Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Greed can be Everywhere We Go

Templeton Foundation hosted a forum in October/November about whether capitalism corroded individual morality. My response, which you can find in an earlier post “The Chicken or the Egg?,” was that capitalism did not corrode morality but provided an ever-present incentive to engage in corrupt or immoral behavior.

Just as Mark mentioned in the previous post, whatever morality we attribute to a system comes from the people inside the system whether it be economic, political, family, etc. One common critique of the capitalist system is that the prevalence of greed. People act in completely self referential ways that cause them to want to possess, acquire, and destroy. In other words, they act out of the dark love known as eros. That greed happens I do not believe is disputable just read the newspapers. But, I want to submit to you that government is also merely a system that can also attract greed.

One problem economists understand is the moral hazard problem. People act out of their own incentives and not the desire of the people that designed the system. For example, someone takes advantage of disability payments even though they are capable of work –or- an individual remains on medicaid despite their current support from someone they have not yet married. Sometimes economists place too much emphasis on the fact that people do game the system and not enough on those who are legitimately helped. Parenthetically, one interesting question arises, “How much does a government program need to be gamed in order for us to consider other options?”

Finally, people taking advantage of a situation and extracting resources that were not intended for them can occur in the free market and government. CEOs pay themselves exorbitant salaries during unsuccessful years and lower income people sometimes take advantage of resources that they were not supposed to receive. The root of such activity seems to be self-love and greed –which is idolatry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Total Depravity

Two incredible events of the last few days would seem like they came from stale plots from a bad television show if they were not happening under our eyes. First, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has filed a criminal complaint, complete with wiretapped telephone conversations, showing that Illinois Governor Blagojevich was attempting, for all intents and purposes, to trade the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-Elect Obama for political favors. Secondly, a securities dealer specializing in services to the rich and famous has been charged with fraud, conducting for years what appears to be essentially a Ponzi scheme, with fraud in the billions.

The lesson from this is that human beings are, to steal a phrase, “totally depraved”. This does not mean that human beings are incapable of good: that’s obviously not true. What it means is that our sinfulness is capable of touching all aspects of our humanness. As an economist, I think that is particularly relevant when people insist on associating the marketplace with greed, allegedly quoting Adam Smith, but more likely channeling some Hollywood screenwriter. Governor Blagojevich corrupted the political sphere. And, Ponzi schemes are not simply a violation of trust in the marketplace, they are already illegal under our political system. So sin touches our economic, political, social, familial, congregational and even our spiritual lives.

In fact, as Doug has argued in several places, the morality of an economic or political system is directly tied to the morality of the people in it. Immoral people can and do taint the market, the government, the voluntary association, the family, and the church.

Jesus called for us to repent. That is our daily charge as Christians, but it is an impossible task if we are left to our own devices. No one, no Christian, no congregation, no denomination is exempt. After all, long before Gov. Blago the pre-reformation Catholic church suffered from “simony,” the sale of church offices. In the 1970s, the Methodist Church-sponsored “Pacific Homes” group of retirement homes was ensnarled in legal problems that have been described as running a Ponzi scheme. In the 1990s, several people were convicted in the bankruptcy of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona. And, just in the past couple of years, a high ranking employee of the Presbyterian Church USA was accused of a massive embezzlement scheme. I John says:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

It is the forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ and the transformation of the Holy Spirit that are our hope. I recently heard a hymn performed by Red Mountain Church. The author is apparently unknown, but the title is “The Christian’s Hope Can Never Fail.”

Coming up soon: how are we all, in our own way, little Blagos and Ponzis?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations

Currently, I am reading through Richard Cornuelle's 1965 classic "Reclaiming the American Dream", the book is excellent. The post title is actually Cornuelle's subtitle for the book, I thought it to be more descriptive. The purpose for this post is to articulate some of the main points which I think are sterling and worthy of greater thought and research.

Cornuelle paints a portrait of an America that has strayed from its ability to simultaneously achieve a free society and a good society. Conservatives are told they lack compassion because they do not support government welfare programs. Liberals are called failures because their programs are generally unsuccessful. These two types of societies seem to be in constant conflict, but, Cornuelle points out, that was not always the case.

"We limited government, not only because we knew its limitations and wanted it limited, but because we left little for it to do."

Cornuelle also articulates his hope for the future, but, I will write about that in a later post. I'll leave you with two final points.

For the Conservative, Cornuelle advises them not to argue in terms of philosophy because people's hearts are not won by philosophical arguments of why a free society is better. He argues that people are pragmatic and want pressing issues to be promptly pursued and tackled. To date the government has been the only one willing to raise its hand to answer the bell.

For the Liberal, Cornuelle advises them to understand the limitations of government and not be sucked into cosmetic cures. He argues that their heart and desire for a changed and better world are wonderful but he also notices that they have one prescription for any problem: government. Cornuelle says that it limits their ability to be change in the world and leaves them only hoping that the next government program will be better than the one before.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ambiguous Authority

My last post eluded but did not elaborate on the social distance between the people at the church and the ambiguous “they” who make the decisions about what the church commits to believe. This is at the top of the issues I find most troublesome. Whenever you desire to write your Congressman or Senator the internet produces a quick search. Their contact information is upfront and available and you can write to them over email or by pen and paper. The same applies to other social figures such as University faculty. But, the information about our church officials remains distant. We write to our elected officials to commend their support, plead our case, or pique their interest about something below the radar. We need to be able to do this for our church officials too.

Many good-hearted, well meaning Christians do not know who to address their grievances to in the church. Moreover, if they did, that does not guarantee that the church would listen, albeit, the church should not merely listen to those in the pew but follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in their committee decision making. But, do these non-committee members also have access to the Holy Spirit? Possibly someone out there can articulate the role of authority and leadership, please jump in the conversation.

Many are also leaving the church or creating a sub-denominations of the church after bitter wars over two looming issues: homosexuality and abortion. They grew weary of the tension, conflict, and seeming wasted effort. And, many are going it alone. Possibly they believe they do not have an adequate voice in the matters of the church? Possibly they're saying, "enough" and focus their attention to developing ministries for the poor outside of the church. Dissension is not something new for Protestants as the root is “protest”, but does there come a time where we need to stick with our church? Are those buildings more than just construction but embassies for God? Maybe the church can provide us with the information necessary to give us a voice. I will leave you with this poetry from Christian rapper LeCrae,

Some don't get it so they hate
They say she's on a paper chase they say she's really fake
So they go start a ministry so they can do the work
But they don't understand how Jesus feel about His church
And yeah they make disciples
They got plenty conversions
They take care of the widows and the orphans they be workin
But none of them are churchin
No church structure
No elders and no discipline
They have no conductor
And they so they don't submit
But quite a few of them baptize
People how I pray that you'd look at this thing from God's eyes
Take responsibility inside the whole council not just the area where you might have a mouthful
Who should folks submit to
Who will conduct the discipline
If excommunicated what body will they be missing then
Look at Ephesians 4 where Paul gets practical
1st Timothy and Titus if you thinking I'm irrational