For a complete index to the Must Everything Change? series, click here.
It is time to bring this series on Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change to a close. I’ve focused on the economic aspects of the book. There is far more to the book than this. Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed did a broader eighteen part series on the book last fall. (In fact, six posts into my series I realized I had unconsciously stolen his series title.) It is a good series with far less snarkiness than mine. :)
I like the effort this book makes to think systemically. I think the “Kingdom of God versus the Empire” is an important theological lens. The book has its moments in raising some important issues. Yet the rhetoric and frequently one-dimensional analysis were so irksome to me that I found it hard to stay focused on positive contributions.
At the conclusion of McKnight’s series, he writes:
This book needs to be seen as a definitive book for emergent and from now on no one can speak responsibly about emergent without knowing this book. As you know, I am keen on using “emerging” for the larger movement and “emergent” for the think tank facilitated by Emergent Village. This book, so it seems to me, while not speaking for anyone but Brian, will be definitive for the emergent dimension of the emerging movement.
I agree that McLaren’s book captures the ethos of the emergent conversation (and I share McKnight’s distinction about “emergent.”) Frankly, that is what I find the most disappointing. Here are my primary contentions with the book and, by extension, with the ethos of the emergent conversation.
Parochialism of the Present
In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape presents advice to his demon apprentice nephew Wormwood on how to divert human beings into making bad decisions (copied from Good Intentions, p. 24)
“The enemy loves platitudes,” Screwtape writes. “Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way history is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.”
McLaren’s book has no grounding in history. It seems to suggest that prior to the developments of the past couple of centuries, humanity lived in sustainable bucolic bliss. Then evil theocapitlists come along, invented poverty, and drove the masses into it. In fact, as we saw, life has been highly precarious for the masses throughout history. The changes of the last two centuries have brought unprecedented improvements to a majority of people across the globe, albeit at an uneven rate (just as with any other human innovation we’ve witnessed.)
Instead of celebrating these developments and asking how we might more justly expand the good and minimize the bad, McLaren labels all this as a theocapitalist “suicide machine,” born of the Enlightenment, and moves to “free us” from it. He denounces economic growth as an abstraction but replaces it with abstractions of “sustainable growth” and “the common good.” Instead of asking the threefold question of what is righteous, prudent, and possible, he offers ideals of sharing, loving, and oneness with nature. Concerning details of implementing this new vision he reminds us “…Jesus was unconcerned with those details; he left them up to people like us, I think, to work out.” (214) Who are these, “people like us?”
In his previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, In Appendix I (“Why Didn’t We Get it Sooner?”), McLaren notes that all the writers who’ve had a significant impact on him are contemporaries. He gives eight reasons why he believes this is valid and why we should privilege these more recent understandings. Before giving his reasons he writes:
…Those reasons do not include any arrogant or naïve notions that we in the twenty-first century are somehow better or smarter or more enlightened than our sisters or brothers from times past. Standing on their shoulders, then, we look back and consider a number of possible reasons for our slowness to see the message of the kingdom. In fact, without their legacy we couldn’t see what we now see. (211)
How is it that we can see better and be better informed, yet we are not more enlightend? In short, “people like us” are people who “get” the secret message of the Kingdom, know that everything must change, are not obligated to learn from the wisdom of the past, throw prudence and practicality to the wind, declare themselves to have better sight, and lead people in the emerging direction of our time. I’m being a little sarcastic here to make my case but this is the vibe I get from McLaren and the vibe I feel from many emergent conversations as well. It feels very Wormwoodian. :)
I found considerable murkiness about a number of important issues in this book but McLaren’s neo-Malthusian commitment was crystal clear. It is pivotal to themes that are pervasive throughout the book. Malthusiansim actually links back to the parochialism described above. Locked in the present, it projects present realities into the future unaltered by the dynamic evolving nature of market economies.
When political and economic freedoms are present, a dynamic feedback loop is created between societal wants and resources. Wants and needs adapt and change. Improved resource extraction and processing technologies drive costs lower. Substitute resources are devised as some resources become more costly (and as noted, there are few items, even steel, for which it is not possible to conceive of renewable replacements.) Side effects of production are addressed by replacing imperfect technologies with less imperfect technologies. We have 200 years of watching this dynamic pattern unfold, yet new generations of Malthusians rise up to constrict economic behavior to save us from resource exhaustion.
