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A Hopeful Appeal

In the contentious political environment that we currently occupy, it is too easy to retreat from political disagreement and instead seek the security of agreement or avoidance. It is a rare pleasure, therefore, in contrast, to be able to discuss economic inequalities in this forum. In her second contribution, Dr. Johnson raises a collection of important arguments, and has identified some areas where we see things differently. Her depth of reflection about the way theology can inform public life has challenged me to think very carefully about things that I care deeply about. This is a great gift. In this final contribution I will reflect on these areas, returning to some of the themes of my original post, and then finish by thinking about what I have learned from our dialogue. Broadly, I would encourage Christians to think hard and long about economic inequalities, and the injustice that they can point to. Because some Christians inhabit a powerful cultural and economic position in the world, it is important for us to study and highlight the dimensions of our tradition that push us to fight these injustices, reconcile with our neighbors, and live into our calling. I will try to share some of my hope and optimism that even if we see significant setbacks, real progress is possible.


What can we offer?

            Let me start with a theme that has emerged repeatedly in our conversation: the question of what the proper role is for Christian ethics in public conversations about inequality.  In our brief exchange, I see Dr. Johnson exhibiting a deep hope in the power of God’s work to transform the way we think and live, particularly in the Church.  I also see a skepticism about the ability for Christian ethics to reform broader economic practices and institutions. Without a full endorsement, she cites Niebuhr’s argument that worldly institutions follow their own logic, and are insulated by the self-serving incentives of those with power from all but the strongest challenges. I see the argument, and I agree in principle. However, I cannot move from this description of the world to the conclusion that “the naive hope that Christian ideals could renew the world became the domain of the pious and ignorant.” There have been too many examples of real change, small and large in scale, that were helped along by individuals who pushed for justice because of their hope regarding God’s work in the world.

            If we fall too readily into a separation between Christian ethics and political reform, it becomes easy for Christian ethics to become something that only applies to us, and only among us. This line of thinking tempts people to share with their neighbors, certainly, but to abandon hope for reforms that would help bring about a more just world. While Dr. Johnson does not shy away from connecting Christian ethics to politics, many Christians do.

            For my part, I see three clear implications of Christian teaching for the topic of economic inequalities. I suspect that these could be embraced across traditions and can guide public policy and individual action.

  1. We cannot pretend that poverty is not a moral problem.
  2. We cannot contend that we owe nothing to our marginalized neighbors.
  3. We cannot claim absolute authority or ownership over our property.

While these ought to be uncontroversial theologically, they have substantial political implications in our culture. They rule out, in principle, the kind of individualism that sours into ambivalence toward those in need. In this, then Christians should have a kind of common ground, and that should narrow (though certainly not eliminate) the range of political disagreements we have to content with regarding economic justice. In practice, of course, there are many Christians who seem not to be constrained by these principles, but the tradition will always push strongly against them. Moreover, these principles, while minimal, can shape our action as citizens, our work as scholars, and our actions as consumers or producers.


Who do we blame?

            In this vein then, I would like to revisit another theme from my first post. In that reflection, I offered three overly-simplistic stories that we tell about economic disparities. Dr. Johnson was right to note that the difference between the three stories is the answer to the question “who is to blame?” Dr. Johnson’s response to these was thoughtful, though I fear I left the point underdeveloped. Too often, when we talk about the economy, we end up falling into predictable patterns of one kind or another. Conservatives tend to lionize entrepreneurs and blame poverty on the poor, progressives tend to lionize activists and blame inequality on those with wealth. Economists, I noted, when they don’t fall into these other patterns, tend to focus only on larger impersonal social forces.

