Stumbling Through Economics

I’ve been putting in some extra shifts driving trucks recently, and so I’ve had large amounts of time with little to do except listen to CBC radio (try it, I highly recommend it).  Lately, particularly on shows like The Invisible Hand and Ideas, I’ve been hearing quite a bit about economics.  This post isn’t entirely theological, but I hope you find it interesting to follow me through a few thoughts on economics.

I hated capitalism before it was cool – well, at least before hating capitalism really caught on with the Occupy movement.  There are all sorts of arguments for and against capitalism that can go back and forth; usually it involves some level of capitalists not understanding how society works and socialists not understanding how the market works, etc.  But underneath all of that, I think there’s a level of moral repugnance toward capitalism, which is really what turned me against it in the first place.

The moral repugnance usually comes in when a certain type of capitalist goes on about how the desire for profit is what drives the economy – or to quote Gordon Gecko, “greed is good.”  Even when they don’t try to vindicate greed, economists use similar arguments to show how self-interest ultimately works out for the best interests of us all (see the recent episode of The Invisible Hand called “The Great Gouge” for a good example of it).  But in a country in which almost everyone has enough to get by, and even the poorest of us can still eat every day, the idea of striving to get even more (when we already have so much) seems excessive; and when we compare ourselves to any other time in history, or to any country in the “global south”, the idea of the selfish impulse to amass more wealth as a virtue turns my stomach.  There are plenty of arguments for why capitalists aren’t being greedy, they’re just getting their due – but that just comes across as the rich feeling entitled, which couldn’t be better calculated to enrage the poor.

I’ve heard many economists across the capitalist/socialist spectrum, and they all have varying applications of economic theory that could tie in with a vague notion of “capitalism” – the difference seems to lie more in their view of how much of a role government and regulation should play in markets than in their understanding of how economics works.  But it was listening to a pure capitalist tonight that really got me thinking about what exactly capitalism is.

Capitalism is a means to an end.  Many capitalists would say that the end is profit, and that’s what we’d expect from the stereotypical capitalist – a banker or oil magnate, perhaps.  This capitalist (on CBC’s Ideas) named Dierdre McCloskey said that she didn’t like the term “capitalism” because the word itself distracted us from the real focus, which is supposed to be innovation.  The idea of raising capital – i.e. investment – is that the investment provides both the motive (which we tend to focus on – profit incentives) and the means required for innovation and invention to take place.  She described capitalism as an idea that has allowed us to prosper from a continuous stream of innovations.  I think she’s on to something.  (She’s also an Anglican, who struggles with her faith because most Anglicans/Episcopalians lean toward socialism, which I find interesting).

If the goal of capitalism is innovation, it strikes me that there might be better ways of achieving that than through profit incentives.  I recently read an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education by Robert and Edward Skidelsky that talked about the concept of leisure.  Leisure, it argues, doesn’t actually (originally) refer to sitting around or doing something unproductive, but rather to do something for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end.  True leisure, in this sense, can actually be highly productive – and if you love your job, then you live a life of leisure.  Pursuit of leisure, I’m convinced, would be more productive (and more ethical) than pursuit of profit.

There’s a great RSA Animate video that talks about profit incentives, and how recent studies have shown that profit is far from the best incentive.  Watch the video, but I’ll summarize it anyway.  The study asked participants to perform a task, and offered them different levels of financial incentive for completing the task.  For simple, manual tasks, the people offered the most money performed the best; but for complex and intellectual tasks, those offered the most money actually performed the worst.  The researchers found that people who have just enough money to keep money off of their minds (i.e. not so little that they have financial pressures, but not so much that they have to spend time and energy managing and spending their fortune) are the best at their jobs.

And then there’s another recent phenomenon that is best exemplified by Wikipedia: those wonderful people who, though they have good day jobs, do their best and most innovative work for free on their own time.  The people who invent things in their garage on weekends, or write software in the middle of the night, or contribute articles to Wikipedia or the Huffington Post, all without getting paid for it, are some of the greatest innovators of our time.  While it’s still in highly funded corporate or university labs that most of the major breakthroughs are occurring, more and more we’re seeing great ideas coming out of the “cloud”.  In the information age, these people are driving innovation – at their leisure.