Related to a devotion to neo-Malthusianism for many is a deep conviction about cataclysmic human-caused climate change. I continue to be amazed at the fundamentalist-like embrace of claims made by highly politicized representatives of this nascent area of science. For so many intellectuals, it is such an affirming confirmation of what they have always known concerning how evil market economies are that the science behind it, and priority setting questions it may raise, are irrelevant. Prudence is rarely considered a virtue with this issue. While McLaren clearly is among those who are persuaded of grave danger, he at least tends to cast climate change within a broader context of other environmental concerns.
(Based on quotes and footnotes it appears that McLaren’s thinking on these issues is heavily influenced by Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Daly is a leading ecological economist, a sub-discipline that is responsible for the latest revival of Malthusian economics wedded to ecological studies.)
In God at Work, David Miller of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture writes:
Many of today’s leading senior theologians, ethicists, and clergy are deeply influenced by Christian Socialism, branches of Barthianism (that accent the action of God, the finitude of the person, and Barth’s early theological support for socialism), liberation theology (emphasizing state-controlled economic structures, rejecting free markets, and viewing capitalist businesses as oppressors), and even some Franciscan and monastic strands that glorify poverty and simplicity. In particular, many of today’s religious professional were trained in liberation theology as a normative way of thinking that was fashionable in mainstream seminaries and divinity schools during the latter three decades of the twentieth century (and that remains so in many programs.) Liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor is often interpreted in material terms (no spiritual) and has resulted in a de facto bias against the theological and human possibilities of the marketplace and those involved in the business world. In similar fashion, many of today’s leading systematic theologians, ethicists, and clergy are heirs of Christian socialism, which was popular among many leading mainstream theologians, including to varying degrees Rauschenbusch, Tillich, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Both Christian socialism and liberation theology rely heavily on Marxist categories of analysis, and historical interpretation, and methodology, which presuppose a prima facie rejection of: capitalism, nonstate-controlled forms of economic organization, ownership of private property, and the role of religion. (89-90)
Everything Must Change is a progressive work that accords well with the above. By progressive I’m referring to those who see society and its institutions as highly malleable, capable of being shaped and managed by government toward equitable ends (however equitable may be defined.) Conservatives tend to be folks who believe considerable wisdom has built up over time about the functioning and interrelationship of social institutions. They are reticent, whether by government or other means to make sweeping changes, thus “conserving” and preserving the wisdom that has been established from the past. There are virtues and perils with each of these as I described in the post about The Macrosociology Dilemma.
One of the most perplexing problems I have with emergent is that when it comes to ecclesial issues, the idea of non-hierarchical networks of people relating freely to each other is openly embraced. Instead of churches and fellowships, there are “generative cohorts” organically interacting with each other. From this seemingly uncontrolled chaotic environment, unplanned order emerges. That is the whole idea behind “emergent.” Switch this imagery to economics and you have an almost libertarian view of the world. Yet when McLaren (and many emergent friends) turn to questions of economics, freedom is distrusted. Oversight, constraint, and limits by hierarchical bodies become the default mode of operation. I’ve never quite grasped the reconciliation between the two visions.
The very title of the book, “Everything Must Change,” could be regarded as the progressive motto. I don’t find the vision offered in the book to be particularly innovative. If anything, it strikes me as a revival of Baby Boomer era (1960s and 1970s) Christian political progressivism, whether of the Mainline denominational variety or of the more Evangelical variety espoused by Jim Wallis. While at a conference recently I heard Ron Sider comment that while he was getting too old to be much of an idealist he was encouraged to see some in the church (including emergent types) coming around to what he and Wallis and others have been promoting for 35 years. This is not some new third way.
I don’t know Brian McLaren but from I what I do know, I get the sense that he is a guy who loves Jesus. I have no personal axe to grind. What I’ve written goes to the content of his book and, by extension, to the content of what I see as the dominant ethos of the emergent conversation. I’m in strong disagreement with significant aspects of this ethos. In fact, I fear the result of well intentioned visions like this is the creation of a suicide machine.
I said at the beginning of this series that I wasn’t sure this series was a good idea. I’m still not sure it was. Some of my readers prodded me to share my thoughts on the book. I’ve learned a lot by trying to process my thoughts but I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time being critical of others. I’d rather write about positive visions I see. So I’m redirecting my attention back to that now. I hope, if nothing else, I’ve offered some alternate perspectives to consider.