The first two narratives are powerful because there are true stories that validate each. There are many cases of wealth that comes from innovation and frugality, just as there are cases of people gaining wealth through corruption. Similarly, the poor can be victims of injustice and they can also be poor because of particularly destructive choices. If one of these stories dominates our narrative about the economy, however, then we can too easily split the world into good guys and bad guys and put up political or economic barricades. I cannot give a clear path out of these ideological pitfalls, but I try to discipline myself to avoid getting too comfortable with a narrative that allows me to easily assign blame to a person. Moreover, it takes real work to push back against the myths that poor people lazy, or that businesspeople are greedy, or similar stories targeting politicans or minorities. For this reason I truly appreciate the work of scholars, like the authors of this report, who carefully pull apart these assumptions. Even if all of our worst fears are true, when we focus on these stories, we create two problems. First, we make it harder to be charitable toward those with whom we disagree.  Second, we stop looking for the institutional elements that can drive the outcomes we care about.

For this reason, when I noted that trends in education and technology provide the best explanation for rising domestic inequality, I recognize that this argument has it’s own pitfalls. As I noted, and as Dr. Johnson argued, this kind of explanation makes it easy to ignore the moral significance of the increased inequality. This does not mean, as Dr. Johnson argues, that, in this line of argument inequality “is no one’s fault.” It does change the nature of the responsibility, however. Rather than the rising inequality being the fault of those who are rich and those who are poor, it is the responsibility of everyone to politically manage the rules of the economy to favor inclusion and opportunity. An example will help. If go with the story of skill-biased technological change as a driver of inequality over the last 40 years, then the change we have observed is not one of increased or decreased corruption, or laziness or virtue, it is one in which there has been more and more demand for people with particular technology-complementing skills, and less growth in demand for technology-substituting skills. Certainly, this trend is made up of millions of individual choices, but they were the same kind of choices, that, in a previous era produced more equal outcomes and job stability. It is possible to try to look for a villain in this story, but it is not helpful. Instead, focusing on this explanation, for which there is very good evidence, pushes us toward system-wide reforms that invest in human capital and more robust social safety nets.


Global Capitalism and Global Poverty

It is important, when approaching a topic like economic inequality, to start with a broad look at the evidence and trends. It is for this reason that I noted at the start that global inequality has fallen. Even though I believe that global poverty is probably the most important challenge facing economists today, I would never hesitate to celebrate successes.  And we have seen much that is worth celebrating. Here, though, Dr. Johnson is not joining the party, noting that “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.” Here I must offer a clarification. I actually did mean, precisely, that opening to the global economy reduces poverty. There are exceptions, certainly, economic development is not a simple mechanical process, as my interlocutor notes, but there are some reliable principles in economics, and this seems to be one of them.

Even in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, which have seen slower growth than India and China this is the case. (And it is perhaps worth noting that most of the world, for most of history, has seen slower growth than India and China have recently.) According to these data, 53% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, in 1993, were living below $1.90 a day (2011 PPP dollars), which is a standard metric for absolute poverty. By 2013 that percentage was down to 41%. The problem there is still serious, but even with political instability and environmental challenges, there has been marked improvement.  In Latin America, the same measure dropped from 14.5% in 1993 to 4.9% in 2013. The gains have not just been monetary, moreover. Globally, infant mortality has fallen, literacy rates have increased, and life-expectancy has improved for the poorest half of the world.

I have noticed that there is a reluctance to celebrate these kinds of improvements, in part because they complicate stories about about the evils of global capitalism. I am happy to have those stories complicated, because economics is complicated, and global capitalism is sometimes good and sometimes evil and often an infuriatingly messy mix of the two. Too many people only attend to the good or only attend to the bad, but that is not helpful. The real improvements in standards of living that we have seen in recent years are good, and they really can be attributed, partly, to the fact that these people are increasingly connected to, and can participate in, the global economy.

Dr. Johnson notes three reasons to be concerned that it is too early to celebrate.  First, she notes that climate change could limit international trade, and thus these improvements could be unsustainable. This does not mitigate the gains in global inequality, however, it actually raises the stakes. We know that much of the cost of climate change will fall on the poor, both because of the regional distribution of climate effects, but also because those with more wealth are better able to adapt to the changes that are likely to come. It is essential, then, that we invest quickly in the kind of development that will give a more stable foundation to the livelihood of those that will be affected, even as those in the richer parts of the world make rapid changes to our system and lifestyle to minimize climate change-contributing emissions.