Imagine what we could do if we all had such “leisure.”  If capitalism is a way of providing the means and motive for innovation, and we’ve found that there’s a better way to motivate innovation (for its own sake, i.e. leisure), then what if there are better ways of providing the means as well?  We’re seeing some level of this on the internet, with “pay what it’s worth” products and projects on fundraising sites like Kickstarter; there’s a sense that you’re not just supporting the artist or entrepreneur, and not even just the product or project, but also the sense that these things are valuable – you’re investing in your society.  I’d say that these methods of fundraising are still inherently capitalistic, but they include a sense of democracy and social responsibility with them.  It’s an excellent step forward.

Another interesting project that I don’t entirely understand but love the concept of is a system of guaranteed income.  The idea is, instead of some people being very rich, most being middle class, and some being on welfare with all of the stigma associated with it, taxes would be higher for the rich and everyone would receive a guaranteed income from the government that would be enough to live on, but not enough to live large on.  The hope is that it would remove all stigma from those who can’t work, allowing them to live on assistance without being singled out, but also and more importantly that it would free us from having to accept the first job that comes along because we need the money to pay bills.  In essence, it would put everyone in some state of leisure.  We wouldn’t get so much that we’d be tempted to do nothing (though inevitably some would), but we could be more selective about what we do for more income.  We’d all be able to work in the field we want!  As I said, I don’t know exactly how it works (though there are economists who say that it can be done), but the potential for greater leisure is huge, and thus the potential for greater innovation is still there – and if we believe the capitalists, it’s innovation that makes us wealthy.

However your system works, the point is that capitalism is a tool, a means to an end, and even profits are supposed to be the means to an end.  Profits are supposed to motivate us toward greater innovation, with innovation itself being the goal.  And this, I now realize, is my problem with so much modern capitalism: we’ve flipped it.  We’ve made profit the goal, and innovation the means by which we can get personal profits.  When we innovate, our entire society gains from it; but if the goal is profit and innovation becomes the means, then we quite naturally try to limit the gains to being just for us.

Perhaps there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here, because profit motivates innovation and innovation leads to profit, so theoretically whichever one you’re shooting for, you’ll get the other in the bargain too, right?  So what’s the difference?  The difference is moral and ethical and spiritual.  I’ve already mentioned the morality of capitalism, and how economists love to explain that the immoral-seeming profit incentive actually helps more people than giving charity, which is obviously of higher moral value.  The ethical difference comes when, as I just mentioned, those for whom profit is the goal work harder to protect their wealth than they do innovating, and thus deny the non-monetary gains of their innovation to society unless they can pay up.

The spiritual difference is crucial though, and this is what brings all of this back to theology.  The definition of idolatry is, I think, when we begin to serve the things that are supposed to serve us.  Idolatry is the inversion, the creator serving the creature, the means becoming the ends.  Money is a tool, nothing more; but the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Money represents value; it has no actual value of its own.  When we attribute to money the value of the thing that money represents, but then deny or de-value the actual innovation that enriches our entire society, we’re well on our way toward idolizing not only money, but idolizing capitalism.  Capitalism becomes the gravy train, and we have to constantly prop it up (bailouts, anyone?) in order to make sure it keeps chugging along, rather than using it like the tool it is to allow us the leisure we need to be truly innovative and productive co-creators in this world.

So if you can, live a life of true leisure.  Be a co-creator with God, and let your innovations enrich all of Creation.  That‘s true, un-idolatrous capitalism.

Unassailable: Some Thoughts on Apologetics

I’ve come across many apologists lately, and I’ve found that even when I happen to agree with them, the whole approach leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  I find this a bit strange, and even a touch alarming, considering I used to be a big fan of the entire discipline.  In fact, after a few years of Bible college I had myself pegged as a future apologist.  I’m having a hard time sorting my thoughts out on this issue – but hey, that’s what this blog is for.