We are coming to the end of this series on Everything Must Change. One final passage before I offer some reflections.
In Chapter 33 of McLaren engages in a curious thought experiment. He wants to highlight the fact that the dominant world system gives us a curriculum that corrupts how we relate to the world. Ideologies of left and right, just as with differing ideologies of Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus day, end up playing by the same script. The dominant ideology of our day “…teaches us we can live without limits in a carefree pursuit of what we want.” (289)
The thought experiment compares opposition to abortion (associated with the right) with opposition to greenhouse gas emission (associated with the left.) With regard to abortion, nobody goes about with the purposeful intent of creating a situation where they are going to need an abortion. Yet people know what causes pregnancy, so in an important sense they don’t get pregnant by accident. Because people don’t exercise proper responsible restraint, abortion presents itself as a very attractive fix for the problem they’ve created.
Similarly, McLaren would argue that no one sets out to warm the planet and threaten the environment. Yet “…people know what causes global warming, so in that sense, they don’t create an atmospheric greenhouse gas by accident.” (287) But, “…they want the quick profit and high return on their investments without having to be environmentally conscious, so the unintended consequence of global warming feels like an accident.” (287) Now we are looking for fixes and no satisfactory ones present themselves.
I agree that dominant systems can create curriculums that feed opposing ideologies. For instance, I would argue that autonomy and individualism are driving forces in our Western narrative. There are versions of libertarianism on one extreme that oppose virtually any governmental restraint on individual economic or social behavior. This gives the individual the maximum freedom to create their own positive consequences in a “live and let live” or “let die” world. Some versions of progressivism go to the other extreme. Government is to be responsible for our every need. Government is to provide for all of our needs so we can “be ourselves” without having to alter our behavior or be accountable to others. They are polar means to a similar end.
McLaren’s comparison doesn’t work. First, as I pointed out in the posts toward the beginning of this series, we are living through the most dramatic explosion in global prosperity in the history of humankind. Global life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century. Infant mortality rates have plunged. The percentage of people living on less than a dollar a day has fallen to about 15% and continues to fall. Literacy is expanding rapidly across the world. The number of people living in relatively free democracies has been growing. Economies in emerging nations are growing faster than the ones in developed nations. Diseases have been wiped out. We accomplished all this despite a six fold of the world population over the last two centuries. There is still much misery in the world and we are far far from utopia. But the advances are absolutely breathtaking. It strikes me as rather myopic to reduce recent economic history down to greedy pleasure seeking capitalists looking for a “quick profit and high return on their investments.” The antipathy McLaren has for the most life-giving economic system the world has yet produced, to the point of labeling it a “suicide machine,” is just peculiar.
Second, it is known (and has been known for a long time) where babies come from. :) The same is not true of global warming. It is unclear how much impact human generated greenhouse gasses have on warming. Should temperatures rise to the level organizations like the International Panel on Climate Control expect they might over the next century, the consequences (good and bad) are unclear. To the extent that it has been “known” that greenhouse gases are what is driving warming, it has been “known” only in the last decade or so. Therefore, most of what was done to produce the greenhouse levels happened before we knew “the facts of life.”
I have a better comparison for the climate change issue. I know a way we can save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of injuries every year. We can do it by creating a simple law that we could put in force tomorrow. We simply reduce the speed limit, anywhere in America, to 5 miles per hour. Why don’t we save all these lives and protect people from injuries? We know what is causing these deaths. Isn’t it just our greedy pursuit of quick travel and high return on our time invested? Why don’t we stop these suicide machines?
We don’t act on this because we recognize there are trade-offs. The sacrificed good of personal rapid transit (some of it for frivolous pleasure) outweighs the benefits. Furthermore, reduction in death by this means could result in an equal or far greater number of deaths by other means through unintended consequences of the new law.
It has always been understood that zero pollution is not attainable. We balance the benefits of productive capacity against the pollution consequences. As pollution has become better understood, the optimal balance has changed over time. CO2 has not even been considered an issue until very recently and we are now trying to find the appropriate balance in the midst of uncertainty. Prudence is the answer.