The second mitigating consideration offered is that the same system that has produced declining global inequality has produced increased domestic inequality. As such, Dr. Johnson is hesitant to commend the system. In fact, the case could be made stronger. Growing domestic inequality is not unique to the wealthy parts of the world. Within China, as poverty has declined, inequality has probably risen substantially. All over the world, in fact, we have seen increased inequality within countries and decreased inequality globally. Weighing these against each other is no simple matter, though my instinct is that the declines in absolute poverty are far more significant.

The last consideration that Dr. Johnson offers, I must admit, sounds serious, but I cannot be sure what it means. She argues that “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.” And later: “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.” While I understand the reluctance of theologians to make peace with capitalism, I am not sure what soul-deep damage is being referenced here. If there is a pre-capitalist economic system that is far preferable, one that we are losing, then such a claim could make sense. I understand that there are cultural changes that are hastened by economic growth. There are moral challenges that are heightened by increased wealth. There is often a loss of control by traditional authorities. These problems should not be mitigated, but I cannot bring myself, as a person born in a wealthy and stable time and place, to even begin to argue those left out of that wealth for so long should stay out. We must include them, both in the rewards and in the reform, of the system that we now share.


Different starting premises

            This discussion about international inequality is one of a couple of places where Dr. Johnson expresses real skepticism about market economies and profit. I have fewer broad concerns there. Rather than wade into a discussion about the morality of market economies, here, it is probably enough to note that we are likely starting from fairly different starting assumptions about the economy, even if we end up agreeing on many things. Dr. Johnson, I believe, would argue that business is not necessarily bad, but that the system is fundamentally flawed. I am more likely to approve of the system overall, but to be concerned about specific problems. Even if this leaves us in general agreement about tax policy, perhaps, it reflects a deeper disagreement about what progress would look like.

            I would like to suggest that, Cap’n Crunch and obsolescence notwithstanding, there are many things to appreciate about market economies that are easy to take for granted. In some ways markets are a lot like democracy. I complain bitterly about the people who get elected, but I would never imagine creating a system in which people are not able to vote. The analogy is not perfect, but it will help explain, perhaps, how I can spend a career writing about the failings of market economies (I have written about animal ethics, environmental sustainability, consumer waste, virtue formation, technology replacing workers, inequality, and poverty) while still being generally optimistic about our ability to shape a market economy in ways that will make things better.

            In the area of inequality particularly, I am optimistic about our ability to create an inclusive market economy because we have done it before, albeit imperfectly. We have good examples, even if they are all too rare, of rich community organizations, radical investments in education, integration of previously marginalized communities, and innovation oriented toward the common good. Inequality is a particularly persistent problem, and even in a society with constant vigilance there is the likelihood of abuses of power and injustice. This should not prevent us from working hard to build consensus around opportunities for reform.

I would like to conclude my part of this conversation by highlighting what I found most helpful and illuminating in Dr. Johnson’s contributions. Her clear passion for the ensuring genuine well-being of others is evident, and it is reflected in her scholarship and language. Given my interests and training, I am very used to thinking about inequality as an aggregate systemic problem, and an individual problem. Dr. Johnson points out that it is also a problem for community, and particularly for the church.      I appreciate her insistence that the Church can live out its calling as a community by sharing burdens and pointing toward practices of justice. I also admire the way she models a commitment to living with hard truths, recognizing hardship and injustice, especially when it is born by others. It is too easy to become defensive in discussions about injustice when the beneficiaries look like us and the victims look different. These habits of thought position her to naturally experience and reveal God’s heart for the marginalized. I hope that others will read her words and learn from them as well, and that our dialogue will be edifying.

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