Posts tagged with: wealth

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”

Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”

It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.

What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”

But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.

Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker has an insightful essay over at InsideCatholic.com, “Why Catholics Don’t Understand Economics.”

Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:

I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.

None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”

[…] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods

The whole article is worth reading (there is even a good St. Augustine reference)

This week I’m attending Mises University, one of the largest and most rigorous summer courses in the Austrian School of economics (or “reality economics,” as my friend Michael McKay likes to call it).

Among the various lectures, there was one in particular that struck me as particularly relevant to the work of the Acton Institute. Peter Klein, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, delivered a presentation on entrepreneurship, a large part of the focus of his academic work.

Dr. Klein approaches the subject of entrepreneurship from the more realistic Austrian perspective. Rather than viewing people as examples of the homo economicus, as almost robotic, quantitatively-driven machines, Dr. Klein views human beings as unique and free actors. When we act, we do so under conditions of time and uncertainty. Though every human action presupposes cause and effect, there is no guarantee that our instincts are correct or that our efforts will pay off. In this way, every one of us, whenever we choose some action, is a kind of entrepreneur. In the face of uncertainty, we have an intended – but not guaranteed – result of action.

Combine that with the Austrians’ very realist take on production: production is not some kind of abstract graphical function, but the concrete act of taking a natural resource (e.g. some wood, a stone,  some metal ore), and using one’s labor – almost investing a part of oneself – to physically transform it.

In a very broad sense, we all participate in this two-sided entrepreneurial action: actively and consciously transforming the world around us, and doing so in the face of uncertainty and imperfect knowledge.

In a much more specific sense, this activity applies to the people we would usually call entrepreneurs (Ludwig von Mises called them, “entrepreneur-promoters”). These are the businessmen we all know: the small-business owner, the investment banker, the risk-taker. These are individuals whose entrepreneurial spirit in a special way exceeds those of everyone around them. They are the ones willing to take on greater risk, confront greater uncertainty, and make more difficult decisions.

In any case, I find that this realistic description of the role of entrepreneurship fits extremely well with the theology in The Call of the Entrepreneur. In the film, we learn that the entrepreneur is a “co-creator”: He  participates in the act of transforming raw materials and natural resources into products for consumers; but the entrepreneur does so by investing time and energy into the production process. And creativity and imagination play an indispensable role in this process of co-creation.

I remember a kind of feeling of awe when this thought dawned on me during Dr. Klein’s lecture. Here we find yet another example of how the market process, when understood and employed correctly, is not simply a morally indifferent result of choice, but a morally positive thing. Society and its consumers are made better off, and both the laborer and the entrepreneur are reminded of their human dignity as they participate in God’s work of fashioning the world.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth,” I reflect on the recently concluded general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Stuttgart. The theme of the meeting was “Give us today our daily bread,” but as I note, the assembly’s discussion of hunger, poverty, and economics lacked the proper integration of the value, dignity, and importance of work.

As I contend, work is the regular means God has provided for the maintenance of our physical needs. And work that is connected to the larger human community becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of others and productive of civilization. Lester DeKoster defines civilization in just this way, as

goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves—including ourselves—whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

These words come from DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly available in an updated second edition.

The omission of considering work in relationship to the development of wealth, globalization, and civilization is endemic to the larger mainline ecumenical movement, which I examine in greater length in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In that book I look especially at the outcome of the previous LWF gathering in 2004.

The trend observable in LWF recent history looks to continue unabated. The newly appointed LWF general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge of Chile, has the pursuit of “economic justice,” conceived largely of opposition to globalization, as a high priority. (Full story after the break).
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Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 14, 2010
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The Big Picture blog has some remarkable images from the last 48 hours in Haiti (warning: there are disturbing images among the collections).

In the wake of the disaster, many are looking back at Haiti’s history to see what has kept this nation in generations of economic despair. As the AP reports:

Two years ago, President Rene Preval implored the world to commit to long-term solutions for his nation, saying a “paradigm of charity” would not end cycles of poverty and disaster.

“Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization,” Preval declared.

Indeed, after the early days, weeks, and months following the disaster pass, the “paradigm of charity” needs to give way to the “paradigm of prosperity” if Haiti is to ever achieve its potential.

As a follow-up note to my previous post, “Wealth and Fidelity, Golf and Marriage,” it’s worth exploring in some more detail the multi-billion dollar phenomenon that has been called “Tiger, Inc.” and the relationship between power in sports, wealth, and politics.

Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” has found relevance in a number of contexts beyond those of its initial utterance. It is most frequently used nowadays to refer to the kind of fullness of power enjoyed by politicians, celebrities, and pop royalty, those who are or consider themselves above the law, morally and sometimes legally.

COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL ELINS

COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL ELINS

In its January 2010 issue, which went to print before Tiger Woods’ alleged affairs became public, Golf Digest featured a section on what Tiger Woods could teach Barack Obama (and vice versa). It makes for some painful, awkward reading at times in light of what’s happened since.

For instance, author Joe Queenan says that “Tiger never does anything that would make him look ridiculous.” Jackie Burke Jr., who shares Tiger’s permanent locker at Augusta National, similarly notes that “Tiger never answers questions recklessly, and he often pauses to consider his answers before he speaks.” Sometimes those pauses can stretch into days and weeks, apparently.

The critiques of Tiger and what he might learn from Obama sometimes read prophetically. Veteran player and commentator Judy Rankin notes that Tiger “has the ability to be even more memorable than he already is, simply by giving people the occasional personal moment.” Author Bruce McCall says Tiger needs “to be more than grudgingly civil to the vast human throngs awed to be in your presents. That adoration is what supports your empire and unimaginable wealth, so give something back.”

Religion & LibertyThe Acton Institute knows a thing or two about poor fortune in the timing of a publication. An issue of our own Religion & Liberty went to press featuring a cover interview with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford right before his international affair became the stuff of tabloids and gossip pages. This interview was in fact the last one in which he gave an in-depth look at his view of faith and public life before his adultery became public, and so even as painful as it might be to have this kind of thing happen as a publisher, it often does in fact serve some journalistic purpose, as a baseline for critique if nothing else.

In the case of the Tiger Woods feature in Golf Digest, it gives us a permanent snapshot of how Tiger Woods was viewed right before all of this came out, such that the nominal leader of the free world was considered in need of learning a thing (or ten) from him.

One of the comments on the previous post noted a connection between infidelity in so-called personal life and public life, citing Bill Clinton in particular. A recent SNL sketch makes this kind of connection even more apparent:

Amidst all the craziness of l’affaire d’Tigre there are some important questions being raised about the linkage between power, wealth, and faithfulness.

The Wealth Report at The Wall Street Journal asks, “Is it harder to stay faithful with large wealth?”

The initial sociological findings don’t seem to correlate wealth with adultery, at least at any higher rates than the general population of males (interestingly enough, a 2007 survey led to the conclusion, “When it comes to infidelity, money has a bigger impact on women than men.”).

Jesus gives us an apt axiom: “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.”

And so there’s the corollary question of whether dishonesty in one area of life should lead us to question whether there is dishonesty in other areas. Tiger Woods’ apparent and alleged marital infidelities might make us wonder about his emotional control, for instance. Does his robot-like and highly-controlled exterior hide deeper emotional turmoil, as his outbursts on the golf course (both positive and negative) suggest?

And should we wonder whether Tiger would cheat on the golf course? If he’s willing to cheat on his wife, would he cheat at golf? Or does his great love and respect for golf, the ultimate gentleman’s sport, exclude that possibility? And if so, what does that say about his love and respect for his wife?

