Posts Tagged consumerism

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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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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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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The Moral Case for a Free Economy: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.

In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.

Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.

One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?

Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.

The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?

There is something “underneath” economics.  Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.

Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.

Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?

Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on Read the rest of this entry »

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Fair Trade Clothing: Keeping Silly in Style

I have critiqued fair trade schemes in the past (here, here, and here), and this week at Values & Capitalism, I do it again, specifically as it relates to clothing.

Relevant Magazine recently published an article on the subject by author Julie Clawson, who attempts to “debunk some common objections to shopping ethically.” Although not aiming to provide a comprehensive justification for such schemes, the article serves as a nice examination point to observe some of the fundamental errors underlying the orientation.

The article tries to “debunk” four common excuses for not “shopping ethically” (whatever that means), which include the following:

  1. Ethically made clothing isn’t stylish.
  2. Ethically made clothing is more expensive.
  3. I can’t find clothing that is ethically made (in all areas).
  4. If I don’t buy ethically made clothing, at least the workers in sweatshops will still have jobs

The most fundamental question, of course, is what constitutes “ethically made clothing,” but the last of these “excuses” (#4) gets closest to the core of the issue.

A sample from the author’s piece:

I am disturbed by the assumption that a worker’s only options are a horribly abusive job or no job at all. Such a view assumes reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve. The call to eliminate sweatshops is not a call to shut down factories (which is too often the path taken by clothing companies caught in unethical behavior); it is a call to improve conditions in those factories. The point is not to destroy jobs and lives but to bring healing to those already broken.

An excerpt of my response:

No. Such an “assumption” is no assumption at all. “Such a view” does not assume that “reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve”; it merely recognizes that such factories are currently the best options in these countries, or are, at least, the best options in the minds of their employees. If these companies picked up and left and their employees were left to beg on the street, would “reform” be suddenly made more possible?

What it does assume is that trying to manipulate companies against their will and instituting arbitrary price targets and controls is counterproductive. It assumes that no company with real-life competitors and sensible shareholders will or should agree to blindly pulling prices out of Clawson’s magic bag. It assumes that buying jeans with materials produced at low costs in Venezuelan sweat shops is more in the interests of the Venezuelan people than supporting an ineffective, inflationary “social justice” cartel or starting a bloody war with Hugo Chavez. It assumes that real economic “reform” and progress is a messy thing, and that America didn’t get to its air-conditioned skyscrapers without its own share of nasty working conditions and low wages (more here).

Above all, it assumes that, in Clawson’s words, “the economics at play here are complicated,” and that changing the corresponding economic systems is even more complicated—much more so than, say, telling self-absorbed Westerners that by listening to their Inner Price Genies they can place a bet for “social justice” and save the world in style.

Read the full critique here.

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The Disease of Self-Chosen Sacrifice

Abraham and IsaacI have previously noted the West’s tendency to project its perception of need on the poor — an inclination many Christians have come to share.

The most obvious problem is that not everyone prefers SUVs, organic tomatoes and modern plumbing in the same order as your run-of-the-mill suburban soccer mom. But the deeper issue is that such an approach elevates material needs and temporary handouts above spiritual vacancy and the ever-necessary whole-life transformation through Christ.

What the poor, broken, hurting, and abandoned really need is discipleship, not some mechanistic plan that tries to leverage Hipster Jimmy’s quest for a unique coffee tumbler into a noble, planet-healing event. Such schemes are mere “spiritual frosting,” as Steve Saint calls them: surface-level gloss that does little to nothing for the kingdom.

Many such errors are due to lapses in our thinking, which is why we often like to lob the reminder that “good” intentions (quotes intended) don’t automatically translate to proper thinking or productive action. (I apply this critique routinely.)

Yet at an even deeper level, we must be mindful that we are called to press further, beyond our God-given capacity for earthly wisdom, knowledge, and prudence. This does not, however, mean that we should return to Hipster Jimmy’s blind consumeristic emotionalism and draw from it where it makes us feel warm and tingly. It means we need to consult with the Divine himself.

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes about this with precision:

Beware when you want to “confer with flesh and blood” or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings— anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.

In the end, no matter how promising our earthly schemes for sacrifice may seem on paper, or how effective they may appear in application, we need to ask ourselves who/what we are truly sacrificing for. Our efforts may indeed seem “promising” and/or “effective,” but according to whom?

