Ask Dr. Cobb

April 2009 Question

Should we try to get the economy back on track?

Dr. Cobb's Response

To approach this question, I need to consider, first, a much broader one. Is this the sort of issue that Christian theologians should address?

At one level a positive answer seems obvious. If one thinks of theology as it was understood from, say, Augustine to Calvin, the question would not arise. It is obviously an important issue, and the task of the theologian was to consider important issues from the perspective of Christian faith. But theology has not always been understood in this way. In the first centuries, whBen Christian communities had no ability to influence public policy, issues of this sort would not be considered by a theologian. And in the past two centuries, after theology was fully dethroned from its position of queen of the sciences, theologians have increasingly left such matters in the hands of those with specialized knowledge.

This statement needs to be qualified in two ways. First, it applies more clearly to Protestants than to Catholics. And second, where Christians have discerned ethical issues to be involved in public policy they have continued to speak out. Many Christians have taken positions, for example, on slavery, on racial discrimination, on meeting the basic needs of the poor, on war, on sexual morality, on abortion, and, at one time, on gambling and the use of alcohol. The question here is not whether their positions have been wise or truly Christian. My point is only that many have considered that they had a responsibility to speak out on what they have seen as moral issues in the public square.

There is a gap, however, between directly moral questions of this kind and the issue of the right way to attain desired goals. If one considers the distribution of wealth a moral issue, one can speak out against increasing inequality. The university largely avoids ethical teaching; so the churches have a chance to speak here.

But what if the topic is only indirectly related to moral issues? This is the case with many policy matters. Can, or should, the Christian also address the system that generates the inequality and propose a better one? Or is this the province of experts in the field, that is, of professional economists? Should theologians state their values and then leave it to the experts to decide what policies would lead to the desired ends?

As recently as the first half of the twentieth century, some theologians declared themselves socialists. They thought that socialism should be embraced by Christians not only because its outcomes would be more just, but also because it fitted a Christian understanding of human beings and human community. In other words, they criticized the basic assumptions of capitalism somewhat independently of the question of the relative success of socialist and capitalist societies. These theologians, like those of the tradition from Augustine through Calvin, would have asserted that it is entirely appropriate, when the economy is in trouble, to ask whether we should try to restore the situation before the crisis or to generate a different economic order.

On the other hand, the majority of theologians during the first half of the century stayed closer to moral issues. They thought that forcing children to work long hours was immoral, so they campaigned for laws prohibiting child labor. They thought that workers should not be subject to arbitrary decisions of management, and they supported the efforts of workers to organize so that they could bargain collectively with management.

In the years after World War II, higher education channeled research more and more into academic departments. A new ethos developed in which scholars in each field guarded their boundaries and also avoided interfering with those who worked in other departments. Political theory, economic theory, and sociological theory distinguished their territory from one other and from the wider university. Theology was not included as a university discipline, but theologians nevertheless adopted this new ethos and defined their task more narrowly. Even Christian ethics was split off from theology as a separate discipline. Christian social ethicists could still speak out on ethical issues in the public arena. But theologians have generally been expected to limit themselves to topics that have no direct bearing on public affairs. Theologians have become accustomed to addressing only a range of issues that may be called narrowly theological.

Process theology is an exception. Process theologians operate with philosophical assumptions that have application not only in theology as narrowly defined but also in every other field. We believe these assumptions are highly congenial to the biblical vision. Indeed, we consider them a contemporary conceptualization of biblical ways of thought. We believe they have truth and relevance in the whole range of human thought.

For example, Whitehead’s philosophy teaches us that we are internally related to one another. We see that this was also Paul’s view and, in a less explicit way, it underlies much else in the Bible, including the sense of solidarity of the Jewish people. We think that abandoning this view in favor of one that sees all our relations as external, that is, as having no real effect within our experience, is a serious loss intellectually as well as morally. We think the widespread, largely unconscious, acceptance of and inferior metaphysics has damaged the social sciences as well as modern theology. We think that it is appropriate for us to point out this loss wherever we see it operating.

This means that as Christian theologians we think it is our business to criticize many of the ideas that are dominant in various academic disciplines as a result of this inferior metaphysics. Sadly, these ideas are often quite central and quite numerous. We see an important part of our task as challenging the present form of other disciplines. Probably the most damaging consequences of the implicit acceptance of a misleading metaphysics are in economics. Indeed, we judge that the economy that has been derailed in the recent meltdown has been brought into existence largely because of adherence to a materialistic and individualistic metaphysics that we reject. Accordingly, our answer to the question with which we began is, “Yes, at a time when this economy has been de-railed, it is appropriate for us as process theologians to raise the question of whether efforts should be directed toward getting it ‘back on track’ or reshaping it on a more reliable basis.” I have explained why process theologians differ from most others in our relation to the academic disciplines and consider it appropriate to address issues usually left to specialists. In the process of doing so, I have already made clear that my answer to the original question is negative. Efforts to restore the status quo ante are seriously misdirected.

