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The Stories We Tell

First , I want to offer my appreciation for Dr. McMullen’s post, which avoids ideological home bases in favor of practical and serious work to promote human well-being. I know, because I faced it, what a challenge it is to respond to these questions, and I applaud both the clarity and attention to complexity that he captured.

A key area on which we agree is that questions of poverty and wealth are questions of moral import, political questions in the sense that they require discernment by a community about what is good. The economy is not just a procedure, a quasi-mechanical system; it serves an end. Economic interests do not necessarily create good results, if left to themselves, and some very important goods, particularly public goods, need to be fostered by means other than the market. Such goods are beneficial in ways that have to do both with a good business climate and also with humanity. In short, I found much in Dr. McMullen’s vision thoughtful and clearly driven by moral concerns as well as scholarship.

But that is not to say that I agree on all points. Some of our differences are a matter of disciplinary formation, but I want to begin by exploring some points on which I think we disagree, in hopes that Dr. McMullen might explore them further.

 

A story of global progress

I am aware of the numbers showing a significant reduction in extreme poverty in India and China, with rather different results in Sub-saharan Africa and Latin America. The danger is in turning those measures into the story that opening to the global economy reduces poverty. Dr. McMullen did not embrace that story, but he also didn’t repudiate it. In this case as in the others he referred to, there are reasons to be skeptical.

First, and principally, climate change means that path, as it has been trodden, cannot continue. In particular, fossil fuels, as he recognized in comments about the coal industry, are doomed to extinction, though they are dug in and clinging for all they are worth. While alternative fuels are ramping up, it is far from a given that global trade will be able to continue as it has, for the simple problem of transporting goods over great distances without fossil fuels. And poverty, driven by, for example, rising sea level,  extreme weather, ocean acidification, and drought, seems doomed to rise. Factors outside the usual economic indicators ones will have a grave effect on the safety and longevity of humans in the next century.

Second, when we note that in the US at the same time inequality— not just inequality, but that inequality that means people have sunk into more insecure lives and lost more ability to flourish— it becomes dubious to claim that this system, climate considerations aside, can continue to produce such results and that worldwide. I’m not arguing for an anti-business position: good work, in which people have not only a wage but some access to power so that the control of that work is in local hands, is key to ending poverty and honoring human dignity. Efforts that promote locally-controlled, sustainable business are important steps. But that sort of work is not what opening to the global economy is best at producing.

Third, there are qualitative issues involved as well, both for those in poverty and for the rest, and while they fall outside the boundaries of wealth disparity as such, they certainly are part of human flourishing. The damage done by the global economy credited with reducing poverty is soul-deep, insofar as to profoundly transforms our relationships to our producing and to other producers, to our land, and to our desires. Here I know I may be charged with raising a point of criticism without a constructive proposal, and I admit that it’s true. I don’t have the fix. But the point has to be made as well, that further growth of the global consumer economy is not good news, including for many of those in poverty, whose families and traditions and home places maybe their last wealth.

I am not happy to rain on such an important parade. Changes that result in more people getting an adequate diet and shelter has to be welcome news. But it’s important not to present this happy news as a simple win for the good guys, much less as a prescription for the future.

 

On the working of the market

Does our market economy create value and distribute wealth? As Dr. McMullen might point out, the answer is only partly yes. It’s the way the system is set up, to encourage production of goods people will buy, so that producers, by competing with each other, become more efficient and also earn profit. But that is theory, and the evidence in reality is far from that rosy. Producers are incentivized to produce what will sell for as profit, and that does not necessarily mean they are incentivized to produce what is actually good for human life. Schemes of planned obsolescence are one illustration; the existence of Kap’n Krunch would be another. Goods are sold and payment is made in return, but that is not to say that human needs are met, certainly not efficiently or prudently for the longterm.


In fact, insofar as the great economic problem is no longer that we have to encourage production in order to meet needs but that we produce so much that we have to stoke demand among those who have means to buy, it can be more accurate to say that the market economy has to create desires that can be profitably met in the short term. We can call that ‘creating value.’ But it that isn’t the same thing as filling human needs.

