Resurrecting Economics

Resurrecting Economics

Disclaimer: Please treat this as a first draft of a work in progress, because that is what it is.  I haven’t spent hours and hours on this – it’s just rough and ready.  I’m posting it via my blog as a discussion starter – so please do respond with your thoughts. April 2012.

Introduction

Current economic models have failed.  I don’t see how that can be controversial, but I bet it is.  The way we have done economics for the last two hundred years has laid waste to the planet and to many people’s lives.  There are billions living in abject poverty.  Weather systems are changing as global warming takes hold and approaches a positive feedback state (e.g. where the melting ice reveals dark, heat-absorbing land and methane is released from thawing permafrost, all speeding up the warming process).  Droughts and floods are becoming more common and, as food and water become scarce for some, the number of refugees will increase.  Sea level rise will also displace millions of people, as many of the world’s large cities and other populous areas are coastal and low-lying.

Oil, too, is becoming scarce and harder to extract.  The melting of the polar ice will mitigate that, as the oil reserves believed to exist at the poles become easier to access.  As energy supplies become more unreliable, we turn to untried and possibly dangerous sources such as shale gas and tar sands.  In the UK, we consume increasing amounts of decreasingly available resources such as energy, water and food.  As a planet, we are over-consuming resources and there is talk now of mining on the moon and on asteroids.  I’ve watched Blade Runner, but until recently I thought it was just a story.

We are addicted to economic growth.  When a country’s economy goes into recession (negative growth), everyone suffers – but the poorest most of all – as the money runs out, companies go bust and people lose their jobs.  But there is not the capacity in the world for all economies to grow.  We need a new way of ordering our oikos – our global household – a new economics that promotes peace and well-being for all beings in God’s creation.

 

The Old Testament

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden echoes what social historians tell us about our ancestors moving from the foraging life of the hunter-gatherer to a more settled agricultural life, obtaining food from the farming of animals and land.  “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam in Genesis 3.17.  “Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”

When you are dependent on the land for your livelihood, you need some security that your hard work in ploughing, sowing and weeding will provide a harvest for you.  There needs to be some security of tenure and you may need to be able to defend your land, your crops and your herds from others.  It makes some sense to organize together with your neighbours.  When that organization becomes large enough, you will need laws and the means of their enforcement through courts and perhaps police.  It may come to the point where some stronger government is needed, together with a standing army – perhaps not only to defend what you already have but also to protect your future well-being through expanding your territory and your markets.  Trade requires some policing too, together with duties to protect your markets and raise government revenue.  Taxation requires some of your crops, so you have to work harder than you would if you were only providing for your family’s direct needs.  The larger the state becomes, the more people are employed in administration and other non-productive roles (notice how the population is growing?), and the more land needs to be farmed to pay for it, as well as feed the people who are not growing food.  Labour and production becomes more diverse and specialized, and bartering can only go so far before you need cash.  The state becomes a major economic player and is able to manipulate the economy, for example through military spending.  Once property is expressed in terms of money rather than what the land produces naturally, two things can happen.  The value of money, goods and services becomes detached from real value – things are simply worth what someone is willing to pay.  Secondly, the incentive and the means are in place for the acquisition of more money.  This creates an ever-increasingly unequal society, unless the state moves to prevent this.

This is a very simplified picture, but shows us how we got to where we are today.  Moses laid down provisions for the pastoralist Hebrew community in order to prevent what we might call economic development.  In the constitution of Sinai for the life of the people of God in the Promised Land:

–       Land was owned by God, with the people as God’s tenants.

–       Land was to be valued by its potential to produce food.  If land was sold, that potential productivity was its price, and that was what was being sold – not the land itself.  The land was to revert to its original holder every fifty years.

–       The land was not to be worked every seventh year.  It was given a year off to rest.  God was the provider.  There was to be no slavery to production.

–       Land was not to be over-farmed.   For example, fields were not to be harvested to the edge, nor gone over a second time, so that food was left for the poor to gather.

–       There was no provision for government as such.

–       A tithe of produce was to go to support the priestly tribe of Levi, who received no allocation of land.  But there was provision for the Levites, who retired from cultic duties at the age of fifty, to have some pastoral land around their cities.

Moses laid out a picture of justice and equality for all, in which no one would grow rich at another’s expense.

So … by the time there was a king, a civil service, a standing army, urban classes of merchants and artisans, and a temple with a permanent and powerful priesthood, the economics of Israel and Judah were unequal and unjust.  The prophets spoke from the edge, not only criticizing kings, priests and merchants, along with the people who benefited from an ungodly system, but they also spoke positively of a different system where God’s ways were followed.  They spoke of the kingdom of God (although rarely using that term). These prophets (most notably Amos, Micah and Isaiah) painted word pictures of a better world, in which all could flourish in peace.

 

Jesus

Jesus had a lot to say about money.  I’m not going to attempt a long survey of his teaching.  I think that Matthew 6.19-34 provides a fairly good summary of his attitude, at the heart of which is, – Trust God.  He himself seems to have travelled extremely lightly in terms of his own lack of possessions.  While this may not offer a blueprint for the rest of us, because he was supported by people who did have possessions, he does set an example of not worrying and not accumulating stuff, but trusting God to provide.

