Saturday, May 8, 2010

7 Views of Economic Shortage

Why are some people stuck in the middle (or lower) class? Why are some business owners not selling as many widgets or billable hours they used to? Why is cash flow not flowing for so many? Here are seven views of economic shortage (illustrated with references to scripture and culture).

1. Randomness. This view suggests there are no discernible or predictable laws of economic success.

  • Solomon said, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
  • This is the premise of the Black Swan by economist Nassim Taleb, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, and a host of mathematicians who study chance, luck, and lotteries.

2. Retribution. This view suggests moral or ethical failure is behind poverty.

  • The disciples believed this (“who caused this man’s blindness—himself or his parents?”) as did Job’s comforters (“God repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves”)
  • It’s a favorite of health and wealth preachers.
  • Richard Adams in his novel Shardik brilliantly described a superstitious tribe who read the random movements of a large bear as omens in response (retribution) for their undisciplined worship.

3. Good Products, Bad Capitalism. This view suggests an unregulated market squashes those without power.

  • James warns against unscrupulous bosses (“Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter”).
  • One can learn about this view from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.

4. Good Capitalism, Bad products. This view suggests the struggling widget seller may not be selling widgets because they’re bad widgets.

  • Jesus cleansed the temple because the products were being sold at exorbitant prices thus preventing worship, “In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”
  • Just as bad-singing contestants on American Idol need a Simon Cowell to tell them they stink, entrepreneurs need an objective reality check.
  • Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations said the “invisible hand” of an unfettered market weeds out the bad products naturally.
  • Think dangerous Toyotas, tainted Tylenol, and contaminated tuna.

5. Good Product, Bad Worker. Even businesses with great products can go belly up if the owner is shady, unethical, or morally impure.

  • This is the message of Proverbs (“for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread, and the adulteress preys upon your very life”).
  • Similar to the retribution view, this view suggests moral turpitude may lie behind economic failure.
  • This caused doubts in Asaph who puzzled over the success of the unrighteous in Psalm 73; I wonder what he would have thought of oil rich Arab nations?
  • Willy Lowman in Death of a Salesman exemplifies this view of immorality and income.

6. Divine Determinism. This view leaves little room for human influence. One’s economic fortunes (or lack thereof) are determined by God’s sovereignty.

  • Deuteronomy states, “But remember the LORD for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.
  • James wrote, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that."
  • Economic shortfall is re-framed as divine discipline, character building, or opportunity to cast one’s self on the “frowning providence” of God.
  • Paradoxically, according to Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Webber, the Puritans believed that industriousness would earn God’s favor and could be measured in profit.

7. Passivity. This view suggests one’s earnings are commensurate to one’s faith and generosity.

  • Test me in your finances,” said Malachi.
  • If you’re not faithful in mammon, how will God entrust to you true riches?” said Jesus.
  • Since there are so many scriptural references that imply one shouldn't be financially ambitious (“Be content with one’s wages.” “Love of money is the root of all evil.” “Consider the lilies and the birds…they don’t sweat earning a living”), one is left trying to find the balance between foolhardy Zen-like passivity on one hand and greedy accumulation on the other.
  • Richard Foster, Phillip Yancey, Ron Blue, Larry Burkett, and others address this challenge.

What other views are there? How do you explain economic shortages?

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