The answer, as Samuel made clear to Saul, is that our actions must always be in sync with God’s will, but as obvious as this may seem, and as prevalent as many Christians think it to be in their own world outlooks, we often think this imposes far fewer demands than it really does.

When pressed on the spiritual legitimacy of our actions, we react by pointing to verses about loving our neighbors or taking in orphans or feeding the hungry (Jim Wallis, anyone?). Yet while each of these imperatives are important and necessary in the life of a Christian, they mustn’t be where we stop. Far too often we draw on the Bible’s generic calls to action while simultaneously rejecting the Helper he sent to assist us in doing the work. We think the message is his, but the method is ours.

But the Christian life is not about taking bumper-sticker slogans and applying them to our own petty schemes as we wish. It’s about transcending our Read the rest of this entry »

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Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human Body in Earthly Engagement

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithI have previously examined the ways in which sociability and strong relational bonds can impact societal health and economic prosperity. Likewise, I have persistently emphasized that spiritual transformation through Christ and subsequent obedience to God play crucial roles in strengthening such bonds.

Without recognizing and embracing such an alignment, I have argued, we will be severely impaired in identifying real value as God sees it, and will be ill-equipped to pursue our proper mission.

Yet throughout all such considerations, I have rarely (if ever) contemplated the role of the body in the spiritual and intellectual workings that drive our stewardship. This is strange, to be sure, for despite the great importance of all the other inputs to our actions, it is the body that actually does the doing.

But alas, even this basic realization does not go far enough, says Matthew Anderson, editor of Mere Orthodoxy and author of the new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith.

For Anderson, the body is much more than some tool we use to move our spirits from here to there; it is an essential and inextricable part of what it means to be human, a truth affirmed and amplified by the reality that have we been created in the image of God. For Anderson, the connection is crucial, but has been largely ignored by an increasingly dualistic culture. For many of us, the body has become nothing more than a mere means for pleasure or a “prison for the soul.”

Yet for those of us who over-emphasize the spiritual side of man, Anderson argues that any such transformation will never be complete without a full understanding the bodies position therein:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth.

Anderson proceeds to tackle a number of issues through this approach, from tattoos to homosexuality to death (and beyond), yet throughout each revealing insight, my mind consistently flashed back to his chapter on how our bodies more simply relate to the other (Chapter 4). It’s easy to understand how an appropriate body-faith orientation might improve our marriages or our churches, but what about our larger socio-economic engagement and overarching earthly stewardship?

“We are social even in the womb,” says Anderson, and that sociability “is inextricable from the structure of our bodies.”

When we score a goal, we like to bump chests and give high-fives, the act of which is sometimes followed by hazardous, celebratory dives into a large piles of teammates. When socializing with friends and family, we often prefer to do so over a cup of coffee or a meal, sharing in the most basic bodily necessities as we relate to each other, pour out our hearts, and foster social bonds. These shared bodily pleasures and activities “not only curb our loneliness,” says Anderson, but are “a manifestation of our gratitude for the goodness of the created order that God has placed in us.”

Yet, as is the fundamental premise of the book, Anderson believes the distortion of the body’s place in such interactions has by and large distorted God’s created order in the process. Thanks to the rise of a self-absorbed, short-sighted, and materialistic culture, the social ties necessary for a healthy and flourishing society have largely vanished, and our views of the human body have corresponded accordingly. No longer are our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather, we have perverted them into serving as temples unto ourselves.

As Anderson explains:

In our late-modern world, the body’s basic dependency upon the world for both its sustenance and its pleasures has been distorted to the extent that what we consume has become central to our identity as persons. What we wear, what we eat (or don’t eat), what we endorse—these become the means by which we construct ourselves…

….In a consumerist society, the world is flattened out as everything becomes an instrument for the individual’s well-being. Things only have value when a consumer desires  them, which means that there is no order of goods to which our desires should confirm.

At the root of this, then, is a sort of “degraded” individualism, as Anderson calls it — the type of misaligned, atomic hedonism that submits to no authority other than its humanistic God of Autonomy. Edmund Burke railed against such an approach back when we Read the rest of this entry »

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The Morality of Profit: (Mis)defining Generosity in a Win-Lose World

"Give me all your money...or else!"

This week at Common Sense Concept, I discuss Tom Palmer’s new video on the “morality of profit” as a follow-up to my post on whether capitalism is compatible with Christian values.

