Archive for category Economics

Ideal Inequality?

Well, now. Whenever I try to put my finger on the “ideal” for anything—Hollywood award shows, cheeseburger ketchup-to-onion ratios, wealth distribution—I always consult “92% of Americans.”

Speaking of which, Lorie Line is currently tickling the ivories across my sound system, playing some uber-”smooth,” lowest-common-denominator instrumental rendition of “Message in a Bottle.” Not as edgy or as satisfying or as revolutionary as The Police, of course, but—according to those elevator and dentist-office maestros at Muzak—soooo ideal.

It is, I’ll admit, always refreshing when someone who views wealth as wrinkly and static also views us humans as the pre-determined, ready-and-waiting chess pieces we are. Consistency, my friends.

Can we call this “Game, Set, and Match”? Or should we stick with “Marxist Materialism”? An inspiring worldview for the powerless masses, nevertheless. Read the rest of this entry »

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Don’t Cry Over Spilled Perfume: Overcoming Judas Syndrome in Our Economic Thinking

Mary, Lazarus, Judas, perfume, ointmentMuch of my focus on this blog has been on pursuing an economics that pushes beyond earthbound thinking.

Over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I attempt to lay out a basic baseline of this approach, using Judas’ harsh response to Mary’s outpouring of expensive perfume as a starting point:

Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.

Leveraging a striking Whittaker Chambers quote, I point to some extremes that such thinking can lead us to (e.g. Soviet Communism). But as I go on to note, such a tendency is typically far more tricky to discern:

The same temptations Chambers indicates — of earthbound thinking and intellectual arrogance — can easily sneak into our personal plans for achieving God’s ends. We may, for instance, openly recognize that God has called us to meet the needs of the poor and alleviate poverty, but far too often we attempt to resolve the “God question” here, moving quickly and comfortably to our own personal plans and designs for how might get there (e.g. foreign aid, fair trade, a higher minimum wage, etc.). Rather than continuing to push toward the heart of God — toward a life full of transcendent reasoning and discernment — we look instead to the spilled ointment on the floor, frustrated and not bothering to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

This is the most basic question, and we must ask it with sincerity and a heart of sacrifice. It is crucial that we observe the physical world, and it is necessary for us to ask sincere questions about why and how resources are used, but these questions need to be asked in conversation with our Creator, not in humanistic isolation.

God meets us in the here and now. He cares about the earthbound needs of the sparrow and human alike, and his eternal purposes are already in Read the rest of this entry »

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Books I Read in 2012

The books I read in 2012 are listed below. Favorites included David Brooks’ The Social Animal, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, and, to no surprise, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

What did you read? What were some of your favorites?

Spiritual Parenting: An Awakening for Today's Families, Michelle AnthonyPolitical Thought: A Student's Guide, Hunter BakerLiving Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, Peter BoettkeGod Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise, Arthur BrooksThe Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David BrooksWitness, Whittaker ChambersThe Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, Calvin CoolidgeWork: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKosterA Christmas Carol, Charles DickensThe Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic, Nicholas EberstadtThe Autobiography and Other Writings, Benjamin FranklinPaul, The Spirit, And The People Of God, Gordon FeeCapitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman

Free to Choose, Milton FriedmanThe Scapegoat, René GirardThe Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah GoldbergThe Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty, Peter Greer

The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America's Children, James Davison HunterWith Charity Toward None: A Fond Look At Misanthropy, Florence KingThe Great Divorce, C.S. LewisMere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinSpiritual Enterprise:, Theodore Roosevelt MallochLove & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work, Jennifer Roback MorseCapitalism and the Jews, Jerry Mueller

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles MurrayCommon Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community, Oliver O’DonovanDefending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, Robert SiricoThinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, James K.A. Smith

Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Thomas SowellSecure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity, Glenn StantonAfter America: Get Ready for Armageddon, Mark SteynThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Up from Slavery, Booker T. WashingtonThe Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, Kevin D. WilliamsonWordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life, Douglas WilsonBible: English Standard Version

 

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Work Restores the Broken Family of Humankind

I recently pondered what might come of the global economy if we were to to put God at the forefront of our motives and decision-making. The question came as a reaction to Tim Keller, whose recent book calls on Christians to challenge their views about work. By re-orienting our work to be a “servant” instead of a “lord,” Keller argues, we will actually find more fulfillment in the work that we do.

