Tag Archives: Books

Is God the Ben Bernanke of the Universe?

220px-Ben_Bernanke_official_portraitThis is not really the question that the book God, The Economist by M. Douglas Meeks is asking or answering. Here is Meeks’ summary of his task,

“It is in no way necessary, according to modern economic theory, to consider God when thinking about economy… Thus, however unusual it might seem, I propose to bring the church’s teaching about God, the doctrine of the Trinity, to bear on the masked connections between God and economy.” (xi)

I’m going to follow the headings in the Table of Contents to organize this which means it will be a 9 post series. That seems like a lot, but I think it would be longer if I didn’t do it this way ahead of time. It is a very dense book. I could do another series just combing through the footnotes of the book. Here are the headings:

article-new_ehow_images_a07_m4_44_kind-job-economist-800x800Preface and Introduction
God’s Economy and the Church
Reconceptualizing God and the Economy
God and the Market Logic
God the Economist
God and Property
God and Work
God and Needs
Conclusion

Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Reconciling With Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould took on biological determinism, racism, scientific objectivity, scientific progress, science and religion and much more in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. The primary thrust of this book was to help us come to terms with Darwin and the implications of his ideas for our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Western world has yet to make its peace with Darwin and the implications of evolutionary theory. The hippocampus debate merely illustrates, in light relief, the greatest impediment to this reconciliation–our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness. (50)

I believe that though there has been progress, this continues to be the case in 2011. This book is primarily about science and conversations within science about Darwinian theory, but it touches on religious beliefs and views in a number of surprising ways. I’ve had an interesting ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine about the relationship and nature of both science and religion. I think this is one of the most important conversations that we need to have, particularly as we are facing the crises of climate change and stretching our natural systems beyond the breaking point. Gould believes that the answer lies in Darwin’s theory itself.

I suggest that the true Darwinian spirit might salvage our depleted world by denying a favorite theme of Western arrogance–that we are meant to have control and dominion over the earth and its life because we are the loftiest product of a preordained process. (13)

This is true for both religious and scientific-minded people, as well as capitalists, economists, Marxists, atheists and almost everyone, but the indigenous peoples of the world. It is a mind set which drives our experiment with civilization, agriculture and technology. Gould claims that this is why Darwin waited so long before publishing The Origin of Species. In that first book he only hints at the implications of his theory and waits until Descent of Man to begin to unpack what this means for our way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to nature. The real scandal of Darwin’s evolution was not that it dethroned the idea of creation. Other evolutionists of the time allowed room for God to simply use evolution instead of creation, as many continue to today.

The real scandal was that Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism by which evolution took place, random variation and natural selection, did away, not only with the need for a Creator, but with the special, exalted place of human beings in the great pyramid of creation. While Darwin does away with a particular notion of God, and I believe rightly so, I don’t see his concept of the human beings creatureliness in contradiction with how I read the Genesis story. Indeed, later on in the book Gould also states,

I return, then, to Linnaeus’s compromise–we are both ordinary and special. The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brains. (257)

I have basically stated the same view at other times. We are no more than creatures, but we are certainly unique among creatures. Gould points out that Darwin intentionally refrained from using “higher” or “lower” terminology to describe lifeforms. Instead, it is clear that prokaryotic organisms are perfectly adapted to their own environment and we would not survive in their place because we are terribly suited to their environment. In another passage Gould puts it this way,

What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in an attitude that I attack in several of these essays: our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology. (261)

I have made this same argument many times, not from a scientific perspective, but a religious one, though thoroughly informed by what I know about ecology and agriculture. Now, Gould is an avowed atheist and arrives at his understanding about the world from his knowledge as a scientist. Yet, he refrains from the militant anti-religious zealotry of others by rigorously applying sound principles on both scientific theories and history. He even points out that religious people who held beliefs about the world, which we laugh at now, were sometimes dedicated scientists in their time applying what they knew of science. In his chapter called “The Reverend Thomas’ Dirty Little Planet” he describes the fantastic theories of Thomas Burnet which tried to explain the events described in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood, in rational scientific terms. Writing in 1681 “Burnet’s tale may be fanciful, but his actors are the ordinary physical forces of desiccation, evaporation, precipitation and combustion” (144).
The point here is to remember that our perspective on scientific truth and progress, particularly when reading history, is colored by our current beliefs. This doesn’t mean science has no basis. The reason Gould uses this example is precisely because this religious explanation insisted on rational explanation and was persecuted by the “dogmatists and antirationalists” of his time, not the theists.