Chapter 30 in Everything Must Change is titled "Organized Religions or Religion Organizing the Common Good?" He identifies seven categories of development economics. Summarizing:
First, we have to live within environmental limits. Second, integrate free trade with fair trade. Third we need to make it easier for people to grow small businesses. This will mean deregulation, that allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to flourish, and regulation, that restrains powerful large multinational corporations.
More public and private aid is needed for developing nations.
Judicious and discerning debt relief for developing nations.
Must recognize that we are finite creatures in a finite creation that must live within biological and material limits. McLaren wants us to invest in four initiatives:
“…improving health and education of children, improving the health and education of women, expanding the availability of contraceptives, and developing social security systems for the elderly. These four actions, taken together, give poor parents good reasons (and means) to have fewer children.” (260)
…we should speak less of an environmental crisis and speak more of an overconsumption crisis. (260)
We need an international minimum wage that is contextually specific to local cost of living conditions. Instead of centralized planning we need to think about ratio-based salary arrangements where the highest salary is limited to some multiple of the lowest paid worker.
Within a framing story that provides no moral context, this kind of ceiling may sound ridiculous, but within a framing story, that takes bonds of community seriously, the lack of a ceiling sounds even worse. (261)
Brief aside here. Last month I wrote a post called Some CEO Compensation Perspective. Fortune 500 CEO earnings have increased sixfold over the past thirty years. However, as economist Xavier Gabix has noted:“The sixfold increase of CEO pay between 1980 and 2003 can be fully attributed to the six-fold increase in market capitalization of large US companies during that period.”
There are about 300,000 CEOs in the US. If you take away these top 500 CEOs find a ratio of CEO salaries to the salary of the average production worker, the ratio is 4.1 to 1.
We need a framing story that leads to integrity where meaning, prosperity and equity are integrated together. Justice can’t be limited to abstractions like “democracy” or “freedom.” Oversight of even democratic free societies are needed. Quoting Jim Garrison, “In an integrating world, governance, not government, is the key to effective management of the global system because networks, not nations, are the emergent powers of the future. “ (262) We need more peer to peer networks like the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Atomic Energy Commission. He envisions a World Labor Organization, a Global Environmental Organization, and an International Reconstruction Fund (to help failing states rebuild.) (263)
We need to strengthen communities and publics. “Communities are families of families linked together in a local environment of land, water, air, and climate. Publics are larger networks of people whose influence spreads over many communities, such as governments, political parties, multinational corporations, institutions, cartels and media.” (263) He views communities as the key with systemic injustice usually being the result of dysfunction with the publics. He goes on to observe:
Local churches, local schools, local other civil organizations associations have a pivotal role in this regard – strengthening families and communities through celebrating virtue and training people to practice it.” (263)
If the first six recommendations don’t lead to strengthening of these communities, then all will be for naught.
I’ve commented on most of these issues in one way or another in previous posts so I’ll just leave it with this summary.
In Chapter 28 of Everything Must Change, McLaren writes:
What can be done to deal with this gross and growing inequity that is being produced by our societal machinery? Many claim that the invisible had of free markets will resolve these problems naturally, over time. But to reiterate J. F. Rischard’s analysis:
Whether from intellectual laziness or from single-minded pursuit of ideology, what these free-market fundamentalists fail to see is that while central planners were either cretins or fools, the market is a moron. An effective moron, but a moron nonetheless: left to its own devices, it will churn mindlessly … [If we are complacent,] if we leave all problem-solving to the market, emerging social problems will be left unattended … We’ll end up with scores of unnecessary social stresses over the next twenty years – and a lot of protesters on the street. (245)
There are some valid points to this critique but I want out to point out what, to me, is one of the great ironies I see in the Emergent Church conversation, a community of which McLaren is a leading figure. The Emergent Village has as their tag line:
Emergent Village is a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
There is strong resistance by many Emergent folks to anything institutional or hierarchical. Free church ecclesiology predominates. Generative cohorts emerge, seek to live out life together. Out of this seeming chaos, orderly patterns emerge, dissolve, and then new patterns emerge. I think I’ve read or heard most of the more prominent leaders of this community give hat tips to the importance of chaos theory somewhere along the line. I came to similar conclusions about social systems years ago and one of the things that really hooked me about the emerging church conversation (nearly a decade ago) was their appreciation for this dynamic in the functioning of the church.