Over at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I take things a bit further, noting that our work, in its very essence, puts us in the service of others. To make the point, I rely heavily on Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life, in which he argues that “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”

As DeKoster explains:

Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind… Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding…As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.

If we change our thinking on this, orienting our work first toward God and then toward neighbor, we will experience not only a transformation of our basic spiritual commitments but of civilization at large—social, economic, and spiritual.

Today, we are seeing this truth play out in bold and mysterious ways. If globalization has demonstrated anything, it’s the transformational power of expansive human collaboration and cooperation—the transcendent, liberating experience of diverse and interdependent human service. The more freedom and opportunity people have been given to orient their work toward God and neighbor, the more we have seen them rise from poverty in all its forms.

Yet amid such a vivid display, there is still plenty of room for growth. As the winning rhetoric of the recent election demonstrates, our discussions on everything from farm subsidies to auto bailouts to union insulationism to company off-shoring are still plagued by a protectionist ethos that seeks to distort the very essence of work for the mere purposes of personal comfort and self-satisfaction. Instead of asking how we might elevate our work to more accurately and comprehensively meet real and existing human needs, we continue to glorify work as an idol to ourselves.

As Keller and DeKoster remind us, we must fight this temptation with diligence, praying for Read the rest of this entry »

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Celebrate the Stuff: Avoiding Anti-Capitalism Hum-Bug and Advent Gnosticism

Sufjan Stevens, Christmas, gnosticism, anti-capitalismChristmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.

Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”

Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.

Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”

As she goes on to explain:

Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.

Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…

Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…

…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.

In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and Read the rest of this entry »

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Transforming Hearts and Minds Through Entrepreneurship

I’ve already weighed in on Bono’s “humbling” realizations about capitalism and commerce, noting that although I’m still not overly confident in the direction of Bono’s efforts, such a realization is an encouraging sign. Yet despite my original skepticism — which Greg Forster found a bit too heavy-handed — Bono has continued with this theme, arguing more recently that “commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.” Consider me pleased.

Last week, Josh Good of AEI’s Values & Capitalism project (where I also blog), used Bono’s comments as a springboard for a broader discussion about the role of aid and entrepreneurship in the developing world. Columnist Michael Gerson leads the discussion, followed by HOPE International’s Chris Horst and Andrea McDaniel of the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative.

You can watch a video of the event here:

Although I routinely have strong and significant disagreements with Gerson’s overall approach, particularly on the topic of aid, his remarks in this particular talk are pretty close to the mark. Even where we disagree, I continue to find his arguments on particular global health initiatives to be compelling challenges to my own less interventionist positions.

The most striking point, however, comes from Horst, who points to an important Nicolas Kristof column that I’ve discussed in the past. Reminding us that the developing world faces more than just a resource problem, Horst emphasizes that our goal of empowering entrepreneurship in these countries needs to stretch beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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Corresponding the Shape of Good Economics to the Shape of the Gospel

Shape of EconomicsOver at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I piggy-back on a recent Michael Bull post to offer a reminder that we needn’t give all the credit to the market when we reap the benefits of market exchange, free trade and globalization.

For Christians in particular, we should view capitalism as a launching pad for spiritual and social transformation, not a mere means to materialistic ends:

Capitalism is, after all, a mere framework for human engagement. Although the constraints it imposes (“thou shalt not steal”) and the features it elevates (ownership, stewardship, risk, and sacrifice) may fit well within a broader Christian context, it says more about what we can and can’t do than what we might or might not imagine or accomplish…

… For the Christian, then, capitalism provides a simple baseline from which we can launch, holding the potential to lead us toward a broader, deeper network through which we can more freely and fully obey the callings of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we proclaim good news to the poor. In allowing for this free-flow of individual callings, we are given opportunities and choices that many other systems would assume on our behalf.

