What am I going to do today? Whether you’re a meticulous planner or you fly by the seat of your pants, we all face the same reality: Every decision we make to do something today is a decision not to do everything else. We are constrained by the limited number of hours in any given day. But time isn’t the only constraint.
Even if I choose to, I can not repair an engine block or fly a jet. My abilities are limited. Furthermore, I don’t have the tools to fix an engine or access to a jet. My financial and material resources are limited. Constraining all these constraints is my knowledge of tomorrow. What I do today is going to impact what decisions I can make tomorrow.
Then there are the things we need for healthy satisfying lives. They do not materialize out of thin air. God has created a world of great abundance but we are participants in our own provision. As Henri Nouwen observed, we take of the bread and wine at communion, not the wheat and grape. Human beings transform matter, energy, and data from less useful states into more useful states. We must balance our use of resources with the production of resources if we want a sustainable life. We must engage in productive work that either directly or indirectly (through exchange) provides for us. In short, we have a scarce (i.e., limited) amount of time, capabilities, and resources we must prioritize and use each day.
Our decisions do not occur in a vacuum. We live in families and communities. Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses. Living in community allows us to take advantage of each other’s strengths and minimize weaknesses. Managing our scarce resources in coordination and cooperation with others is a benefit to all. When we add communities together we have regions, nations, and ultimately a global community, in which the challenges of coordination and cooperation become incomprehensibly complex. But the question remains the same: Given scarce (i.e., limited) resources, what should each of us do today and how will we coordinate billions of projects?
This question was less complex in the past. The masses lived bare subsistence lives as slaves, landed peasants, or as subjects of overlords. Life was devoted to agricultural production, with the exception of those recruited or conscripted into various forms of service to the elite. Beyond the elite, non-agricultural trade was mostly limited to exchange between people in local communities. By modern standards, the variety of goods traded was very limited and the trade networks were rudimentary. “Economics” reflection was largely devoted to production and consumption issues within the household. Retrospectively, we can see that labor was nearly consumed by simply generating a subsistence living.
All that slowly changed in the centuries of Second Millennium C. E. in Europe, with increasing specialization of labor and expansion of intricate networks of trade. The variety of items traded became more elaborate and the costs became less. Eighteenth Century people like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus began to reflect on what was happening. Over the next century scholars turned to empirical analysis as their work become more focused on these developments. That gave birth to the modern discipline of economics, which at its the core is about discovering how people and societies coordinate their activities given the reality of scarce (i.e., limited) resources. So look at almost any textbook on economics and you will find a definition of economics similar to this one in Greg Mankiw’s industry leading textbook, Principles of Economics: "Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources." (4)
What do leading theologians have to say about this? Douglas Meek’s God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, first published in 1989, has been used as a textbook in seminary’s and Christian colleges.
In Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work, published in 2006, David H. Jensen writes:
Here is an excerpt from a recent article by Walter Brueggemann at WonderCafe called A Biblical Approach to the Economic Crisis:
Finally, William T. Cavanaugh writes in his new book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire:
Do you see the common thread? The only issue these theologians see is distribution. Like manna from heaven, everything we need, from jet aircraft to no. 2 pencils, magically appears. If there is scarcity, it is because someone hasn’t shared. The idea that we somehow participate in our own provision is simply lost on them.
Frankly, this focus on distribution to the exclusion of all else is pervasive among theologians. I have a couple of theories on why this is so. First, the question of production is a non-issue in the Bible. Unlike our day, family heritage and necessity dictated what work you did. You had little control over your productivity. However, you did have control over how you engaged others in transactions and over what to do with your wealth. Thus, "economic" ethics in the Bible is almost exclusively about dealing justly with neighbors and being generous to the poor in face-to-face communities. Since much of church history after the biblical era developed in a similar economic climate, it too reflected these narrow agendas. Thus, unless there is an intentional effort to appreciate what has changed in the past couple of centuries, theologians tend to gravitate toward economic theories that at least seem to concord with the ancient vision and disparage views that may counter-intuitively be more just and effective.
Second, unlike Judaism, there is a long history of ambivalence, if not animus, by Christian leaders toward the marketplace. It persists to this day in many quarters. In many Mainline theological academies, business and economics is what evolution is to conservative institutions ... an idolatrous ethos that is destroying the world.
Still, one of the most important responsibilities we have in a multi-disciplinary dialog is to do our best to accurately characterize what representatives of each discipline are saying about key issues. A cursory reading of any Economics 101 text would reveal that what these theologians are saying is a pejorative misrepresentation of what economists mean by scarcity. Read the rest of paragraph after sentence I quoted above from Mankiw's textbook:
Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources. In most societies, resources are allocated not by a single central planner but through the combined actions of millions of household firms. Economists therefore study how people make decisions: how much they work, what they buy, how much they save, and how they invest their savings. Economists also study how people interact with on another. For instance, they examine how the multitude of buyers and sellers of a good determine the price at which the good is sold and the quantity that is sold. Finally, economists analyze forces and trends that affect the economy as a whole, including growth in average income, the fraction of the population that cannot fine work, and the rate at which prices are rising. (4)
The mischaracterizations above might be forgiven with a college freshman but these are bright educated men. I pointed out at the beginning of this series that economists make their own contributions to misunderstandings between the two disciplines. In this case, it is the theologians who have erected a barrier to serious dialog between theology and economics through ad hominem rhetoric. It is pervasive in Mainline theological institutions.
Next we take a closer look at what has given rise to the intricate economic network that coordinates the vast numbers of people and how that has changed the world forever.