ed, Akshita Agarwal provides a quick lesson on Adam Smith’s “paradox of value” and the differences between “value in use” and “value in exchange.”
For Christians, there’s a crucial lesson here about the best way to meet human needs in the economic order, whether through trade policy, reducing price controls, or any number of other areas. Discerning “economic value” is a tricky thing, and free economies are a handy tools for working through these things in peaceful and productive ways.
But as Agarwal concludes, it also has implications for our everyday stewardship: (more…)
Over at the Reformation21 blog, Michael Jensen compares what he calls the “scarcity mindset” of the world with the “abundance mentality” of God, noting that “the world as we see it is open to the creative and transformative power of the Lord God.”
Although Jensen’s portrait of civilizational progress is undeservedly bleak (if anything, we’re learning to see beyond scarcity), and although he overstates the conflict between “growing populations” and “diminishing resources” (see Matt Ridley et al), he manages to frame the basic theology quite well:
A theistic worldview, and in particular the Christian one, has at the heart of reality the three-personed God of Love, whose creative energy made everything from nothing at all by his Word, and who makes a great nation out of the fruitless loins of Abraham, and who gives life even to the dead. His grace abounds; his abundance overflows. He enters into, blesses, and renews the earth. The Old Testament testifies again and again to the renewing power of the divine breath upon the earth.
The emblematic episode was the Exodus: a feeding in the wilderness, in which God reminded Israel of the title that Abraham had given him when he provided a ram to substitute for Isaac: yhwh yrh, the God who provides. The manna from heaven was not a natural co-incidence. It was miraculous. It wasn’t supposed to be there – it exceeded nature’s fruitfulness, and enabled survival in the wilderness, where nature was in fact barren…The feeding of the five thousand is the New Testament counterpart to the feeding in the Exodus. The 5000 who gathered in the desert ate from two fish and five loaves, and were satisfied. And, in excess of the Exodus miracle, there were twelve baskets of left overs! The miracle was a provision beyond necessity, to excess.
Of course, as with all the miracles, it’s an object lesson. This is a great extraordinary picture of what the world, when God rules it once for all, will look like. And it isn’t a world in which things will run out. It’s a world in which things overflow, because that’s the character of the God who made it. This is the God who made everything from nothing, not with any strain, but by a word; and the God who gives life to dead. This is the God whose artistry fills the heavens at night, and who has filled the earth with so many creatures that we haven’t counted them all yet. And this is the God, who, despite our willingness to believe that he has our good in mind, gives us even his own Son to supply what we need.
Again, I think these glimpses into the abundance of the not yet are far more prevalent in the here and now than Jensen seems to believe. We have seen unprecedented bursts of innovative and value-creative activity in so many ways, leading to more material needs being met and more bellies being filled than ever before. Surely human greed and vice continue to tempt folks throughout all of that, and the “scarcity mindset” is alive and well among many. But free societies have secured gains not out of quest for self, but by learning to orient inventors, entrepreneurs, and employees in the service of neighbor. (more…)
In social sciences such as economics, positivism’s ongoing influence encourages the tendency to see values as irrelevant, hopelessly subjective, and hard to measure (which, for some people, means they don’t exist). Thus, making the argument that values matter economically still involves challenging more mainstream positions. But if establishing strong rule of law protocols is essential for long-term poverty alleviation, this connection may illustrate how widespread commitment to particular moral goods helps promote and sustain one institution that helps lessen poverty.
Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has created quite the stir, and with its overwhelming size (700 pages) and corresponding array of commentaries and critiques, it’s tough to know where to start.
Cutting through such noise, Russ Roberts provides his usual service on EconTalk, chatting one-on-one with Piketty about the key themes, strengths, and weaknesses of the book. The interview is just over an hour, and I encourage you to listen to the whole thing.
Piketty lays out his argument quite concisely in the beginning, followed by a fruitful back-and-forth led by Roberts. For those who aren’t aware, the book chronicles a recent rise in economic inequality, wherein, by Piketty’s account, wealthy elites sit on their stashes while those at the bottom increasingly struggle to keep pace. His solution: Tax, baby, tax.
In response to such an approach, there are many areas to poke and prod, but Roberts zeroes in on one of the more fundamental and overarching questions: What about those who accumulate their wealth by helping those at “the bottom”? (more…)
Mothers who have achieved success in corporate America are often asked how they balance the demands of child-rearing with those of their careers, and understandably so.
Fathers, on the other hand? Not so much.
The demands of motherhood are significant, to be sure, particularly during pregnancy and the early stages of child development. But given that men have continued to assume more responsibilities in the home, in conjunction with a modern influx of women in the workplace, one would hope that we might begin to hear such questions asked of successful men.
* I have 3 wonderful kids at home, aged 14, 12 and 9, and I love spending time with them: skiing, cooking, playing backgammon, swimming, watching movies or Warriors or Giants games, talking, whatever.
* I am on pace to fly 300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2-3 weeks. During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery.
* I have an amazing wife who also has an important career; she is a doctor and professor at Stanford where, in addition to her clinical duties, she runs their training program for high risk obstetricians and conducts research on on prematurity, surgical techniques, and other topics. She is a fantastic mom, brilliant, beautiful, and infinitely patient with me. I love her, I am forever in her debt for finding a way to keep the family working despite my crazy travel. I should not continue abusing that patience.
Friends and colleagues often ask my wife how she balances her job and motherhood. Somehow, the same people don’t ask me.
A few months ago, I decided the only way to balance was by stepping back from my job.
Television is often lamented for its propensity to exaggerate the mundane and the ordinary. Yet when it comes to something as routinely downplayed and unfairly pooh-poohed as our daily work—the “rat race,” the “grindstone,” yadda-yadda—I wonder if television’s over-the-top tendencies might be just what we need to reorient our thinking about the broader significance of our work.
As I’ve argued previously, we face a constant temptation to limit our economic endeavors to the temporal and the material, focusing only on “putting in our 40,” working for the next paycheck, and tucking away enough cash for a cozy retirement. Whether we know it or not, plenty of transcendent activity is also taking place in such efforts, whether through our service, creativity, productivity, collaboration, relationship-building, or plain-old ordinary exchange. How we think about the greater significance and spiritual potential of our efforts is bound to impact how we behave in our daily efforts, either pushing us in the direction of earthbound toil or unleashing us further toward transcendent ends.
If, as Lester DeKoster puts it, work is the “meaning of our lives,” whether we’re scrubbing toilets or selling high-priced widgets, it would seem that such a striking and all-encompassing reality deserves at least a little drama. Thus, below is a select list of my favorite TV shows that draw out some of these features (some more sincerely and effectively than others). None are “Christian” in any explicit sense, and each involves its own share of tasteless theatrics and contrived scenarios, but each nevertheless illuminates some untold truths about the significance of our work beyond the merely material.
(Tip to producers: Add a concerted focus on the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to any one of these shows, and that Emmy is a shoo-in.)
5. Dirty Jobs
Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe is passionate about “celebrating hard work and skilled labor,” and by trying his hand at some of the dirtiest jobs in the land, from coal miner to sewage sifter to animal-husbandry parts-grabber, he has drawn enormous attention to some of the less celebrated and most essential jobs around. Each has its own unique requirements and pay scale, but plenty of Rowe’s undertakings involve manual labor that we might be tempted to label “undignified” or “dehumanizing.” Yet even the persistently cheery Rowe—who is surely well paid for his toil—is rarely able to outdo the positive attitudes of these workers. These are folks who ooze with passion, pride, and an acute awareness of the pressing needs they are meeting in their local communities and society at large. (more…)