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Mar 24, 2009

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Peter+

I often have the same feeling about Christian leaders and theologians who speak strongly and often dogmatically about economic questions as I have about young earth creationists. They both fall into a kind of anti-intellectual obscurantism. Both have to ignore conclusive empirical evidence to hold to their assertions and they simply factor that empirical evidence out of their theological or ethical reflections.

Rick McGinniss

Wow, well said.

Rick McGinniss

Blue sky question (and I hope it's not an inappropriate one):

If you had the opportunity to teach a four-week sermon series to a congregation that would help them sift through some of the current economic issues, what would your topics be? (And just to be clear, I'm not talking about a giving or money management series, but something that reflects a biblical mindset towards economics in general).

Your economic work on this site is fascinating to me and I feel like it would be extremely helpful to people in my congregation, but I'm curious as to what three or four nails you would pound if given the chance.

Thanks

Michael W. Kruse

Rick, that is a fascinating question. I'm out of town right now I and just came in from events that ran from 8:00 am until 10 pm. I've got some thoughts but let me sleep on it.

Thanks for you affirmation.

steve

Hi,
I'm working on this very question, down here in New Zealand, as my seminary has called a conversation between business and community leaders and theologians. Here's my suggestion:
Week 1 - creativity - co-creators with God in 21st century - Genesis 1, Psalm 8, Parable of sower, parable of talents
Week 2 - justice - distribution of resources - Old Testament, host in Luke 14, Zaccheus, Joseph of Arimathea
Week 3 - sustainability - how to live within ourselves individually, communally, nationally
Week 4 - how then should we live - stories of how Kingdom is being earthed in local communities in response to credit crunch.

thoughts?

Michael W. Kruse

Steve, you are moving along similar lines to my thoughts. I'll get this eventually but I am swamped in meetings.

Ted Weis

I got a C- in Economics 101 but I get enough to understand-- Thanks, very insightful!

Chris

Ran across this while preparing for Thanksgiving. You make a good point, but here's my question. Whether we are talking about the production side or the distribution side, is scarcity not an indication of human greed? I think the Bible is clear that God provides enough to meet our needs. When people go without, it is because we have misused the resources he has made available. We may misuse them in deciding what and how much to produce, or in deciding how to share what is produced. Either way, I think Bruegemann's basic point holds: in God's economy there is enough. We are the ones to screw that up, even in a free market economy.

Michael W. Kruse

How interesting that you would resurrect this post today. I was just contemplating taking another run at this topic.

“…is scarcity not an indication of human greed?”

We need to begin by asking a scarcity of what? I interpret your comment to reference scarcity concerning the basic needs of life. That is a legitimate use of the term.

When an economist talks about scarcity, it is probably more helpful to talk in terms of limits. As an individual, I have a limited amount of time in each day. I have a limited amount of finances with which to make transactions. I have limits on how fast I can work, what I can physically do, and my mental capacity. These are just a few of my limitations.

Now let’s assume I’m a sinless person. I want to do only good things. My limitations will not allow me to do all the good I want to do today. There is “scarcity” relative to what I want. I must prioritize my actions and use of my resources. Also, understand “scarcity” isn’t just about food, shelter, and clothing. For economists, scarcity refers to the whole bundle of decisions I make about my life, up and down the Maslow Hierarchy Needs.

Now in a sinful world, certainly some of what figures into our decisions are unwarranted wants. Some will argue that if we simply limited our wants that there would be no scarcity. But as I just demonstrated, this does not actually address the issue of scarcity as it used by economist. Each day we will still have to prioritize our lives.

“I think the Bible is clear that God provides enough to meet our needs.”

Enough of what? Virtually nothing we use as humans is provided for us in usable form. Matter, energy, and data must be transformed from less useful states to more useful states. Absent human labor, God has not provided us with an abundance of anything we use. Instead, he makes us his agents in producing abundance to meet our need. We agents experience scarcity and out of that experience we cooperatively produce abundance. God provides the earth and the environment. God gives us health and discernment. But we create the abundance.

Now the issue is that throughout human history there have always been challenges in generating a sustained abundance. Look at Jacob’s life in the Genesis. He goes to Laban’s and returns a very wealthy man. But by the end of his life he is refugee in Egypt, having lost his land and wealth to famine. His life symbolizes the precariousness of abundance that was the norm.

From 10,000 BCE to 1750, the average worldwide annual per capita income rose from $90 to $180 (measured in 1990 purchasing power parity dollars, which keep things constant for inflation and across cultures.) From 1750 to today, per capita income is nearly $7,000. During the same time the population grew sevenfold from just under 1 billion to nearly 7 billion. From 1970 to today, the percentage of the world population living on less than $1 a day shrank from 39% to about 17%. Furthermore, life expectancy at birth … the single best measure of societal well-being … was about thirty years over most of human history. During the past century it has risen to about seventy years old worldwide and nearly eighty in developed nations.

These changes were brought by specialization of labor, expanded trade, and technological innovation. God’s agents found a formula for generating sustained abundance. An expanding number of people are appropriating this formula and joining the abundance. But many are slower to move than others. Sometimes there are culture values that hinder. Sometimes there are oppressive governments. Sometimes geopolitical decisions by the USA and others create barriers.

Wealth is a lot like health. It is not something you can directly transfer to another. If a group of us are healthy, how would we give unhealthy people some of our health? Is there a fixed amount of health in the world that we have disproportionately taken for ourselves … were we greedy? No. What we would do is try to address the issues that cause ill health for our unhealthy friends so they can be healthy.

Similarly, we can give aid and financial resources to others but that will always be quickly exhausted. No ultimate wealth is truly generated for the poor. What is needed is for poor societies to become wealth generating communities … to become more effective agents in their producing their own abundance.

That’s probably much more than you wanted but those are some of my thoughts. ;-)

There is no doubt that greed plays a role in the suffering of the poor around the world. But it is much much too reductionist to simply blame greed. The issue is that we need to equip other agents with the ability to become abundance generators and work for favorable social/natural environments where that abundance can grow. And up until very recently, societies have not had a sustainable abundance because they had inferior formulas for work and trade. God has indeed provided for abundance but we only now figuring out how to do it.

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