But now let me take Rishard’s quote and paraphrase it so that it becomes about emerging church ecclesiology.
Whether from intellectual laziness or from single-minded pursuit of ideology, what these free-church fundamentalists fail to see is that while ecclesial leaders were either cretins or fools, the generative cohort collectively is a moron. An effective moron, but a moron nonetheless: left to its own devices, it will churn mindlessly … [If we are complacent,] if we leave all problem-solving to cohorts, emerging problems will be left unattended … We’ll end up with scores of unnecessary stresses over the next twenty years – and a dysfunctional church.
Why is it that a community that is so heavily invested in non-institutionalism that they have “generative cohorts” (not congregations, fellowships, or communities; all too institutional) has a preponderance of people with disdain for a generative cohort economy? Now I know some will say that in the economy there are big corporations that can dominate the economy. But don’t a small handful of individuals within the Emergent conversation have megaphones and audiences for in excess of everyone else? I’d suggest that McLaren is an Exxon in the economy of the Emergent conversation. :) We need less free church and more fair church. :) I'm not as free church oriented as many Emergent folks are (though I'm sympathetic), and I'm decidedly more free market oriented than most folks I encounter (though I don't embrace libertarianism.)
Many Emergent folks have come from ecclesial settings with a heavy emphasis on church hierarchy and conservative/libertarian politics. I detect a strong reactionary streak that opposes church hierarchy and embraces political progressivism as an attempt to escape a rejected past. The result too often is a contra-Evangelicalism.
But coming back to the book, you need to know that McLaren does point to the importance of developing families and communities. He also talks about the importance of personal responsibility. I don’t recall any specific recommendations for government management of various parts of the economy. I see the renewal of the family and mediating institutions as the focal point of cultural transformation and I expect McLaren and I would find some common ground here about vision, though I’m not sure about strategy.
He does talk about the importance of identifying and remedying systemic evil. What, precisely, the systemic evils are, is not always clear. Economic growth, or at least “rapid” economic growth (how ever that is measured), is one systemic evil. He believes free trade needs to be replaced by fair trade (although I would argue the free trade is fair trade and what is driving the “fair trade” talk is the erroneous acceptance of claims by exploiters that the have been practicing free trade.) On page 258 he writes:
...we need to make it easier for people to grow small businesses. This will often involve both deregulation (cutting red tap for poor but aspiring entrepreneurs and for small-business owners who are expanding their businesses and thus providing more employment) and regulation (restraining powerful, large corporations – especially transnational ones – from crushing local entrepreneurship while exploiting local resources and cheap labor.)
Emerging economies don’t just need more small businesses. They need home grown large corporations. Each industry has its own unique set of variables. Some will have a small handful of corporations. Others will have a highly fragmented small business model. Some will have a variety of mixtures between those two. If you read my blog regularly, then you know I’m a big fan of microenterprise. But emerging economies well never fully emerge until they have the full range industries and business enterprises.
I don’t have as negative a view of large corporations as McLaren’s (but by no means a naïve view about the problems.) Large corporations in emerging nations have important spillover effects into local economies. Large corporations frequently raise the level of human capital as locals work for or interact with these corporations. Locals develop acumen for technology and businesses. Large corporations often spawn the emergence of new local businesses that help to supply the large corporation. Foreign corporations usually pay wages that are higher than what local businesses pay and that stimulates the economy as well. As we saw yesterday, the poorer the nation, seemingly the greater the embrace of foreign corporations. As we have also seen, the claim that the predominate economic impact of corporations is the flow of wealth out of emerging nations doesn’t pass muster.
Of all of these issues, the one that alarms me the most in this discussion is this idea that we need to slow down the economy, particularly when it is paired with the assertion of an imminent ecological apocalypse. If you make it easier for entrepreneurship to emerge in emerging economies, you are going to have significant growth. How exactly do we accomplish this slow down of the economy?
Calls to changing personal consumption habits are admirable but I don’t know anyone who believes that this strategy alone is going to precipitate the radical level of change the prophets of doom are demanding. I’m disturbed by the silence on this especially in light of McLaren’s seeming disdain for markets, the fact that he views national government as the primary institution in economic matters, and the fact that environmentalism is the new home of socialist and communist movements all over the planet (They see the narrative McLaren is casting as an opportunity for the realization of totalitarian visions.) How do we slow the economy without massive, if not totalitarian, government intervention? Let's not be coy here.
