Friday, June 29, 2007
Now as anyone who has followed this blog knows I never shy away from talking about how “fairness” arguments often misunderstand the wealth-creating properties of the marketplace. I am even Schumpeterian enough (as was today's first letter writer, Fred L. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute) to appreciate that large improvements in the lives of people around the world often comes from firms labeled as big bad “monopolists” by others. However, I wanted to check Mr. Gates original words to see how I felt. I have now read his address, and I have come to the conclusion that the criticisms seem to me to be off track, especially as I as a Christian read Mr. Gates remarks (disclosure: I have no idea as to Mr. Gates religious views, and he did not make any explicitly religious arguments in his address).
I see several important ideas in Mr. Gates’ address. Some I will save for another post at a future time, but here two.
First, I do not believe that Mr. Gates comes anywhere close either to apologizing for his wealth or to adopting a “they are poor because I am rich” view of markets. Indeed, he wants to expand the reach of market forces: “We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities.” What Mr. Gates also says is “When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.” This is completely consistent with a Christian concept that no one is a self-made man or woman. All of our gifts (our families, our talents and skills, those teachers and bosses and friends who have helped us and encouraged us along the way) are gifts from God. Further, we are required to love our neighbors as ourselves, with specific attention paid to vulnerable people such as orphans, the sick, and prisoners. Did Jesus put any limits on what was expected from those of privileged backgrounds? This question leads us to Mr. Gates second point.
Mr. Gates recounts the advice of his mother who said, “"From those to whom much is given, much is expected." In addition to being the same advice Uncle Ben gave to Peter Parker, it is also an almost exact re-telling of Jesus’ words in Luke 12: 48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
"Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin." - Deuteronomy 24:15
Eventhough, the benefit may be greater if paid on the back-end is it at all in violation? Arguments for and against are all welcome.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Side Note: I had an idea to do a paper about this by going to a church auction and place two identical goods far apart from each other so they didn't conflict and having one marked fair trade, made in
They extrapolate that data to differentiate the price people are willing to pay for items based on their charitable links such as "fair trade coffee versus Folgers". Previous experiments run on charity auctions indicate that people aren't willing to pay very much more for items than their retail value. This study suggests 6% more than the item's value but other papers such as Isaac and Schneir suggest no increase in bid on charitable goods over a regular retail item. (This of course doesn't account for unique one-of-a-kind items which have been found to be very good for charities)
The Main Idea: If you charge a higher price, because of your link to charity, you reduce your market size.
The implication of this statement is whether you're paying the low wage workers in another country on the front-end or the back-end. If you reduce your market by paying "fair trade" (which is sometimes hard to tell what that really means, like who is the money really going to? It may not be going to the worker in the field, an article titled The Bitter Cost of Fair Trade Coffee by Hal Weitzman from the Financial Times is one of many of the same articles) you may not be in business very long because you've just increased your cost of supplying the good, which reduces your maket.
However, if you sell your item at a competitive price then you will have a greater market. Then all things being held equal, the warm-glow of purchasing an item at a non profit versus a non-charity for profit can take effect and pull over customers. I suspect this will lead to more money for the workers in the field on the back-end. Also, by sponsoring a child or family you can assure that most of the money will be going to them.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
The Wall Street Journal today and the Institute for Justice have discussions of the reforms that have been enacted (or not enacted) over the past two years. The Institute for Justice documents Justice O'Connor's warning....the takees in these property grabs are disproportionately poor and minority property owners.
The ironies in all of this are amazing. After all, the use of eminent domain to counteract "blight" is a holdover from the "urban renewal" crusades of American Progressives in the 1940s and 1950s, in which large parcels of American inner cities were bulldozed so that Stalinist architecture housing projects could be put in their place. We know how successful those were. As long ago as the 1970s, city bureaucrats in Pasadena promoted tearing down a large section of old businesses to build an underground parking garage topped by an above-ground shopping mall. Today Pasadena scrambles to promote what few actually old sections remain as historic, while the shopping mall has needed its own "urban renewal." The political coalition that unsuccessfully tried to stop the Pasadena mall was an unusual pairing of middle-class libertarian-leaning conservatives and historic preservation-leaning liberals. The same weird coalitions exist today as local governments try to use the power of governmental takings to end "blight" (in the form of property owned disproportionately by minorities and the poor). It would be an interesting study to go into these communities to see where the "social-justice" Christian pastors and the "limited government" big business interests stand. I wonder what Amos would have said?