As Bull writes, we as Christians are called to reach beyond the bare minimum—a truth I’ve emphasized routinely here on the blog:

The final step of Covenant is that you, the risk taker, become a shelter, a house, for the helpless. The final step is generosity. Capitalism only works in a moral society. This is why we can correspond the shape of good economics to the shape of the Gospel. Jesus gave His life to give abundant life to us all. He believed in the promise made to Him by the Father, the promise of resurrection—a new body. Poverty was not something to be embraced eternally. Christian socialists forget that Jesus now owns everything. All the great saints were rich people who risked their wealth for even greater wealth, a wealth that included a legacy of other people—a household. The “glory that was set before Him” was also the glory of the Church, a new body that includes every believer. Jesus Himself is our covering. We are only saved because of His atonement, His “covering.” He, the king of kings, the great Land Lord, is our shelter. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Greatest Collection of Economic Holiday Hits Ever Aggregated

“The only one with the power to create presents out of thin air is Santa himself.”

Or, if you prefer an even more sobering realization, there’s always the Creator himself.

Check out this new video from the brilliant folks at EconStories.tv:

From the EconStories.tv website:

Recovery and growth in the classical and Austrian view is driven by restructuring production so that entrepreneurs discover again the best — i.e. the most valuable and sustainable — ways to serve customers. That process is lead by new entrepreneurs and driven by savers who make capital available to fund new investments and new ventures. Sustainable saving and investment means creating more value for others while using fewer resources. This process lies at the core of healthy economic growth, including better job opportunities and Read the rest of this entry »

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Africa for Norway: The Patronizing Power of Poverty Porn

In a new video crafted to inspire the type self-righteous do-gooderism we Westerners have all grown quite accustomed to, a group of concerned Africans tells us that the “tables have turned,” urging that it’s “time for us to care” (HT).

Prime your Prius for the bumper sticker:

From the Africa for Norway web site:

Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?

If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that’s mainly what you hear about.

The pictures we usually see in fundraisers are of poor African children. Hunger and poverty is ugly, and it calls for action. But while these images can engage people in the short term, we are concerned that many people simply give up because it seems like nothing is getting better. Africa should not just be something that people either give to, or give up on.

The truth is that there are many positive developments in African countries, and we want these to Read the rest of this entry »

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Christian Mattress Merchants Reach Beyond Economic Exchange

Urban Mattress, Christian businessOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I discuss a recent article at Christianity Today on a mattress business whose Christian owners seek to transform what many see as “one of the sleaziest industries in the world.”

From the article:

Rietema and Steve Van Diest, both former campus ministers, are bringing rest—and integrity—back to a business largely devoid of it. Four years ago, a Christian entrepreneur invited the Colorado natives to begin deploying their relational abilities in strip malls rather than on college campuses. They now co-own three Urban Mattress stores in Denver and have franchised four more. And, they argue, their current work is just as important as their former ministry….

…”I don’t have to do mental gymnastics with the product I sell,” Van Diest says. “It’s not a frivolous item. It’s not an image-conscious product. People come here after being worn down by horrible sleep, replete with aches and pain. If we can provide them with a small glimpse of grace for a third of their lives, that’s kingdom work. That matters to God.”

There is plenty to admire about Urban Mattress, but one of the most striking features in the article is the intimate nature of many of their customer interactions. Here, I argue that Christians should pay close attention. The social, moral, and spiritual implications of Christian business – nay, all business – stretch beyond philanthropy and sound business practices:

On this, Urban Mattress provides a good lesson not only on the broader implications of our economic transactions, but also on the broader potential of Christian business in general. Far too often we confine our thinking about Christian business to areas like philanthropy or “corporate evangelism.” By going further and offering this type of personal customer service, these owners show us how there can be more exchange in exchange than we allow for or recognize, whether social, psychological, or spiritual.

When we engage in the marketplace, whether as producers or consumers, there is something transcendent Read the rest of this entry »

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