On the one hand it is clear that one need not be prosperous to be adulterous, greedy, or dishonest. But wealth can sometimes help to insulate us from the common consequences of these sins, and perhaps make facilitate their commission, while at the same time potentially exacerbating the fallout if and when it does come during this life.

Update: A timely word on the economic implications of recent events from SNL, “The PGA Tour: No Tiger, no problem!”

richards-book1The belief that the essence of capitalism is greed is perhaps the biggest myth Jay W. Richards tackles in his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem. One reason for confronting this challenge is that many free market advocates subscribe to the thought that capitalism produces greed, and for them that’s not necessarily a negative. But for those with a faith perspective, greed and covetousness are of course serious moral flaws.

It’s also the kind of myth that less articulate writers would rather not challenge, especially in this troubling economic climate. Richards does however have a skill for tightly honed logical arguments, and he not only is able to defend free markets but tear lethal holes into many of the economic ramblings of the religious left. He even takes on holy of holies like fair trade and Third World debt relief. Richards argues that the free market is moral, something that may come as a surprise to many people of faith. This book provides a crushing blow to those involved in the ministry of class warfare or those who wish to usher in the Kingdom of God through “nanny state” policies.

The book divides into eight chapters, with each chapter discussing a common held economic myth like the “piety myth” or “nirvana myth.” Richards says the piety myth pertains to “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.” The nirvana myth characterizes the act of “contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.” Richards himself states, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.”

The influence of libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder are evident through out this book. But the overarching strength of Richards work is how he places the free market message into the context of Christian discussions and debate. Unfortunately before this response, many of the economic arguments by the Christian left weren’t properly countered in popular mediums. Furthermore, the wanton excess of prosperity gospel advocates only fueled or provided ammunition for the religious left’s rebuke of the free market. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 3, 2009
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Sports are still able to foster human virtues, especially classical virtues like courage and fortitude. Like any good thing, sport all too often risks becoming an idol, not because of any fault within the institution itself so much as the fault lying within each human participant.

If there’s anything that distinguishes modern sports from classical antecedents, I suppose it would be the wealth that is often attached to high-profile sports today. You might call it the professionalization of sport. Yesterday’s cover story in USA Today examined the extent to which nominally non-professional sports, like college basketball, have become major industries. This is even more the case with overtly professional sports. It seems to me that in the ancient world, there was a great deal of glory or prestige that was associated with victory. But in addition to that aspect of sporting endeavors, we have the added prospect of great wealth for those who excel at golf, tennis, basketball, or football.

Glory may have been an appropriate motivation for pursuing sports in the ancient world, although there’s no doubt that this kind of fame-seeking can become idolatry in its own way. But I’m sympathetic to the view that sports’ ability to foster human virtue is at least potentially compromised by the additional motivation of wealth-seeking. For every athlete that excels today from a deep “love of the game,” there are a dozen others who are in it just for the paycheck.

Writing a commentary for the United Methodist News Service, J. Richard Peck encourages readers to heed John Wesley’s advice on economic policy. “In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products,” says Peck. He notes that the cure for economic troubles relating to the poor was to repress luxury.

While some of Wesley’s economc advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited. Kenneth J. Collins, a premier scholar and admirer of Wesley in fact notes as much in his book The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace just how far Wesley actually misses the mark. Collins declares:

Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a “zero sum” world in which the maxim, “if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much,” by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor,” often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.

The Theology of John Wesley will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty.

Curiously, Peck also highlights Wesley’s advice for less reliance upon pharmaceuticals. However Peck does not add that Wesley was at war with some healers or physicians in his own time who were taking advantage of the poor with faulty and expensive cures. Wesley published Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. He generously distributed copies for free for the poor to fight back against those taking advantage of them. In Wesley’s account there are certainly improvements in medical suggestions, and his tips on healthy living are fairly standard even today. Wesley did not pull these cures and suggestions from thin air, much of his tips came from doctors he trusted. Still there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction. The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.

The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.