"For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
For you oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts."
Friday, June 22, 2007
Perhaps 30 years is long enough that our collective memory fades. For those of you who don’t remember the 1970s, go online or to dead-tree publications to learn about how really bad things were in the Ford-Carter years. I worked on Capitol Hill at that time, and President Ford’s decision to sign a truly awful energy bill probably was one of the things that doomed his Presidency. The same thing can be said about President Carter’s continuation of those policies. The buzzword now is “price gouging.” That’s very clever. Who can say they are in favor of price gouging, especially if one is a Christian? Well, I will come close. Binding price controls, especially on a market such as energy, distort markets, lead to long lines and other bizarre rationing processes, discourage productive investment activity that might actually solve the underlying problem, promote political and private corruption, and generally torque-over the people they are supposedly designed to help. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that refutes anything I have just said, and to believe that the Bible does refute what I have said is the equivalent of misreading the Bible to argue that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. If you are a Christian and you are in favor of the mess that goes with binding price controls, that’s fine, but don’t count on using either economics or biblical scholarship to deny the likely consequences.
Let me just make one further comment on how disastrous price controls can be. One of our big problems in dealing with health care in this country is the large extent to which our health insurance plans are tied to our places of employment. One of the roots (although not the only one) of this unfortunate situation is the extent to which benefits (such as health insurance) were used as a way to get around wage controls during the World War II era. This distortion continues to cause us problems over 60 years later.
Monday, June 18, 2007
There is a new crop of church coffee shops that have popped up around the nation, either acting as a ministry to the church or an organization that funnels some of the money back into the community, or both. Many people refer to this as "third space evangelism", a term coined by David Fitch, author of The Great Giveaway. The idea behind this concept is that people interact mostly with their faith at home or at work. Where will the third space be? A coffee shop perhaps? I'm interested in evangelism but a lot of my interest lies in the mechanics of what could be a new economic revolution.
David Rasmussen, the Dean of Social Sciences at Florida State, was saying that free markets are the triumph of trust, not the triumph of greed. Many in the church may disagree with that statement, believing that capitalism is an evil machine. However, capitalism can bank some major dollars for the suffering and impoverished.
One of the most beautiful things about the coffee shops is that they're selling something to people that people "need" or would at least otherwise buy. Rather than selling M and M's door to door these folks are set up as normal business operations that sell a desired good for a good cause. Rather than being profit maximizers they are retained earnings maximizers. What is to say that coffee shops and restaurants are the end? Why couldn't there eventually be more non profit businesses selling people things that they would otherwise buy elsewhere?
In upcoming posts I will write about some of the finer points of the non profit. This is something that interests me very much and I will be writing my thesis on this topic. Like a hub there will be some spokes to this central topic too.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
In the headline, he is called a "Devout Doctor" and the cartoon illustration is of him toting a giant medical book and a giant Bible to Washington D.C.. The subheadline talks about how he "reconciled science with religion". Most bizarrely, a back page heading says "On his bookshelf, Dr. Landry keeps the biography of John Paul II. In his bathroom, he sets up physics demonstrations for his sons." I mean, DUH.
My father was a geologist who was a deacon in the Presbyterian church and who would describe to me in loving detail how many million years old various rocks and fossils were.
Or how about this: My bookshelves are jammed with books by famous economists (and a Bible) while Doug and I discuss the meaning of topics as varied as optimization models, fixed costs, unexpected effects, and the emergence of cooperation... but also mission projects and the Kingdom of God. Maybe I should alert the Wall Street Journal.