At the core of Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God was near.   He presented the kingdom of God as an alternative in opposition to the way we have constructed the world – which some people refer to with the general term, ‘Empire’.   That could be the Babylonian empire, or the Roman empire – but they are just specific forms of human organization based around the exercise of power and its organization.  The kingdom of God confronts the empire, and Jesus paid the price of that in his crucifixion.  In as much as we are all children of the empire and steeped from birth in its values relating to money, power and self-preservation, Jesus and the kingdom of God confronts the empire within us and offers us a way out.

I think this is an important aspect of Jesus’ resurrection.  There is not only a new start, but a new birth and a new order of creation.  When we follow him, turn from the empire and put our trust in God, it puts us in opposition to the empire.  That carries a risk and a cost, which Jesus expressed as carrying your cross daily.  But the big picture is that the empire will fall and God’s kingdom will come.  The resurrection validates Jesus’ teaching about himself and God’s kingdom, and it gives real grounds for hope for those who renounce citizenship of the empire and receive new birth from the Holy Spirit as children of God and citizens of his kingdom.

Therefore, Christians should not be afraid to challenge the assumptions of the world in which we live.  With our faith in the resurrection, we can search for ways of living that are faithful to God’s kingdom.   When aspects of the empire crumble, as seems to be the case economically, we can look for the hand of God at work and speak up for a better world – his world.

 

Resurrecting Economics

We need to do more than re-arrange the deck-chairs on the Titanic.  The ship is sinking.  We need a different boat.

Writing as a jobbing minister and not an economist, I feel very cautious about making proposals, but it would be unfair (if only to me) to stop at this point.  So, with caution and humility, I think elements of a new economic model that will be in tune with the kingdom of God will include the following:

–       Spirituality and faith.  Trust in God is essential, but I don’t think there’s time to convert the world to Christianity (although Christians will want to do their best to tell people about Jesus).  Faith and prayer will be needed if people are to have the confidence to take risks with having less stuff.

–       Local.  Our dependence on transport is not sustainable.   Industrial economic models (e.g. Adam Smith) tend to take an idea that makes sense on a small scale and extrapolate it large.  It doesn’t work.  Why not just keep things local?  This will promote more participation in community, less resources spent on transporting goods and less waste in general.  It may lead to less central government.  It will also require less consumption of goods that rely on components from far away.

–       Community/participative/collective.   We are better together, co-operating for the common good.  This works better when we know each other.

–       Compassionate – valuing people.  People are not commodities or economic units or factors of production.  God loves each one and wants them to live in his kingdom.  Economics that enriches some while impoverishing others is anti-God, and any economic system that reduces people or land or species or minerals or whatever to a monetary value is anti-God.

–       Ecological – valuing the planet.  All life matters.  Humans are part of a much more complex web of life and interdependence than we like to imagine.  When the last bee dies and the last flower is cut down, the last human will be born.  Respecting our place in creation rather than over-vaunting it will help us all flourish.

–       Return to simplicity.  We do not need all this stuff, and we do not need the latest stuff.  We will be happier with less – try it and see.

 

Steps towards living it out anyway.

I don’t expect that things will change, but I’d like to opt out of the empire anyway.  Here are some steps anyone could make towards a better world and a more authentically Christian life.

–       Refusing advertising.  Just don’t watch it or read it.  Remind yourself it’s all dangerous lies.  You don’t need it.

–       Cars are rubbish.  They don’t last very long, contain a lot of dangerous substances, use a lot of energy (and produce a lot of toxic waste) to make, to maintain, to run and to dispose of.  They are also bottomless money pits.  They are a metaphor for the isolated way we live our lives.  But they’re very useful and we’ve built our lifestyles around them.  Cycling, walking, public transport, localizing your life and just slowing down are all part of the solution to less reliance on cars.

–       Permaculture.  Look it up.  You don’t need a farm in Wales – a couple can grow a fifth of their food needs on the balcony of their flat.  Be productive.

–       Fix, re-use, upcycle.  You can’t throw away.  There is no such place as ‘away’.  We live in a closed system.

–       Shop without packaging.  The worst culprits?  Supermarket meat, fruit and veg.  Take your bag-on-wheels to the market stall.  Bags-on-wheels are cool.

–       Live closer to nature – seasonal food, more time in bed in winter, etc.  Modern life is almost devoid of rhythm.  Get with the beat.

–       Education – especially of girls/women in the ‘developing world’.  Tends to lower the birth rate.

–       Invest in people now.  It’s a rainy day now.  Don’t wait till the apocalyptic flood washes your savings away.  Put your money to work for people in need.  Give it away.  If you really can’t bear that thought, at least save with Shared Interest or a similar mutual that gives financial support to small businesses in the ‘developing world’. (And waive the interest – how dare you lend to the poor at interest?  Haven’t you read the Bible?)

–       Eat much less meat.  Second only to selling your car in terms of reducing your footprint on the planet.  While you’re at it, find alternatives to as much factory food as possible.

–       Consume less water, gas, electricity, oil – directly and indirectly.  Think it through and you’ll think of ways.

–       Trust God.  You cannot serve two masters.  Let go of the other stuff and give God both hands.   I could just have written that, I guess, and saved you some time.

 

Conclusion

It’s probably a load of naïve nonsense.  But look at the mess the economists and politicians have made.  Someone’s got to come up with a better way.  Was it Jesus?  Could it be us, following him?   Raise your voice . . .

 

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