First of all, would the liberal apologists please stand up?  I don’t mean liberal in a theological sense, but in a political sense (though I suppose there may be a connection, if not a logical one).  Both ends of the political spectrum like to use scripture to help make their point, but only the conservatives seem concerned with making points in support of scripture.  There are plenty of political liberals who form their ideology based on scripture too – why aren’t they concerned with the defense of the faith?

And there it is: the term that strikes such a chord with me.  “Defense” of the faith?  Defending from what, or whom?  The definition of apologetics, according to a quick wikipedia search, is “he discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information. Early Christian writers (c. 120-220) who defended their faith against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called apologists.”  Now, from the perspective of the early church I can see there being a need for apologetics, as doctrine was only beginning to be formulated; but who are we defending ourselves against now?  Then, they were arguing against other religious sects who had radically (or sometimes not so radically) different notions of what Christianity was; now, we argue against “the new atheists”, who are known for being abusive against bad theology.  We’ve made up with the different Christian groups with whom we disagree (we call them denominations now instead of sects) and we agree to live and let live.  We no longer burn heretics, and we’re content to leave the ones with whom we have sharp disagreements alone – either because we think that their theology itself is an obvious proof of their folly, or because their arguments against us are sufficiently foolish to perform the same function.  Apologetics today rarely deals with doctrine itself, anyways: these days it seems to be mainly directed at the moral application of doctrine (i.e. “Conservative values”).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in making clear declarations and expositions of the Christian faith, and I think that bad theology should always be countered with good theology.  Perhaps there’s even value in showing why bad theology is so bad, though I’ve become much less concerned with answering terrible arguments (perhaps because there are so many of them, or perhaps because they’re usually self-refuting).  What concerns me with apologetics is inherent to its nature: it’s defensive.  Why would those who claim allegiance to the one true God feel so defensive?  I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, so there’s certainly no fear for my own salvation involved; and I count my life as nothing compared to the riches that are in Christ Jesus, so even if everyone else thinks I’m wrong and kills me for it, so be it; and in regard to being led astray, I currently only see as through a glass darkly anyways, and I’ll make the most of the knowledge and convictions I have about God.  Please forgive the string of half-quotes, but I hope the point is clear: apologists are defensive, but not for their own sake.

So who are apologists defending?  Surely not God himself!  My Old Testament professor in Bible college loved to talk about how, in many ancient religions, if your house was burning down you had to go into it in order to save your gods – because they were wooden or stone idols on your mantelpiece.  “My God saves me,” he would say.  God is not Santa Claus, whose power and reality depends on the number of people who continue to believe in him.  If the correctness of our belief about God was hurtful to him, then even the most devout of us are constantly twisting a thousand knives.  We know a great deal about God, and with every new thing we learn we realize just how much more is still over the horizon of our knowledge.  No, apologists are not defending God himself, as if God needs a shield or fortress.

Are apologists defending the Church?  Perhaps, though when you put it in such broad terms, there probably aren’t many detractors against Christianity in general.  There are plenty of detractors for specific churches or denominations – most of them Christians from another church or denomination.  There’s still inter-religious dialogue, and I think that this is extremely important – particularly, it’s important that we learn to do it respectfully, and we’ve come a long way in that regard.  However, the apologetics that I’ve seen lately had little to do with arguing for the existence of God, or for the Christian concept of God, or for the continued existence of the Church catholic – though there’s been a bit of the latter.

As I said earlier, the apologetics I’ve seen lately are all centered around a few moral issues and how these issues relate to our society and politics.  So apologists are not defending themselves, or God, or Christianity – if they’re defending anything, they’re defending conservatism, and the claim that conservatism and Christianity are essentially the same thing.  I find this troubling, because a very large portion of the Church catholic disagrees with that overlap.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter describes three different Christian stances toward culture: being separate from culture (a stance that characterizes the neo-Anabaptist movements); imitating culture (which characterizes the Christian left); and defending against culture (a stance which characterizes the Christian right).  I heard Hunter give a lecture about some of the concepts from this book in a podcast from Cardus, a Canadian Christian think-tank.  I have a subscription to Cardus’ latest flagship publication, Convivium.  In spite of claiming to be a broad conversation that is inclusive of all voices in the public square, and in spite of having former NDP MP Bill Blaikie write an article in the first issue, it’s been in Convivium that I’ve consistently come across apologists for conservatism.  They don’t always claim to be merely defending Christianity, but even when they admit that they are defending conservative thought, they make it clear that they believe that this is synonymous with Christianity.