In a sense, the WSJ headlines are a minor thing compared to what is basically a really interesting article, but they suggest a lot about how BiCoastal media types view Christians. How did we get to this situation? I have some thoughts, but they are lengthy and don't flow very well right now, but I will see if I can make some sense of them for a future post.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Saturday, June 9, 2007
My guess is that when people think of the Bible and economics, the story of the rich young man must be in the top handful of passages that come to mind. The plot is familiar. The young man approaches Jesus and asks (ESV, the Mark version) "Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Then Jesus leads him through a series of question on goodness and the important commandments, and then comes the surprise: "You lack one thing: go sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." The Bible says that Jesus loved the rich young man, who left disheartened because of his many possessions. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says: "It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of the needle* than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God."
In terms of economics, this saying has caused an exciting variety of tap dancing in the pulpit. Even the most left-wing pastor will still own a used VW bus and a pair of sandals --- nobody sells EVERYTHING. So usually the message is that Jesus comments are a metaphor for him asking "a lot" of all of us, or that giving much to the poor is an important goal, or that we shouldn't be distracted by our possessions. But here are my hard questions. Jesus didn't say "sell a lot of your stuff." He said sell "all that you have." Is this an economic argument about balancing that pain of the last toy we sell with the incremental increase in the size of the eye of the needle? If everyone in the world sells everything they have and gives to the poor, does that mean the formerly poor who now have everything in turn have to sell all that they've received? But who do they give to? I am reminded of a parody I read years ago in perhaps either MAD magazine or National Lampoon of the stained glass window in an Episcopal church showing a camel gliding easily through the eye of a needle.
Here is my heretical take. This story isn't about measuring how many possessions we have to give up in order to go to heaven. It's about Jesus leading the rich young man away from two maintained assumptions. Re-read the young man's question again: the two maintained assumptions are "what must I do?" and "eternal life". First Jesus goes after the "I must do" part. What about the commandments? I do that..and so forth. What Jesus is saying is that if you see your salvation in what you will do, you can never do enough. Secondly, even though the text is explicit that the rich young man's question was on "eternal life," Jesus does not use those words with his disciples. He talks about the Kingdom of God. Many of us assume that they are the same thing. I don't think so.
To me, the separation occurs in Jesus command. The "I must do" and "eternal life" assumptions are grouped together: "Go sell all that you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven". The second part mentions nothing about a list of works or about eternal life, simply "Come, follow me." I believe that Jesus is saying that his message is not about what we do by ourselves in order to get our ticket punched for the eternal life express; it's about "Come, follow me" now, into the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
* I had a pastor whose roots were in the Middle East who said that the image of a camel loaded with many possessions having a hard time getting through a narrow gate in a city wall (the "eye of the needle") would have been familiar to the disciples.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Over the past couple of days Doug and I have been struggling with the obvious tension in the Kingdom of God being “at hand” --- almost... but not yet. One part of the Kingdom of God is the actual triumph of God at the end of history through Jesus. There is no real use for any economic model there---God’s reign will make the attributes of economics irrelevant. But the other part of the Kingdom is “thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” for which Doug and I believe economics can have a great deal to say.
Doug and I were discussing the parallel question of the timing of judgment: God’s forgiveness now contrasted (?) with the judgment that takes place when “He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” I instinctively reached for one of my favorite sources, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Question 52:
Q? What comfort does the return of Christ “to judge the living and the dead” give you?
A. That in all affliction and persecution I may await with head held high the very Judge from heaven who has already submitted himself to the judgment of God for me and has removed all the curse from me; the he will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but he shall take me, together with all his elect, to himself into heavenly joy and glory.
I don’t want to debate whether everyone would agree that this is a good answer to the question (I'm sure the answer is "no"). What I want to talk about here was why it was that when Doug was asking me what I believed that I instinctively turned to this tract from almost 450 years ago. Rob Bell says that theology is just the springs on the trampoline, and I think he’s correct. But theology is just a way of different people telling the same story at a different time and place. When Rob Bell makes a NOOMA video that says that theology is only the springs on the trampoline, the irony is that he is doing theology, as he is in all of his videos. One reason I am sure Rob Bell is so popular is that he is an excellent story-teller, he makes a good point, and he makes it memorable. 450 years ago, people made their point and made it memorable by writing it in a series of questions that people could memorize: a catechism. The Heidelberg is my favorite.