Palmer uses the charity efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates as a launching pad for discussion, focusing on their professed desire to “give back” to society. The problem with such language, Palmer notes, is that “you can’t give back what you didn’t take.”

The Gateses did not, of course, take anything, as true free exchange would not permit it:

We are not forced to fill company coffers against our will. We are not doomed to buy oranges or apples if the price isn’t right. Instead, we are free to collaborate of our own free will and by our own consent. In such a world, profit is merely a symbol of community value. If we reject profits as immoral, we should be prepared to reject the community that empowers it. The tricky part, as I’ve mentioned before, is that this is most often ourselves. This is what the “morality of profit” all boils down to: whether mutual exchange is indeed mutual.

This tells us something about the morality of profit, but Palmer’s discussion also teaches us something about the nature of generosity — namely, that when we misunderstand the way wealth is created, we also misunderstand the ways in which (or through which) our generosity should be and can be channeled and expressed.

Indeed, understanding this process is crucial for understanding how God calls us to use our wealth:

By diluting our charity to some redistributionist obligation, we dilute the very potential of our charity, both for ourselves and our communities. How are we to maximize our generosity and distribute compassion effectively if we harbor faulty, guilt-ridden sentiments about Read the rest of this entry »

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Monopolies and Competition: Mom! Dad! AT&T’s Not Sharing!

AT&T, T-Mobile, cell phone, acquisition, monopoly, competitionIn my most recent post at Ethika Politika, I comment on AT&T’s recent plans to acquire T-Mobile, a move that has garnered cries of “monopoly!” (or “duopoly!”) from all sides.

But although many see AT&T’s actions as “anti-competitive” in nature, I see no such thing. From where I stand, the acquisition has great potential to improve the company’s output, which could indeed benefit consumers and invigorate competition in the industry:

With a newly expanded network, AT&T could greatly improve its ability to expand service to rural areas. Due to increased economies of scale, it is likely that prices could decrease across the board. Additionally, although critics claim that the tightening of the market will have a negative impact on innovation, many believe it will raise the stakes (“mono y mono!”), leading to improvements on any number of company weak spots, from customer service to overall quality of service.

Yet whether the deal will be good or bad for (anyone’s) business is secondary; such matters remain debatable. The core issue, as I see it, rests in the mindset of those who adamantly oppose the deal on limited evidence, particularly those trying to prohibit it from happening altogether.

As I argue, the problems with such a mindset can be broken into three main areas: (1) a fear of competition itself, (2) a misunderstanding of the company-consumer relationship, and (3) a corresponding pessimism and all-around static view of human ingenuity and potential.

I expound on each, but regarding the third (and most important), here’s an excerpt:

Do we really believe that markets are that unmovable, or that we as innovators, explorers, and dreamers do not have what it takes to meet whatever challenges and needs may arise? Are we really so short-sighted that we Read the rest of this entry »

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WALL-E vs. the Jetsons: Materialism and Technological Progress

Jetsons, WALL-E, technology, progress, innovation, Jeffrey TuckerIn my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I build on Jeffrey Tucker’s piece on the Jetsons and innovation, focusing on the bleak alternative to healthy modernization. As I argue, the society may very well result in the misaligned World of WALL-E.

For Tucker, the Jetsons represent a healthy view of technological progress — one in which the more important human struggles still remain largely intact, with the material stuff staying secondary:

The whole scene — which anticipated so much of the technology we have today but, strangely, not email or texting — reflected the ethos of time: a love of progress and a vision of a future that stayed on courseIt was neither utopian nor dystopian. It was the best of life as we know it projected far into the future.

Yet there is another possibility we all should be wary of.

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

This distinction about a society that “stays on course” is what separates the World of the Jetsons from the World of WALL-E, a realm in which humans assume the role of virtual robots, controlled by their possessions, consumed by their leisure, and subsequently doomed to an existence of myopic and self-destructive idleness.

Instead, the World of the Jetsons is one in which human potential is unleashed. There is a “love of progress,” but such a love is not detached from higher responsibilities and does not confuse or pervert the moral order. For the Jetsons, the stuff remains stuff and life moves on, whether that entails personal goals, family development, community engagement, or a relationship with God (one can only hope, George!).

So what separates the two?  If both worlds experience drastic technological improvements, what changes the people within them? How can we Read the rest of this entry »

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