In the latest issue, there’s a long interview with a Catholic pundit who’s just released a book called “Why Christians Are Right” – a book that answers criticisms of Christianity, particularly Catholicism (other books he has written or will write include a book critical of homosexuality and a book in defense of Israel, so his conservative stance is quite clear).  I call him a pundit because he also hosts a show on SunTV (the “Fox News of the north”, as it has been called).  A lot of what he had to say was quite interesting, but some of it was frustrating, and even shocking.  For example:

Convivium: People recognize that ‘we are countercultural now, but so what?  Let’s just get on with it.’
MC: That’s right.  And those older Catholics who keep on about social justice – of course, they don’t mean social justice, they mean their chosen causes – they’re moribund.  And they’re just silly…They’re irrelevant….But you still have those old Catholics – there aren’t many left – who are on the left of the NDP as MPs or in our electorate still thinking they can be very radical and change the world.  That’s long gone, I’m afraid.

I agree very much that being a Christian is countercultural – I would argue that it always was, and that when it ceased to be so it ceased to really follow Christ.  But here is a Canadian Catholic Christian whose actual job includes being an apologist for the Christian faith, openly calling his fellows silly and irrelevant because they don’t share his conservative views.  It’s pretty clear that he’s not actually defending Christianity, but a certain conservative version of it and the place of that version of Christianity in the public and political sphere.  But what really strikes me about the entire interview is that this person, who hosts a television show and publishes books that make the bestseller list and claims allegiance to the one true God, feels as though he is persecuted.  This rich white male who lives in a country that enshrines the freedoms of religion, conscience, and speech, and allows him to believe, practice, and say what he wants unless it infringes on the rights and freedoms of others, is arguing for his own right to do those very things.  And so I retract my previous statement: some apologists really are defending themselves – they’re defending themselves as conservative Christians defending their rights from infringement by a Conservative government whose leader himself claims to be a Christian.

I don’t want to demean the struggles that many people have.  There are legitimate cases of Christians being persecuted because they refuse to perform a gay marriage, or…well, it seems like every complaint from Christians these days is somehow related to gay rights vs. freedom of religion.  And there are genuine cases that should not be ignored.  But the argument for persecution against Christians in Canada seems absurd when compared to the scores of legitimate cases of persecution (even in the Church) based on gender, race, and yes, sexuality.

In To Change the World, Hunter argued that the Christian Right is trying to defend a culture that never existed – always looking back to the American golden age of nuclear families and middle-class bliss in a Christian nation.  We recognize now that this middle-class bliss of the fifties was indeed somewhat limited to the middle class, and that the culture of the “Christian nation” never fully applied – and certainly not in Canada.  I would also argue that our Christian apologists are defending a culture that never really existed against threats that similarly have never really materialized.  Sure, we may never have really had a Christian nation, but we’ve always had a nation that allowed us to be Christians – which is more than they can say in Burma, China, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or a hundred other places in the world.  Yes, I know that saying someone else has it worse is NOT a good argument for the status quo to continue – may it never be so! – but I include this for a little perspective.  The “attack” on Christianity in Canada roughly equals the notion that not everyone likes the way we see the world, and therefore we cannot enforce our own values on others – I think when Jesus said it, we called it the “golden rule” – while in these other countries I’ve mentioned, professing Jesus to be Lord (the most basic Christian confession) can earn you a death sentence.  We have almost nothing to complain about, and yet we come across as being persecuted and threatened, even though we’re allowed to complain about those things as much as we like – and even to go about changing them, if we must.