One problem of course is that, as they say in Three Amigos, the Church has had a plethora of catechisms and creeds until the springs on the trampoline have twisted into one another; that’s not healthy. But, despite the dated debates with the Catholic Church, I really treasure the Heidelberg Catechism. And, it’s instructive to remember that the two authors were 28 and 26 years old. Let me close with the famous first question.
Q? What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
This last part about making "me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him" is the sanctification that Doug just discussed and that I am certain you will hear more about from this blog.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
"God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore." (1 Kings 4:29) Solomon writes many of the proverbs and at the introduction of the book of Proverbs he states that the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of the Lord. It's not like a zombie scare, or frightened by a ghost, type of fear, it is a reverence for God above all others. So that reverence is the beginning of wisdom.
Jesus says that a wise man will hear his teachings and apply them, "like a wise man that builds his house on a rock." So this wisdom that comes from taking God from the edges of our lives and putting Him in the center will lead us in our transforming. From this act all other actions follow. If you read through the book of Proverbs you also know that many of the verses are about poverty and justice. This is the way we're to behave towards one another, each interaction with great measure of wisdom and dignity.
That's what I believe about social justice. It is meant to guard man's dignity. Like Mark said there is more to come, let me leave with an example. We are to take care of the widows, but that's certainly changed with the roles of women in society changing. Many women have as marketable a skill as men so is this command null and void? I don't think so, but I do think it can be captured by Jesus' "least of these" statement. We clearly have a charge to care for the disadvantaged, whatever category they fall into.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The time is fulfilled.
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Believe in the Good News.
Notice that this doesn’t say anything about our souls or any eternal heaven or hell. I believe that there is some kind of eternal existence, whose ultimate fulfillment is foreshadowed by Jesus own resurrection. But I find that I agree with a long list of contemporary writers (N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Rob Bell) who argue that it is a mistake to characterize Jesus mission primarily as a ticket-punching exercise as to which “souls” do or do not go to heaven with Jesus or to a South-Park hell populated by Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
Doug and I will be writing a lot here about the Kingdom of Heaven. But I think that there is also an opposite danger in identifying the Kingdom of Heaven as purely a code for social interaction. In ways that we will discuss, Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of Heaven must return to the personal. That is to say, it is also possible to go too far in the direction that Jesus’ message is simply a roadmap for nice behavior. Through somewhat different paths Doug and I over the past weeks have both come to a similar point: even if the Kingdom of Heaven represents a world in which justice for widows and orphan is realized, if we simply have a world in which a lot of people help widows and orphans, we do not necessarily have the Kingdom. (See Doug’s post on Summer Lovin’ below). To put it another way, kingdom behavior is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Kingdom itself. We must return to what happens to people to complete the story. The Kingdom of Heaven requires a transformation of individuals. But what does this mean? More to come.
Monday, June 4, 2007
1 ) It is axiomatic that the Lord is a jealous God. Perform a “jealous God” search on Bible Gateway to see what I mean. But this jealously is essentially unidimensional. God is not jealous when we also love our family or flowers or puppies or Mustang convertibles, as long as we do not worship them. What He does demand is that we have no other gods before him. Yes, it is true that the prophets tell of a failure of justice in the kingdoms; but first and foremost the prophets’ story is of a people who began worshipping other gods.
2 ) But what does it mean for the Lord to be “jealous?” The words for jealously seem to have to different meanings in different contexts: the Lord’s jealousy versus earthly envy. Many bibles (especially more traditional texts) use “envy” for the Paul quotes, indicating a covetous desire to possess someone or something belonging to someone else. Love is not “envious”. To reinforce this point, my Bible (ESV) actually quotes Paul as saying, in II Corinthians 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a Godly jealousy.” Wanting to flesh this out, I went to my dictionary. It distinguishes between jealousy as envy and jealousy as a sovereign carefully guarding his rights. In this sense, the Lord being a jealous God does not mean that “the Lord is resentfully envious”, it means “you belong to God and God is zealous and careful and watchful in making sure that you honor no one else.” I am envious if my neighbor buys a Jaguar and I eat my insides up wishing I had one. The Jaguar belongs to my neighbor and I covet it. On the other hand, we belong to the Lord, and He jealously guards that relationship. Envy doesn’t enter into it.
