Strange Economies

Sonja wrote in her blog action day post that Americans spend $450 billion per year on Christmas. She wrote about changes and relief that could happen with even a small portion of that sum. I thought about what would happen if we diverted that $450 billion and wondered about the impact on the economy.

We are headed into what is bound to be a smaller Christmas for most American families. In many ways this is good. Most of us realize that the consumeristic nature of Christmas is out of hand and that simplifying would be good. However, because we have created a culture of spending, many businesses are dependent on the Christmas fix.

Production is good for the economy. In the 30’s, money spent on infrastructure helped boost the economy. In the 40’s, money spent in the post-war recovery boosted the economy.

Over the past decade, the American economy has been built on the backbone of the housing market. Production in this sector was driven by demand for bigger and better homes. In other words, everyone moved up. No longer trapped together in 1000 square foot ranch style homes, we now ramble around in McMansions. But this was good for the economy.

In the 80’s and 90’s, it has been every man for himself. Somewhere along the way a sense of entitlement crept in and the American Dream became the American Perversion. Not only did everyone want the newest, most, and best, gosh darn it, we deserve it.

Is it possible to have an economy where spending to help others is good for the economy, where the production of goods and services benefits many rather than a few?

I wonder about the CEO’s who didn’t flinch at taking multimillion dollar severance packages while their companies were going under, who made sure that they got their golden parachute at the expense of shareholders, employees, and taxpayers. Or even those CEO’s of companies that aren’t failing who apparently believe they are deserving of such abundance before the employees and stockholders are considered.

I wonder about the politicians who make decisions based on self-interest rather than doing what is right for their constituents and for the nation as a whole. I wonder about politicians whose loyalty is purchased by lobbyists, special-interests, and potential future alliances. At what point is it okay to sell out the best interest of the nation in order to ensure your own power and bottom-line.

It would appear that greed and self-interest have so corrupted our system that it isn’t possible for either the free market system to function properly or for those responsible for government regulation to be trusted.

So what about the church? Surely the church can be trusted to steward wealth.  We could be trusted to provide for the needs of the poor in the earth rather than lining our own pockets first and indulging in self-interest and entitlement, right? If the church and ministries were entrusted with millions and billions, we would serve the poor, right?

Oh wait, we were entrusted with millions and billions.  What have we done?  It isn’t a matter of waiting for money to show up in the church.  It was already there.  It is and has been for decades.  We spent it on ourselves and called it ministry.

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15 thoughts on “Strange Economies

  1. Grace I’m afraid you are correct – the church has become the’acceptable?’ face of capitalism.It’s all part of the Empire deal that we got into in the 4th century.If the Vatican got rid of all their wealth ( especially their art work!) I might even become a Catholic.If each little Protestant Empire gave away 80-100% of their ‘tithes and offerings’ I might join up again – I might even tithe again!!

    I have a nagging feeling that most Christian Charities are probably Empires in disguise that show us pictures of poor African kids to fund their overseas adventures.I sincerely hope not.

    Charlie

  2. Ouch, Charlie…

    I hope we have not become so deluded in our perception of Chrisitian Charities that can over indulge in a subtle form of sappy emotionalism to help induce that money giving guilt we affluent are susceptible to…

    I know there are ‘good’ charities that help where I cannot. And my regular monetary support does help the little girl it is intended for. I do not jump on their promotional wagon with the additional ‘stuff’ they like to pawn when it is her birthday or the holidays. It is not that she is not ignored on purpose, but in reality I am not a part of her life. It is the school teachers & the aid workers that she is in contact with daily. I do not want to be the sucker that needs to feel guilty if all her classmates get an ‘extra’ package from their supporters here in the states…

    I know my $ are doing something good. Heck, even before she was sponsored she was already recognized & being taken care of or else my internet search would not have been useful. Yeah, it can seem the big name charities are a business & that is largely part of our modern methods & models of good accounting practices & PR & interaction with prospective donors. I don’t fault them for such organization. But if I did sense a ‘shell game’ of sorts my donations would be withdrawn in a flash. Could be in the grand scheme of things that little Brazilian girl was never really that bad off compared to other dire needs the world over. But if my small monthly support provides more for her than she could ever expect outside the Christian workers seeing to her basic needs & that of her mother & brothers, then I believe the kingdom is being rightly represented even if it seems a bit superficial from my perspective…

  3. My brush was pretty broad in the final statement. I should add that there are many worthwhile ministries, usually underfunded, that make a difference. There are also many underfunded congregations and pastors doing the best they can to be faithful where they are.

    On the other hand, in minutes, I could pull up a list of links pointing to extravagantly self-indulgent spending by congregations, mega-churches, televangelists, etc. that would enrage all of us.