Part Seven of Everything Must Change (Chapters 27 to 30) deals with the equity system. I’m not going to go into as much detail here as with the prosperity system but I do want to highlight a few key points.
As I’ve suggested already, this ever-widening gap between extremely prosperous insiders and intractably poor outsiders produces a kind of double hatred. The poor first envy, then resent, and eventually hate the rich … The rich sense this hatred and respond with fear, which eventually becomes a form of hatred too. (230)
Taken together, these rising international tensions guarantee that the marginalized poor will become more and more resentful, more and more tempted to violence, more and more desperate, while the insiders will become more and more afraid and obsessed with security. (231)
McLaren goes on to give the stats about economic disparity but is resentment building among the poor? What does the rest of the world think of the United States? The Pew Global Attitudes Project has been asking these questions for a few years now. In June of 2007, they released a report on the attitudes of people in 47 nations from all continents. To graph to the right shows the percentages of people who view America favorably or unfavorably.
What I find telling is that 9 of the 10 nations (excluding the US) who have the most favorable opinion (64% and higher) of the US are non-Muslim African nations. Move to the bottom of the list and 8 of the 10 ten nations with the lowest favorable score (30% and lower) are Muslim or predominately Muslim nations. Germany is tenth from the bottom and four of the nations 11-15 from the bottom are from Europe. Poverty does not seem to be the driving factor. Disagreement about religious values appears to drive the most negative numbers with the Muslim world and diverging views of geopolitics seems to drive the negative numbers in Europe. Yet the poorest non-Muslim nations seem to have the most positive attitudes toward the US.
Later quoting, Ziauddin Saddir and Merryl Wyn Davies book Why Do People Hate America, McLaren writes:
The US has simply made it too difficult for other people to exist … The US has structured the global economy to perpetually enrich itself and reduce non-Western societies to poverty, “Free markets” is simply a euphemism for free mobility of American capital, unrestrained expansions of American corporations, and free (unidirectional) movement of goods and services from America to the rest of the world. (257-258)
So what do other nations think of foreign corporations operating in their own countries? The second chart to the right presents the data from a July, 2007, Pew report that surveyed 47 nations on how favorably they view foreign corporations operating in their own country.
Note Africa at the bottom of the list. Excluding Tanzania, all of the surveyed nations reported 70 % or more of the people saying they thought foreign corporations had a good impact on their country. Now look at Western Europe. Note that the highest rating is Spain at 56% with most of the European nations registering less 50% approval. Eastern Europe has a more favorable view. The Middle East and Asia, despite having a number of Muslim countries, have most countries reporting 60% or higher favorable views.
If McLaren is right that growing disparity is driving people toward greater resentment and hatred of the US, with its corporations sucking the life out of poor nations, then why is that the poorest nations have the highest favorable ratings for the United States and have overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward foreign corporations? I submit it is because life is getting better in most developing nations and even in the stagnate (or even regressing nations) of Africa, integration with market economies, of which the US is the largest player, are seen as the greatest hope for prosperity.
Frankly, this view that multinational corporations and trade is the root of all economic evil in emerging nations strikes me as a projection of Western progressivism on to emerging nations. It isn’t substantiated by the facts. It is form of ideological imperialism every bit as much as the “free markets will solve everything” mantra. There are a lot of problems with trade in the world but there is much good that is happening as well. The dramatic improvements in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, income, nutrition, disease elimination, and a host of other variables I highlighted in earlier posts demonstrate this but McLaren is right that there is far more to do.
Finally, I want to say one more thing about this claim that the US is has markets oriented so that all wealth flows to the US. First, below is a graph a linked earlier that shows that emerging nations' economies are growing 2 or 3 times faster than the high-income nations. I also pointed out that bottom quintiles in these emerging nations are the ones with the highest percentage per capita income growth.
With the economic slow down in the US, economist are now speculating about a "decoupling" of emerging nations from the US. In the past, the US economy has been so big that all other economies were inextricably tied to its fortunes. There is some evidence that this linkage is being decoupled. Economist Mark Perry had a post last month called Why Decoupling May Save The World Economy. He included two graphs which he got from an Economist article.