But the actual relationship between religion and science is far more complex and varied. Often, religion has actively encouraged science. If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism. (141)

The book is full of interesting stories from the history of scientific thought and development that expound on this theme. Another example was the rationality of beliefs about geologic formation prior to the modern understanding of continental drift. Given the evidence at the time, continental drift was more fantastic than other beliefs held at the time which seem ridiculous now. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the book, that describes the stance that I think both religion and science should take.

Common sense is a very poor guide to scientific insight for it represents cultural prejudice more often than it reflects the native honesty of a small boy before the naked emperor. (109)

I have said often, though perhaps not on the blog, that I don’t believe in common sense. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Common sense is a nonsensical appeal to non-existent wisdom. Standing before the emperor and being willing to speak aloud the fact that he is naked is no small task for religion or science, because as social creatures we are bent towards conformity. However, we have reached a place where as a species we face the fate of lemmings if we do not speak up.

Throughout the book Gould makes claims about the world and evolutionary theory based on what science can tell us right now (or at least in 1977). Yet the last sentence of the book reveals the kind of stance he takes as a scientist, always willing to be swayed by evidence and never wishing to become an irrational dogmatist.

I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers. (271)

This, I believe, is the humble stance of the human being that is both “ordinary and special”, unique among creatures, but not apart or above in any way. This is the kind of thinking our world needs for its own salvation. Perhaps part of the reconciling work of Christ in our time (for the church) is redeeming Darwin by accepting his ideas as they are and then recognizing them in our own tradition, choosing to reject the ways of thinking and acting in our religions, societies and nations that have led and still lead to domination and violence in all its multiplicity.

Does Capitalism Need an Upgrade?

Peter Barnes book Capitalism 3.0 (which is available as a free PDF under a Creative Commons License at onthecommons.org) is a thought provoking and interesting read about the future of capitalism and the future of our world. Barnes vision both of what went wrong in the past and for how to create a more sustainable future within a capitalist structure are compelling. That’s coming from someone who tends to be pretty skeptical of capitalism’s potential to sustain us in the long term. The main idea of Capitalism 3.0 is that we have left the commons out of our economic equation and therefore need to create a commons sector to balance out the private sector that dominates our current model. Capitalism needs an upgrade.

The one-two punch of enclosure and externalizing is especially potent. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatize it. With the other hand, they dump bad stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss of value for the commons. (20)

One of the main points Barnes hits again and again is that private corporations are already using the commons for their own profit. The commons includes nature, community and culture. Nature is the example everyone thinks of when they hear “tragedy of the commons”, but streets, playgrounds, libraries, museums, laws and other shared gifts make up our communities. There are also cultural commons. One example of corporate abuse of cultural commons is all the stories in the public domain that Disney has turned into movies and profited from (Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella to name a few) without adding anything back to the public domain. So, the commons is generally unaccounted for in our economics (except in the case of a few trusts and permanent funds which is, in large part, Barnes’ solution to the problem).

201105041549.jpg

I found Barnes’ history of the evolution of capitalism very helpful in thinking about how we might move forward within the current system (see chart on the right).