The fact that this particular apologist seems so persecuted is not particularly singular; I know an apologist who simply makes thorough arguments, and makes no prophetic statements about the moral midden heap that is our culture, or the coming apocalypse, or anything like that, but some of the articles that he links to make it seems as though there’s a massive leftist or government or atheist conspiracy to pervert our morals and hand our nation over to the homosexuals.  Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but there’s certainly plenty of alarmist literature out there, and most conservative alarmist literature is focused on the theme of a secular culture undermining our morals and our rights to our morals.  That they can point to one or two cases where this has happened is iron-clad proof that our system is out to get us, right?  We’re the most persecuted people, and we don’t even know it!

This particular apologist (the persecuted one, not the one who simply makes thorough arguments) goes on to compare the persecution of Christians (or people of any religion) to other types of persecution.  I’ll let his quote speak for itself, rather than try to describe it:

MC: I think that in the Western world, race was irrelevant quite a long time ago, and in the United States it still has a certain dynamic because of the heritage of slavery.  But in Canada, only some lunatic is going to believe that race is still an issue.  We can have commonality that is more significant and deeper than racial difference.  So being Canadian, I don’t think that’s a tangible commonality.  But living in Canada and co-existing – even though that sounds a bit weak – that is something that does give us a common cause.  My fear is that it has increasingly pushed religion out of its boundaries, and genuine religion is seen as something that is damaging to common life.  Even within conservatism, the Canadian commonality, the Canadian purpose…there seems to be a belief that religion holds this back.  There are Conservatives who are saying, ‘We’ve got to get rid of [religion]; it’s holding us back.  If we’re really going to have Canadian commonality and a Canadian conservative commonality, then we really have to push religion to the side.  If you want a religion, that’s fine.  Just keep it to yourself.’  That worries me.

I feel like what he wants is validation for his belief.  Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that religion has a place in the public sphere – it’s naive to think that we can have a public sphere without it – but I don’t think that there’s any real threat of such a state.  I think that the need for validation exhibited by the above comments extends to the feeling of being persecuted itself, too.  The New Testament deals with persecution quite a bit, because Christians were having their property confiscated, or were put to death, because of their confession of faith (not their ethics, mind you – just what they actually believed).  We have a defensiveness against persecution built into the foundation of our religion, and so we tend to see persecution in the smallest ways, and make them seem much larger.  Like suggesting that race is not an issue in Canada, when the population of First Nations in our prisons in comparison to all other people is vastly disproportionate to their overall population in Canada; or the fact that they still don’t own the land on which most of them live; or the fact that there are hundreds of treaties that have still not been recognized by our government; etc. etc.  To this apologist, none of that compares to the persecution that Canadian Christians feel when someone (he doesn’t say who, and I can’t find a credible reference to these shadowy figures) says that we shouldn’t have religion in public life in Canada.

I recognize that I’ve digressed, picking on bad apologists rather than apologetics itself.  This is the mistake that atheist apologists make when they attack Christianity, and it’s the mistake that Christian apologists make when they likewise build straw-man arguments about the conspiracy to push faith out of public life.  I suppose my complaint is that apologists aren’t doing a very good job: they’re defending themselves from baseless persecution, rather than defending their particular worldview; they’re defending conservatism rather than Christianity; etc.  What I’d really like to see is some good apologetics – but what would that even look like?

I think that good apologetics is not really apologetics at all.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “the best defense is a good offense.”  Good theology is the best defense of the Christian faith; good ethics is the best defense of the Christian life; and good expression of faith in public life is the best defense against the undermining of faith in public life.  (God himself doesn’t need defending, and God himself defends me, so those aren’t even concerns.)  Any good theology will take into account other theologies that are not as good; it will weigh them, measure them, and reject what is wrong with them and incorporate what is right into itself.  To be entirely on the defensive, to be always reactionary and persecuted, is to give a false notion of Christianity, which is actually very strong because it is true – and that truth is what wins arguments.  When we state the truth, we are strong – so why must we defend it?  If we need to defend a particular point, either we’re not stating it very well, or it’s not true.  Truth itself, like God, is unassailable: no matter what people think about it or say about it, it remains.

That’s all for now, but I’d love to hear your opinion.  Am I being too harsh?  (I’m sure that I am, and I’m sure there IS good apology out there.  Show me where, and give me a good apology for why it’s good!)