Note how export growth by emerging nations to emerging nations parallels growth of exports to the US until 2006 (though it is always higher.) Just two years later, export growth by emerging nations has remained at about 20% while export growth to the US has gone flat. Emerging economies were still growing at a rapid rate so the new exports must be going to places other than the US.
Over the past couple of years, China has replaced the US as the leading destination of exports by emerging economies. McLaren's claim of a world economy that leads only to the pockets of wealthy Americans may have once been true but it doesn't seem to hold up under scrutiny today. The world economy is becoming more diversified and web-like.
Response to theocapitalism, Law #4 - Continued
Capitalists are right, or at least partly so: many rich people are good people – hardworking, clever, dedicated, disciplined, and exactly the kinds of people who should prosper. But unless they use their prosperity for the common good, they find themselves working for a theocapitalist prosperity system rather than the love economy of God. In the theocapitalist system, all that is expected is the single bottom line of return on investment, but in the love economy of God, the stakes are higher and success is more meaningful: the bottom line of economic profit is exchanged for the top line of the common good. (221-222)
The phrase “common good” is a favorite of McLaren’s in Everything Must Change. Unfortunately, it is also a phrase that has been used by a wide variety of Marxist and socialist movements over the years. (“Goods held in common for the common good.”). “Common good” has been a major theme of the Niebuhrian Christian Socialist model that still holds sway in many Mainline theological academies today. Rather than envisioning individuals and families with rights to their wealth and to the fruits produced by their property, wealth is viewed as society’s possession. It may be appropriated and used on utilitarian basis for whatever the state deems is in the “common good.” Wealth is something that is privately held only insofar as it serves the state’s definition of the common good .
There is a profound epistemological question here: What is the common good? Who decides? What actions achieve it?
One economic epistemology views markets as functioning with near perfect efficiency. They achieve the highest approximation of the common good. Therefore, what “is,” is optimal. Another epistemology posits that there is an optimal state of being we have yet to achieve. Therefore what “is,” is not optimal. Markets must be managed to the higher common good. We are back to my George Brett analogy. Should I seek his autograph because three out of ten times over his career he managed to get a hit or should I be embarrassed for him because seven out of ten times he failed to accomplish his objective? Just because Brett was better than all but a handful does that mean that we can’t create a future crop of players who would make Brett look mediocre?
Now let’s be fair here. I don’t recall McLaren calling for state ownership of private property anywhere in this book. I expect he would balk at the idea that he is promoting socialism. Yet he has made clear that a well functioning prosperity system is a matter of for the state, with charitable institutions and non-governmental agencies springing up only as remedial institutions to plug in where government fails. The “common good” is our highest aim but theocapitalists have locked us into a suicide machine. There is impending environmental disaster and resource depletion just over the horizon. Economic growth must be halted and wealth redistributed to the world’s poor. Who has the responsibility for correcting the situation? Isn’t it the state?
Nowhere does McLaren make an explicit case for a socialist economy. He does make general suggestions about what we might do on an individual micro level. Still, I see nothing in what McLaren describes in this book that would seem to preclude at least a soft socialist economy as a viable and even laudable development to protect the “common good.” The lack of clarity is unhelpful.
I think the problem enters when begin with the idea of either individuals having ultimate property rights or in seeing all property as the states. All that is belongs to God and he ordains how it is to be used. Stewardship is paramount in God’s eyes and there can be no stewardship without economic freedom. Yet there are communal obligations that God demands from us in the use of our wealth. This tension seems to me to be the place to begin a discussion.
Later McLaren writes:
U2 front man and rock-prophet Bono also understands the challenge: “Distance does not decide who is your brother and who is not. The church is going to have to become the conscience of the free market if it’s to have any meaning in the world – and stop being its apologist.”
Economics need not be a dismal science or the study of so-called filthy lucre. It can instead be the story of human beings working together for the common good in God’s love economy. Each person using, the gifts she has been given, through trial and error, success and failure, struggles to become the best she can be at what she is gifted to do. She brings into the world her own unique good works or good deeds … each an expression of her uniqueness as a person created in the image of God and as a citizen in the kingdom of God. Through the medium of money, she exchanges the fruits of her labors with others who bring different goods and services to the economic table.