    Over the past couple of decades there have been billions flow into American churches and ministries that should have flown out into places of need. And it didn’t.

    Instead we have mega-million dollar building campaigns and celebrity ministries being audited for their $20,000 toilets. That disgusts me.

    Likewise, I am disgusted by bankers taking $70 billion of the bailout package for their own personal salaries and politicians looking the other way and allowing it.

    Perhaps it is that glaring example which allows me to see that as the church we haven’t been any better. Apparently human nature is to line our own pockets first given the opportunity.

  4. Well said Grace! I like to look at the historical perspective of the economy from Adam Smith through Keynes and forward. It’s quite interesting to realize that where we are know is really the natural and logical consequence of our actions. I wrote about it in my blog too. (Shameless plug- http://www.justbobjourney.blogspot.com )

    Justbob

  5. Hey guys … the church begins with us.

    Count the number of times in one day you say or think some version of “I need this,” or “I deserve this,” and it’s not bread or water.

    Now watch television for two or three hours one evening and count the number of times those phrases come up in the shows and in advertising.

    It’s not just ancient economists, current economic policy or church trends … it’s common human selfishness blown out to grotesque proportions. This has happened over and over again in history. Most commonly we think of the Roman Empire and the French court of Louis XIV. But Spain in the 1500’s is another good example. It’s quite likely that the Mayan empire of antiquity would have been another if we knew more about them. Ancient Chinese empires were also overblown and selfish.

    There is only one cure … a transplant.

  6. bob,
    Thanks for the link. I agree that we have overly postponed the natural correction that should have occurred to the point where there now will be no easy out.

    sonja,
    We are all guilty of degrees of greed and entitlement. I didn’t want this post to seem unaware of that. Certainly there are individual changes and choices that can be made.

    However, there are also issues of systemic injustice and corruption that have actually been going on for decades. I have to wonder why we are only now questioning these things.

    Why has it been okay for celebrity pastors to have millionaire lifestyles? Why haven’t board of directors set executive salary and bonus packages at reasonable levels? Why is it okay for politicians to be courted by special-interests? Why should we have a #$%* coffee shop and stadium seating in our church?

    The problem with these kind of discussions is to point the finger at anyone who has more than me. That really isn’t my intent. I know my own failures and selfishness.

    There are also huge problems that are way bigger than the average individual that need to be addressed by those who have the power and influence to address them.

    And yes, a transplant is a good place to start.

  7. Grace, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment, and further comments.

    I have been on a personal journey of realizing how much market/consumer culture has shaped me, and even effected my faith. So I think this is an important topic on the individual level.

    But I also believe that what you say is absolutely true and is also extremely important re: systemic injustice and corruption. We *should* be talking about this!

    You mentioned, “The problem with these kinds of discussions is to point the finger at anyone who has more than me.” While I agree that it is unhelpful to play blame games without personal responsibility, I don’t think that’s what your doing here. And I think this is a common accusation that comes in American culture if we even try to talk about these systemic problems.

    It’s probably a carry-over from old Red-scare propaganda. If you question the systemic abuse of socialism for the rich (in a supposedly free-market economy), then you are accused of resenting the rich for having more than you.

    I find this to be a ridiculous argument that is very similar to “touch not the Lord’s anointed” except it’s, “touch not those who have made it to the top – because they’ve obviously done so from there own good merit.” Silly, really.

    (PS. That picture is perfect!)

  8. *Sigh* :(

    …it’s because it is so difficult to be counter-cultural, IMO. Our children don’t have wii or any other video-game, for that matter. Or iPods or cell phones. Heck our three boys are all in one bedroom! With no computer or TV! And no designer clothes or birthday parties.

    Is our last name Grinch?

    No…but to hear the kids talk, it might just as well be!

    We have made the choice to try to live closer to need than want. And even those things we need are higher-end, because I am adamant about feeding them whole, live foods full of nutients when I buy them … and not killed by the way they are prepared once I get them home!

    It is a difficult battle with few allies, that’s for sure!

    Even now, as we are detoxing from “want-based” church, we are having to teach our children to value the living bread and living water that is Christ, rather than … we’ll I won’t harp on what they’ve been being “fed” at our CLB.

    Transplant? Maybe … but I would settle for an honest, godly perception of what abundant life is. And it isn’t what the health and wealth gospel folks are peddling….

    The Lord is already at work, in the hearts of those with eyes to see and ears to hear, as we realize the depth of economic and cultural bankruptcy. These hard times help us cinch up our belts and take a reality gut-check.

    Gonna get uglier before it gets prettier, I’m sure. But my hope is in the Lord.

