Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has a post at the Huffington Post today titled Proof Jesus Was Not a Capitalist: The Richest 1 Percent Own Half the World's Wealth. Here is my response.
...Biblically speaking, probably not. As Jesus warned, you have to choose. Either money rules you, or your highest values rule you. There's no middle ground. "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Luke 16:13)
Jesus was not a capitalist.
God's rules on economics, as articulated both by the prophets and Jesus of Nazareth, are strikingly clear. Not small concentrations of great wealth and the vast majority of people in poverty, but 'each under their own vine and fig tree, living without fear.' (Micah 4:4) Jesus announces his ministry as "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), that is, the "Jubilee," the really radical redistributive economic strategy of ancient Israel.
So, is it likely the leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos serve that vision, a vision of a reasonable abundance shared by all, or are they in service to the vast accumulated wealth of the 1 percent? Is it going to be possible for people at that meeting to enact policies that start to close this disastrous economic gulf between the rich and the poor? ...
First, advanced agrarian societies of the Near East and Rome are the context of the Bible (Hebrew and Christian Testaments.) The economy, to the limited degree they even thought in macroeconomic terms, was a zero-sum game. Land and labor were the two inputs for production. Both were relatively fixed. There was little you could do to alter the productivity of land and one person’s labor was not substantially different from another's. Consequently, with variable productivity off the table, economics was constrained to considerations of consumption and distribution. Both personal and societal abundance was cyclical and sharing of the fixed pie was essential for community survival.
The great divergence of the past two centuries or so is the realization that productivity can be radically altered. Through the application of technology, energy, exchange, stable institutions, and improving human capital, productivity can be radically altered. But these changes have included the need to concentrate wealth into productive assets and assume larger risks in order to effectively achieve greater productivity. We live in a different world from advanced agrarian societies and trying to apply morals from their context directly to ours is useless.
Second, the Jubilee was categorically not a “radical redistributive economic strategy.” Land was to revert back to its perpetual owners every 50 years. Jubilee stated that if someone needed to “sell” their land, then the price would be determined based on the number of crops that could be gathered between the “sale” date and the next Jubilee. Then the land would revert back to the perpetual owner. In other words, it was a lease. A person could “sell” their labor on the same conditions. These provisions only applied to agricultural land and it had nothing to do with non-agricultural land or other private property. Significantly, it ensured that everyone had access to at least a minimal level of capital (land and labor) to provide for themselves and to produce goods for exchange, living individually and corporately as God’s stewards. That has interesting theological implications for thinking about economics but it was not radical redistribution.
Third, from where does abundance come? Apart from maybe air and sunlight, name one thing that humans use that does not require human action to transform matter, energy, and data from a less useful form to a more useful form? Absent human action, there is near absolute scarcity of the things that humanity uses. If we each had to provide for ourselves and our families alone, our days would be a precarious existence, doing little else but hunting and gathering our way through life. But through specialization, technology, concentration of wealth in productive enterprises, and trade (i.e., capitalism) we achieve high levels of productivity resulting in unprecedented abundance. Had Jesus known that productivity could be radically altered, I suspect he may have offered different guidance (and I don't mean a blanket blessing of the American economic system.)
Fourth, just what is the negative impact of inequality that should give us pause? The article doesn't say, but it is strongly implied: If wealth is becoming concentrated at the top, then it must be that it is being taken from others, making them poor (1% are wealthy while 99% are in poverty) ... the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. She is not alone in this thinking. A recent survey of Americans showed that 66% of respondents think that the proportion of the global population living in poverty has doubled in the past twenty years and another 29% think there has been no change (total of 95%), when in fact the proportion has been halved:
Furthermore, the number of well-paying jobs is expanding around the world. Life expectancy at birth, the most holistic measure of human well-being, is now at 70 years and closing in on the 80 year mark enjoyed by the wealthiest nations. Studies show that inequality within nations is increasing but inequality between nations is falling.
Now none of this is to say that rising inequality is good or bad. We have to be specific by what metric we use. If the metric is that inequality means more poverty and is therefore bad, then the assertion the inequality is "bad" isn't true. People are not getting poorer. That doesn't mean inequality isn't problematic for other reasons but we need to specific about what we are tackling.
“Unregulated market capitalism has only one master, and that is money. And that is why 85 people control half the wealth of the whole world.”
Dr. Thistlethwaite, if you identify one nation on the face of the earth that has “unregulated market capitalism,” then I will right you a check for $1,000 right here and now. They don't exist! This issue is not unregulated market capitalism but corporatism. If there is a governance problem it is that the biggest corporate entities and government have joined together to stack things in favor of their mutual interests over and against market forces that might threaten them. That is corporatist business capitalism and antithetical to market capitalism. Furthermore, economists have not reached a consensus on why there has been an increasing concentration at the top but the idea that it is summed up in “unregulated market capitalism” is just absurd.
With all that said, I’m not saying that growth in inequality isn’t a problem and that it isn’t worthy of theological and moral reflection. I am asking for a more responsible discussion.
I will also agree that change largely begins from the bottom up. Muhammad Yunus uses the image of a bonsai tree. The seed that grows into the tiny bonsai tree is the same seed that grows into the tall tree in the forest. The difference is that the bonsai grows from the limited foundation of the flower pot while the tall tree has the rich foundation of the forest bed. The poor are bonsai people. By improving the soil in which they grow, by instituting property rights and rule of law, by including them in networks of productivity and exchange, they too can flourish as people in wealthier nations have. Trickle-up capitalism is a promising strategy. It is already at work around the world. Let's joing them and support them. Populist ideological warfare about poorly defined issues and remedies is nothing but a moralistic distraction. The world deserves better from Christian thinkers.