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Saturday, August 30, 2003

A Theology of Economics-Part 2.1-The Power of Greed-Quite a bit of feedback on the issues. Bene Diction points out some coffee slavery in Brazil (talk about the lesser angels of our nature!) and was a bit queasy about my Part II. Bene quoted Richard Hall's post in reply , adding
I cannot weigh in on this debate for I have no degree and little knowledge. But, if I have a cup of coffee today, I can pause and thank God the Brazilian government sees fit to value human life on it's plantations, and I can pray for those so desperately poor, they go into forced labour.
Don't worry about the lack of schooling, Bene; Econ's mostly applied common sense, something you have a goodly supply of. I don't have any formal training in theology beyond Bible studies and Sunday school classes, but I'm not afraid to go toe-to-toe with a pastor like Richard on theology. Richard (politely) begs to differ on my look at greed as well.
Greed and self-interest are not the only motivators, and they needn't be the most powerful. Contentment, service to others, personal satisfaction are just some of the things which may motivate us. But if those things are not encouraged and valued, it is not surprising that greed gets the upper hand. And I don't think that there is any denying that it has got the upper hand in our culture.
No, greed need not be that powerful, but it often is. If our culture's education system, including the church, is doing its job, those other virtues will be more predominant. However, even when those other virtues are in the driver's seat, greed grabs the wheel on a regular basis. Let me meditate on those three areas that Richard mentions Contentment-That's a truly Biblical concept. Envy is slapped down in the Ten Commandments and contentment is preached by both Jesus and Paul. One of the blessings of a modern market economy is that we have a cornucopia of goodies to choose from; in an earlier age, the average person had far less stuff and thus less to be envious about. Today, we have more goodies that we have budget to buy. We (at least in the US where commercial TV dominates) are inundated with advertisements for new products; while watching a football game this afternoon, I saw an ad for a electronic cooling necklace thing which would have come in handy walking around kitchy Mount Dora in 90-degree heat today. Had I not seen the ad, I wouldn't have thought of it as an option. Even if you keep away from commercial TV or radio, it's hard to be content when there are so many options. I'm not a big shopper; I did get three CDs at the local Christian store, but that was via a gift certificate from my birthday three weeks ago. Envy creates the desire to get more stuff and drives people to make money. Being a subsistence farmer doesn't cut it any more. However, I don't think we want to go back to subsistence farming, even if it meant less materialism. Our market economy leads to longer, healthier lives. We're having a more abundant life, and that is something Jesus would approve of. Some are having more abundant life than others, but life is better across the board than a century or two ago. Service to others-Altruism is nice if you can get it. If we can get people desiring to help others without compensation, things would run a lot more smoothly. However, that runs counter to human nature and it requires the help of the Holy Spirit to get a selfless person. Here's where moral education kicks in. If we can get people to be other-centered, we'd have less problems. Easier said than done. Personal satisfaction-People can take pride in a job well done and in helping others. However, pride doesn't pay the bills. Even if we get people who are more other-centered and more content, they will still only be less greedy, not saints. My view of economics and the proper size of government falls on two conflicting Biblical concepts; we're supposed to help the poor and that people are greedy sinners. The first lends itself to larger government and high taxes to pay for it. However, at some point, the high taxes discourage people from working hard and investing and we become less well-off (total collective happiness or commonweal) by having more government. At lower levels, bigger government aids the commonweal; the order from police and military, roads, schools and other basic infrastructure adds to the collective well-being. Poverty-fighting programs can, if properly done, add to the commonweal as well. However, if you raise the level of government enough, the taxes needed to finance that level of government discourages people from working hard, and the commonweal will suffer as a result. If we have a population of near-saints, that point where we jump the shark on the commonweal function will be bigger than where we have a greedier populous. However, there will be some point, even in a noble population, where growing the government becomes counter-productive. Political economy (the old name for economics) is the art of figuring out where that point is. Greed can be minimized, especially if the Holy Spirit is in charge. However, assuming that everyone is altruistic and would happily support big tax bills is a major economic blunder. I don't like being a pessimist about human nature, but I don't think that we're naturally good outside of God. Our economics should reflect that. Our theology should strive to bring people to Christ and to minimize that sin nature, but our economics should recognize that man is sinful and that that greedy nature needs a healthy outlet. In order to make as conformable a life as possible for the poor and the rest of us, we need to find that sweet spot that maxes out the commonweal. I'm likely to have a smaller-government vision than Richard does, and that isn't from a lack of interest of helping the poor, it flows from a desire to make the country (and the world) better off as a whole. If that is our goal, we can begin to talk through how to best go about doing that.

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