The way the market creates value is more dubious than it appears, on its face. And so is the way it distributes wealth. I’ll go ahead and admit that I have not read Picketty. But I would be curious to know what Dr. McMullen thinks of his evidence that wealth tends to accumulate more wealth, rather than to spread it around. I realize that his support for an estate tax would go some significant way to help address that dynamic. That corrective is necessary because of the functioning of the system, not because of its failure.

Dr. McMullen has been clear that he recognizes the limits of the market, that there are public goods and human needs that cannot be met by the market. Obviously, I agree. I think where we differ is that I don’t see how we can maintain a system where those are only a margin around a material order that is in the main organized by this system. Fundamentally, I worry that relying on the logic of growth to serve human well-being seems like relying on a cancer to sustain health.

Three alternate stories

I appreciate Dr. McMullen’s attention to the power of simple stories to shape our thinking, especially to shape it in such a way that we ignore contrary evidence. I’d be interested in hearing which parts of these stories he judges to be true and which false. As to his first story, people with little wealth are often risk averse, for the reason that even a modest loss could be devastating for them. When, in the early 2000s, many people of modest means were persuaded to take a risk by buying a house they would not have thought they could afford, part of the rhetoric that persuaded them to sign on was the claim that they should not be so risk-averse that they miss opportunity. Of course, when those loans went bad, the talk turned against them: what sort of foolish or immoral people had signed on for loans that they couldn’t pay? I cannot see that there is any the idea that poor people choose poverty (a few religious orders excepted)? Meanwhile, although some risk-taking is part of any successful business, investors are also very cautious about risk, and hedging to manage risk is a key element of finance.

As to the second story, dishonesty and manipulation are human characteristics, and no class has a monopoly on them. People who have superfluous wealth are not necessarily evil geniuses, any more than people lacking in what they need are necessarily always honest and caring. But corruption and injustice does play a role in causing poverty. As my own focus on historical injustices indicates, I think accountability for a history of such corruption is morally necessary. More worrying, because it indicates a more subtle and pervasive problem, are studies showing that greater wealth can be correlated with a lack of empathy do exist.

Meanwhile, every person who is poor has a story, and those may involve foolish choices, a lax work ethic,  or taking one step too many on the road to addiction. So may the stories of those who have plenty, for whom such choices have less drastic effects. 

While story #1 blames the poor and story #2 blames the rich, story #3 claims that it is no one’s fault. The appeal of this story, intellectually, is that it avoids simple good guy/ bad guy plot lines. Sometimes, things just happen. Economics, after all, specializes in unintended consequences.

In that way, then, the story indicates that technology and its social impact are in some sense out of human control. There’s good reason to say that: technology has a logic within itself, and our claims that we can control it, that we can use it for our own good, have repeatedly been shown false. We are creatures caught in “the technocratic paradigm,” (Laudato Si, Chapter 3) thinking initially that we are seizing control of natural power so that it would serve us, only to find after a time that we ourselves are the ones being controlled. I remain not quite satisfied with the usual solution, that we need to develop our moral abilities to catch up. But it is the best answer on offer.

What I want to flag here is that saying this was not a matter of human control is no consolation. There were human decisions, human actions involved. Sometimes we find ourselves in a moment of moral tragedy, where we have no good option. In such cases, honesty about our limits and courage in facing the results of our actions may be the best we can do. That is mitigation, but it is not exoneration. Since those who had the power to make the choices that had hard-to-predict or impossible-to-avoid consequences are not the poor who suffer from them, I find the claim that story #3 is about something that is no one’s fault less than convincing.

 

Last but not least, the Christian story

While I agree with much that Dr. McMullen says about Christianity, my reading of scripture and tradition differ in two significant ways.