    Sorry for the small rant, Grace. Thanks for providing a place to say it… 8)

  9. However, because we have created a culture of spending, many businesses are dependent on the Christmas fix.

    Yes, we are in a consumerist culture. But reduce it to the basic needs & still someone has to provide food, shelter, clothing, transportation & medical care.

    We do need to reign in the over-spending of the affluent society I have grown up in. And we need to pay attention to the impact we have on other people, their standard of living, the environment & those less fortunate than ourselves…

    The poor we will have with us always. Was that a tongue-in-cheek conclusion Jesus made about our earthly socio-economic distribution of wealth? Was it a sigh He exhaled? A question poised to illicit a repsonse from His hearers? A curse upon all cultural expressions? Did He spit after making such a proclamation?

    I earn a living to support my family. Soon the empty nest syndrome strikes, but then I still need to see 3 boys through college. My earnings have gone to support a household that lives to the edge of its means. Never extravagent, but not ever hurting either. Should we be so focused on the have-nots that we forget the real reason we have been blessed with the ability to secure an income?

    It could all come to a screeching halt tomorrow. No one can guarantee my health or my job security or the overreaching economic machinery that I am beholding to. I suppose it is really ‘here today-gone tomorrow’ & of no permanent status… :(

    Are my kids spoiled? Sure. If I could I would recoup all those silly Christmas gifts that never really got used or were appreciated or sit now gathering an extra year of dust on the shelf…

    Give it all to a registered charity as the song goes. I could easily live a more austere lifestyle if I were single with no family obligations…

    I am not going to be making any huge financial impact with the career I have or the options even to better myself. I will not have any ‘real’ retirement options; that in itself an artificial dream of sorts that I believe is on the wane…

    I will work till I die. No real reason to believe any differently now. Could be there will be no sure thing in the next decade or two. And if it gets down to real drastic situations, am I really going to be able to counter the challenges of no job, no food, no shelter, no government support?

    I am limited to be sure. Not even able to claim any ability apart from God-given ones to exist today, let alone tomorrow…

    I dunno…just thinking out loud here…

  10. I think we can each begin with some personal changes (I cannot be responsible for my fellow Christians’ perceived extravagance). Our family discussed this issue last Christmas and we began a new family Christmas tradition. On Christmas day we each persoanally decorated a small box of which we pruchased at the local hobby shop. Our boxes are labeled ‘Jesus Birthday Present’. We committed to throw in pocket change, a dollar or two now and then, perhaps a portion of any unexpected income over the coming year (My box has over $175 at this moment – it’s amazing how it adds up!). Then, on Thanksgiving of this year, we are going to pool our savings and pray for some ‘special altruistic project’ to give our offering and ourselves to this Christmas. My wife, our two sons and dauther-in-law, and our three oldest grandchildren are commired to this. I am truly excited to see how this is going to all work out. I am sure of this, it will make a marked impact on our grandkids.

    It’s a small step, but I am convinced that small steps are more effective than trying to do something big all at once.

  11. Joseph
    Maybe I was too hard on Christian Charities – I too sponsor children overseas with a very well known International Christian Charity (maybe the same one as yours!) and echo the exact same thoughts as yourself.Interestingly God spoke to me loud and clear about sponsoring a child when Larry Norman was in Belfast a number of years ago.Larry said in his own inimitable prophetic style that every Western Christian should be sponsoring a child!!What worries me a bit is ‘marketing’ and all the glossy material.I know we Christians in the West are obsessed with ‘excellence’ and good administration is a plus but I still have a few lurking doubts!

    Charlie

  12. I have a strong suspicion that one change in the tax laws would dramatically change “church” as is commonly understood and experienced in this country…remove deductability of “tithes and offerings”.

    T

  13. and to think – the Christmas Tradition is just that a tradition.

    and also in Australia it’s the time of the year that Mainstream Churchs make social commentary on “my” behalf.

  14. sarah,
    Glad you liked the picture. I would probably normally be a voice advocating for autonomy for the rich and minimal regulation. However, when we witness this level of corruption, it’s obvious that normal checks and balances have short-circuited.

    peggy,
    Thanks for sharing. I read somewhere recently that this isn’t an economic problem, it’s a character problem. We will all have the opportunity to examine our values, priorities, and lifestyles.

    joseph,
    I know many people who have lived wisely within their means, not extravagantly, who will be experiencing the consequences of those who chose easy credit to finance their luxurious lifestyle. It would be nice to have our future guaranteed, but maybe it’s enough to know we have what we need for today.

    ken and mark,
    Ken, thanks for sharing that example. It’s odd how the way we celebrate Christmas became so removed from the reason we celebrate.

    tom,
    Yes, that and non-profit status for churches.

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