We begin this post by recounting a story from Starfish and the Spider. The authors relate a story about David Garrison’s (CEO of Netcom … an AOL type operation) attempt to raise funds from a French venture capital firm in 1995.
Dave’s explanations were far from satisfactory to the French investors. If they were going to shell out cash for a public offering, they wanted to make sure that someone was in charge, to ensure that this wasn’t a chaotic system. …
Dave recalls that their questions were “based on the concept of ‘It has to be centralized, there has to be a king, or there has to be an emperor, or there has to be a – something.’ These key investors … were a “very intelligent group of people,” but they didn’t get it. Dave tried another approach: the Internet was a network of networks. “We said, ‘There are thirty to forty thousand networks, and they all share in the burden of communication.’ And they said, ‘But who decides?’ And we said, ‘No one decides. It’s a standard that people subscribe to. And they kept coming back, saying, ‘You don’t understand the question, it must be lost in translation, who is the president of the Internet?’ …
Eventually Dave surrendered. He gave the French what they wanted. “I said I was the president of the Internet, ’cause otherwise we weren’t going to get through the sales spiel. … (32-33)
Substitute “economy” for “internet” and you have the challenge economists face in talking about the economy.
Previously we saw that the primary metaphor for God’s people is the family of God. Inherent in the family metaphor is the idea of the paterfamilias and the oikonomos; the head of the household and the household manager or steward. The paterfamilias had final authority and ownership but the oikonomos managed the daily affairs. This has became the Christian metaphor for our relationship to God and the created order, which includes societal matters. But critical to this notion of household management is the fact that stewards have intimate knowledge of the people and circumstances under his care.
Clearly ancient cultures had structures that transcended the household. They were pyramid shaped and vertically oriented. Each family or community answered to some authority who had fairly intimate knowledge of those under his charge. Those authorities were under other authorities who knew the authorities under them … and so on up to a king. People produced most of what they consumed and what trade there was happened between people who were in face-to-face community. Therefore managing the economy was primarily about the daily affairs of people in face-to-face communities and the transfer of wealth upward through the system through taxation for administration of the King’s projects. There was not an economy to manage in the modern sense.
In contrast to this model, a web of horizontal economic relationships began to emerge in Europe over the centuries. Awareness of this growing web began to be noticed in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Since that time, economic connections have become an evermore dynamic and complex web of nodes and linkages. Yet there is no oikonomos managing the web. There is no president of the web.
It is deeply ingrained in the minds of many today, like our Frenchmen above, that “somebody must be in charge” … in this case … of the economy. The ability to grasp and internalize the web concept escapes them. U. S. presidents and the electorate certainly play to this misconception, with president’s claiming credit for a good economy and the electorate holding them accountable for a bad one.
I suspect the oikonomos model intensifies the inability of many theologians to see the new reality. For some it is not only that there conceptually must be someone in charge; it is that there ought to be someone in charge. If there isn’t, then something has gone awry.
To these theologians, a leaderless economic web is anarchy and disorder. Calls for correcting social injustices often come with the implication that “the president of the economic web” (whoever that may be) is not doing his or her job. We need to compel the “president” to run things better. People who will not generally support centralized management toward particular ends are thought to be morally and intellectually suspect, likely having been duped by individualistic ideologies. (The issue is referee versus manager … one who monitors adherence to rules versus one who is responsible for the performance and outcome of the game. It is to the latter that I’m referring.)
Further adding to the confusion is the wedding of an oikonomos model to the wing of economics that believes that, through careful scientific work, the principles of economics can be uncovered and objectively applied to achieve certain objectives. The theologians reject the ends to which economists might direct things, but the notion that the economy can and should be directed is retained. The answer is to bring a discerning Christian voice into the mix of economic management. The question of how the information that is required to make just outcomes happen on a personalized basis for millions of people is known is off the radar. Modernist hubris about being able to remake the world through centralized control by an expertocracy is equated to being God’s oikonomos.
Not all Mainliners think that someone should be in charge. Some view the recent arrival of large impersonal leaderless economic structures as contrary to Christian life. All life must be in face-to-face communities to be Christian. They see the new web of economic connectedness as an evil. We should disconnect and become self-sustaining localized economic communities. They, at least, have come to grips with reality that something new has emerged.
So we are called to be the oikonomos … but there is no way we can manage the modern massively complex and dynamic web-like economy we live in. The complexities are too great. Is there an alternative way we function as the oikonomos in web-like economy? We will visit that question shortly but we first need to visit one more misunderstanding that plagues the theology and economics dialog: scarcity versus abundance.