Demand, in other words, exceeded supply, and we lived in what might be called shortage capitalism. We could also call it Capitalism 1.0. After the change, we shifted into surplus capitalism, or what I call Capitalism 2.0. In this version, there’s no limit to what corporations can produce; their problem is finding buyers. A sizeable chunk of GDP is spent to make people want this unneeded output. (23)

Understanding this evolution of capitalism puts our current problems in perspective. The scarcity in shortage capitalism of aggregated capital led to the formulation of the modern corporation. This made it possible to aggregate more capital, but there were limits because of other factors. Modern corporations with abundant credit and seemingly infinite aggregated capital were not the more limited entity that were intended under shortage capitalism. By overcoming the limitations of credit and aggregated capital under shortage capitalism, surplus capitalism was able to create our global economy. However, this also created new problems and exacerbated others.

Almost all of the property rights under capitalism so far have been allocated to individuals and corporations. Federal management of forests and other natural resources has fallen heavily on the side of permitting corporations to extract resources for private gain without giving back or caring for the commons. There are some examples of trusts that function in the long-term interest of future generations on the state level. At the heart of this shift is another way of thinking about ownership, property and rights. Barnes’ description of trusteeship sounds a lot like the first chapters of Genesis.

First, ownership isn’t the same thing as trusteeship. Owners of property—even government owners—have wide latitude to do whatever they want with it; a trustee does not. Trustees are bound by the terms of their trust and by centuries-old principles of trusteeship, foremost among which is “undivided loyalty” to beneficiaries. (45)

Beneficiaries include future generations, which don’t factor in to our current economic system. Beneficiaries should also include non-human animals and ecosystems in terms of the natural commons. We all claim to value community, nature and culture. So, why haven’t we included the commons in the economic equation?

Capitalism and community aren’t natural allies. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual acquisition and consumption is usually antithetical to the needs of community. Where capitalism is about the pursuit of self-interest, community is about connecting to—and at times assisting—others. It’s driven not by monetary gain but by caring, giving, and sharing…It’s rarely imagined that community can be built into our economic operating system. In this chapter I show how it can be—if our operating system includes a healthy commons sector. (101)

I’m working on a post about Stephen Jay Gould’s book Ever Since Darwin. Even when he wrote that book in the 1970s it was becoming clear that competition was only part of the Darwinian equation describing the adaptation of species to their environment. We have selected only (or at least primarily) the mutations related to competition as we have developed our capitalist system. Without further adaptation this system will cause its own extinction and possibly our own. Barnes illuminates the possibility of including the altruistic aspects of our human nature through trusts, permanent funds and rights delegated to a commons sector.

As a final note, I was very struck by the idea and possibilities of “predistribution of property”.

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between predistribution of property and redistribution of income. Under income redistribution, money is taken from “winners” and transferred to “losers.” Understandably, this isn’t popular with winners, who tend to control government and the media. Under property predistribution, by contrast, the playing field is leveled by spreading property ownership before income is generated. After that, there’s no need for income redistribution; property itself distributes income to all. According to Rawls, while income redistribution creates dependency, property predistribution empowers. (105)

In my mind this changes the whole conversation about a more equitable distribution of resources. It frames the question of inequality of wealth in terms of property rights. It also transforms the concept of property rights into the right to property which is what we find in the Jubilary laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. The obvious question is what the mechanism would be for creating such a predistribution.

The answer lies in the commons—wealth that already belongs to everyone. By propertizing (without privatizing) some of that wealth, we can make everyone a property owner. (105)

Barnes goes through a lot of detail about how all of this would work including specific trusts and permanent funds at local, state and federal levels, how they might function and what they would manage. I would encourage my economically-minded friends to read more of the detail and give me some feedback. As I said before, even though I tend to be doom and gloom about capitalism’s track record and future possibilities, I don’t have much negative to say about Barnes’ upgrade. It answers many of my questions and the historic problems of the capitalist experiment. The main question seems to be whether or not the current system has the capacity to make these kinds of changes. Barnes is hopeful, but cautions that the window for action in implementing these rights is narrow. I remain skeptical, but Barnes challenged me to envision possibilities I hadn’t imagined and that’s always a good thing.

The New World Religion

When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.

As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).

The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.

In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.

It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.

I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

  • Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
  • Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
  • Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
  • Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.

Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:

  • Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
  • What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
  • What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
  • Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
  • In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?

It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.