The vast majority of economists understand their discipline to be the study of how to make the economy grow. Economic growth is the “god” of economics. The task is, therefore, to get the economy growing again. That is what it means to get it back on track. And since the economy we have had, the one that was derailed, was basically following the prescriptions of the economists, the goal is to reproduce it as much as possible. Of course, economists agree that we should learn from mistakes and introduce a few regulations to prevent a repeat of the financial bubble that has just collapsed.

I am treating economists as a united group, and one may well point out that there are heated arguments amongst them as to what we now need to do. There have always been arguments among economists. My point is only that, with very, very few exceptions, the arguments are about how to keep the economy growing rather than about whether economic growth is the proper target. It is this most fundamental question that process theologians find it distressing that Christians as a whole are not addressing. Is economic growth the right goal of collective and individual human effort?

Support of economic growth on the part of Christians has come largely from our concern for the improvement of the lot of the poor. Economists have persuaded most Christians that the only way to help the poor without destroying human freedom is by growing the economy as a whole. The theory is that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” the rowboats of the poor as well as the yachts of the rich. Neo-liberal economists have even persuaded many to accept increasing inequality as better than any real alternative.

Today, however, we have a great deal of evidence (1) that our measure of growth, the GDP, does not in fact measure even real economic growth; (2) that neither growth of GDP nor real economic growth is an efficient way to improve the lot of the poor, (3) that growth does not make people happier, and (4) that policies geared to growth are leading the world to catastrophe. Now that all this is public knowledge, does it make sense to continue to make strenuous efforts to renew our growth-oriented economy when it collapses? If not, what is the alternative?

The simplest change of goal would be to shift from economic growth for its own sake to human well being. One tiny country, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, has explicitly declared that its goal will be the promotion of human well being or happiness. In Bhutan this means refusing industrialization. Obviously, in already industrialized nations, it will have other meanings.

Studies of human happiness or satisfaction with life indicate what most of us already know: we are happy when our relationships with others are satisfying and reassuring. This does not mean that the economy is unimportant. We are not happy if we cannot provide food and clothing and shelter and medical care for our children!

We also know that work, as making a contribution to the society of which we are a part, contributes to our satisfaction at least when the work itself is interesting and challenging. We can also note that most people feel better about themselves when they have some say in the decisions that affect them. The feeling of powerlessness reduces the sense of wellbeing.

When we reflect on these important contributions to human satisfaction, we can easily see why growth-oriented policies have often made people less happy. They have generated industrialization which typically routinizes labor for masses of people, and they have systematically destroyed traditional communities. Also capitalism generally, but especially global capitalism, removes decisions from local communities and places them in distant financial centers.

Finally, as more and more people recognize the threat of global catastrophe because of what our economy is doing to the natural environment, their sense of satisfaction further declines. Anxiety about the effects of our actions on our children and grandchildren does not make us happy. We want to feel that we are leaving to them a better world than we ourselves found. It is hard for people to feel that way today.

Integrating the globe at the economic level concentrates power in fewer and fewer hands, and those who control what happens are accountable to fewer and fewer people. They have used their power more to prevent moves needed to avoid catastrophe than to encourage them. Human wellbeing has declined. Getting us “back on track” is returning us to this situation.

The alternative is to develop local economies serving the needs of people in a sustainable way. It will require us to build cities that operate and produce both handmade and industrial goods with only passive solar energy. (Paolo Soleri has shown us how.)  It requires us to grow food for local consumption based on a perennial polyculture instead of an annual monoculture. We would end tillage and petroleum-based inputs, and return extensively to human and animal labor. (Wes Jackson is showing us how.)

Obviously, the transition from where we are now to where we need to be will be extremely difficult and painful for many people. But now would be a good time, instead of throwing trillions of dollars into the effort to renew a growth-oriented economy that inevitably leads to disaster, to devote a few hundred billion to starting the tradition to the economy and society that could sustainably provide our descendants with a good life.

I have suggested the changes that would follow from shifting the goal of society from economic growth to human wellbeing. Actually our goal should be more general and inclusive that this anthropocentric one. God cares about the whole created order. As believers in God, the wellbeing of this order as a whole should be our goal. The shift from the anthropocentric to the creation-centered goal would not question the value of the proposals I have made, but it would add others. There is no space to consider them here.       

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