One is in reading scripture as in the first place the church’s book, a book about the life of the church in the world. And so I give greater attention to the question of wealth disparity within the community of faith and as a matter of evangelical witness to the world. I take that approach not so much because I see something wrong with considering global economic relations without reference to the church, but because it is so rare to see anyone identify economic inequality as an ecclesial matter. It is, and for those of us who hold that the church lives from God’s presence with it, that that presence is a ministry for the sake of the world, the frustrations and vast possibilities of the church are at the center of the story.

The second has to do with the language of blessing and stewardship. Dr. McMullen points out, rightly, that land, herds, and children are counted as blessings in the Old Testament. They are distinguished by their ripple effect, their expansion to foster more life, more relationship, and the laws of the Torah (like the Jubilee) promote redistribution to ensure poverty does not become generational.

But the Bible certainly does not assume that all wealth is a blessing given by God. It can be wrongfully gained, and it can be related to vices of envy, hatred, and luxury.

When in the New Testament, we hear that the poor called blessed, while the rich hear “woe,” when the Blessed One himself has no place to lay his head, when he tells his followers to take up their crosses and follow him, to die to self, that is a development, not a contradiction, of the earlier view.  God intends humans to have full life, but we live in a world of sin. Often, when sin is invoked in discussions of economic matters, it comes up as part of an appeal to modest expectations. Sin is thought o mean that we cannot have a world in which there are no poor among us because sin prevents it, and attempting to correct that would create worse errors— totalitarianism, among them. I read the presence of sin to mean something quite different: it means Christians are called to bear with one another patiently, to endure the injustice of the world in a way that proclaims something new within it, to do penance for their own sins and for the sins of all in a spirit of confidence, in joyful hope.

That is not a claim that one could make for all of the world, since those who have not died and risen in Christ might find it simply bizarre (or might find something in it attractive, as can happen). It is perhaps not an economic claim, insofar as economics has since the late18th century begun to operate on philosophical grounds separate from the theological and even later from the political. It is, nevertheless, a claim Christians ought to hear. It’s costly, and it’s grace.

The most famous opponent of the view I just espoused would be Reinhold Niebuhr, who made a very persuasive case that such Christian ideals may influence individuals sometimes, but are useless in social ethics, as social bodies operate quite differently. Needing to protect their own, relying on the encouraging feedback from others in their group, social bodies will not be able to give up anything of their own power, unless they are forced to do so. After Niebuhr, the naive hope that Christian ideals could renew the world became the domain of the pious and ignorant. Real social ethics abandoned that path.

The evidence on Niebuhr’s side is impressive. On the whole, he was right to identify the way self-interest and self-deception operate in social groups. The exceptions are those cases in which Christians have acted as social bodies that are the corporate body of Christ. Christianity is not an individual calling, to be exercised in such limited ways as might be possible within ‘reality,’ which is not Christian. It is a corporate calling, to be a different people. This people cannot be a niche market, a utopian escape from the profane world. That’s not their calling, for one thing, but it would be impossible anyway. A third of the world’s population identify as Christian, across continents and social classes and races; that is not a small group who can withdraw into an enclave of delicious unanimity.

With that in mind, it may be clearer why I criticize “stewardship.” As a term Christians used to describe responsible ownership of wealth, stewardship took off during the English reformation, and from the beginning, it was a way of ensuring people that the wealth they had gained in questionable ways could be put to good use anyway. Whatever good that terminology may have done— and it may have done some real good in encouraging people to think of their ownership as limited by God’s more fundamental authority— it has conveniently displaced other Christian claims, such as the community of goods in Acts, the call to leave all and follow Christ, the penitential redistribution of Zaccheus, and the communal feasting required in the Torah.

Interestingly, the universal destination of goods is not the language used when my church calls for my contributions. The reason, I’m sorry to say, seems to be that the universal destination of goods is less liable to comfort and flatter those who have superfluous wealth.

Not all wealth has been gained unjustly. Not all business ventures are exploitative. But until the church is able to talk honestly and hopefully about real injustices, historical and present and looming into the future, it has not yet awakened the full moral sensibility needed to address our reality in boldness and joy.

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