3 ) One could also look at the “God is Love” verses, but to do so would require a discussion of what the meaning of the word “is” is, and I just don’t think I want to go there.
Sunday, June 3, 2007
"On a hot sabbath, i am prompted to say that Darfur is a catastrophe that could and should be solved in an hour or so. The killers largely operate from helicopters and small fixed wing aircraft. We could destroy them all in an hour or so. But that would be "wrong," because it would violate the current hymnal.
Go tell the victims. Explain why sanctions are better, because it makes the Western politicians feel pious. Even though black Africans are being slaughtered.
And while you're at it, tell the starving people of Zimbabwe why their killer and oppressor, Robert Mugabe, is left untouched by the entire outside world. Explain why St Nelson Mandela doesn't give a damn, while you're at it.
The Middle East is tough. These African horrors are relatively easy to fix. But nobody does a damn thing except talk about sanctions...and then largely fail to enact and/or enforce them.
When did Western leaders become vulgar Marxists? These evils do not have economic causes and are unlikely to be defeated by economic means (remember the Iraqi sanctions?). They have political causes and can be defeated by superior fire power."
Saturday, June 2, 2007
In his description ennumerated in the last post Paul writes that we can do all of these great things but if we have not love we profit nothing. If love = God then if we don't have God we profit nothing? (I can see that, it sounds right, kind of like the author of Ecclesiastes) Maybe this is all moving in the wrong direction . . . but I'll keep going until someone tells me I need to stop. In Paul's description of love later in chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians he says
Love is patient (I dig a patient God)
Love is kind (Sweet!)
Love is not jealous (wait!)
Okay, that's where it gets me because all the rest of what he says seems to line up with my concept of God. God doesn't keep record of wrongs, He casts our sins into the sea of forgetfulness (Micah 7:18-19, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12), He isn't self seeking, he has no narcissistic streak, he asks to be worshipped because he knows that in our worshipping of him that we are transformed (Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "It behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we worship is what we are becoming.") . . . but Jealousy!
I've always been told that God is a jealous God, unless the jealousy that God has is because of his own righteousness involved, but tell me what you think.
God=love=not jealous, therefore God=not jealous?
To me the orange meant that we are to start our days with confession, repentence, and forgiveness. It helps us understand who we are, what God is like, and the joy of salvation. I believe it's true that we are in continual conversion to Christianity. I want to wake up each day and like starting it with a glass of orange juice start it with reorientation. The reorientation is around love, this is where I head into my question of the article.
The season for marriages has already kicked in as we (as a culture) seem to prefer spring and summer weddings. Many will read Paul's description of love from his first letter to the Corinthians, "Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous . . .", I read over this whole passage slowly but it was the verses before it that really grabbed me,
And if I give all of my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:3You can give your body over to martyrdom but it doesn't mean anything if it wasn't generated by love it means nothing, it's not for our salvation. You can give all of your possessions to feed the poor but you can still not have love. To do good works seems to be independent of love. I suppose I always knew this but it really hit me reading that verse. You can do some amazing things but if you have not love it doesn't [profit you].
This brings me to something that one of our readers commented on about wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We need both, if we were not wise we wouldn't get much accomplished but if we weren't innocent we would lose sight of why we were doing it in the first place.
Friday, June 1, 2007
A similar train of thought is in an article by Nina Shea on today's National Review Online. She takes to task one of the most visible "save Darfur" organizations for, as I would put it, de-emphasizing the hard task of deriving practical solutions to make this stop. Just to be sure that Shea wasn't being unfair, I went to the main site of the Save Darfur Coalition. Indeed, it seems to be heavy on the "wear a wristband and tell our government to just do something" type approach, although President Bush's recent initiatives appear to be getting a fair amount of play.
Shea's point is that "genocides don't just happen." In this case, she claims that it is a fiction that the government of Sudan wants this to stop. So, the real policy issue is what incentives do we have to change the behavior of these very specific people? We faced this in Kosovo, and ended up with a military operation.