Together they are deeply grateful for all they earn and have, and they are careful to share with those who are in need. Where there are systemic injustices that privilege some and disadvantage others, they work for justice so the system becomes more of what it can and should be. Those who are more prosperous, believing that more is expected from them, seek to use their advantages to help those who are less prosperous, and together rich and poor seek to build better communities that in turn, build a better world. This collaborative pursuit, they discover, brings the co-liberation of true prosperity. (223)
I’ve been following U2 since 1982 and I’m a big fan. However, I don’t look to Bono for economic analysis. :)
This passage is confusing. In the first paragraph, McLaren characterizes the free market as evil. We must cease being its apologists. Then in the next two paragraphs, he gives a very good description of living in a free market economy. People doing non-coerced work trading with others in non-coerced markets. People with wealth exercise benevolence toward others. Or as Adam Smith said:
And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Book I.1.44)
Free markets are similar to free speech. Most Christians would defend free speech but fully recognize that justice requires some limits. You can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowed theater or slander another person. If someone does slanders another we don’t mount a movement to rally against free speech. We rally against the slander.
The free market, or economic freedom, is not an absolute freedom either. Partnering in business with corrupt officials who suppress other’s property rights is not a valid free market arrangement. We should oppose corruption in support of legitimate free markets. I doubt Bono or McLaren would call us to cease being apologists for free speech in the face a slander. So why call for us to cease being apologists for free markets in the face instances of corruption? I don’t get it.
Finally, an aside about the dismal science. The phrase came from an 1849 publication by political economist Thomas Carlyle in response to arguments made by John Stuart Mill. (see article) Mill made the case that slavery should be abolished and Africans should be treated as free workers with markets deciding appropriate wages. Carlyle took exception to this, arguing that slavery was ordained by God and Mill’s vision was a destruction of the social order. Mill countered that Carlyle was merely arguing from the standpoint of “the law of the strongest,” something the greatest teachers have called upon us to abandon. Carlyle called Mill’s perspective the dismal science because it would undo the social order. He found Mill’s egalitarianism dismal.
However, the mythical, but widely attributed, origin relates to the Malthusians. As we saw earlier Malthus believed that improved human conditions would only lead to population growth beyond carrying capacity before famine, war, or disease would cause the population to collapse back to earlier levels. The science was dismal because it occupied itself with gloomy impending cataclysms. While there are various revivals of Malthusianism from time to time, it has not been more than a minority voice over the past century. Ironically, it is McLaren’s neo-Malthusian perspective that is the dismal science, not economics.
Response to theocapitalism, Law #4 - Continued
Repeating from the quote I made in the previous post, McLaren writes:
My friend Rene Padilla offers an interesting analysis of the two systems from a Latin American perspective. Communism, he says, specialized in distribution but failed at production. As a result, it ended up doing a great job of distributing poverty evenly. Capitalism, he says, was excellent at production but weak at distribution. (220)
I actually think Winston Churchill had a better observation:
The inherent vice of Capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.
Plotting income and wealth distribution on a graph for ancient societies up to the time of the industrial revolution reveals a very common theme: Widespread subsistence living (poverty) with a handful of very wealthy elites. (See the red line on the graph below.) Social mobility from generation to generation was glacial. Some socialist economies did marginally better at improving the lot of the masses but they all still lived in a narrow range of income and wealth with very little social mobility.
Societies that have adopted capitalist models have experienced distributions the look more like a bell curve, with the high end of the tail much higher than the high end of ancient or socialist societies. (See the blue line in the graph below.) But the stark difference is the high social mobility of people up and down the economic scale.
It is also critical to ask what constitutes a just distribution. Most people would agree that as people have more experience they should earn more. Imagine a society where people in their twenties earn $20,000 a year, people in their thirties $30,000 a year, and so on through the age brackets. If there is roughly the same number of people in each of these age groups, then there is going to be significantly uneven distribution. Is this just?
Now let’s add to the formula differences in innate ability, work ethic, training (a one year program to become a Ford mechanic vs. years of medical school and residency to become a doctor) and demand for particular skill sets. Is justice paying all these folks approximately the same amount? The economy is not a zero-sum game.
Making much money in one occupation is not offset by low pay in another. As long as there is a basic level of support for those at the margins (and that is the critical question) is there injustice? If the economic distribution is a house, with wealth at the ceiling and poverty as the floor, is the height of the ceiling or the distance between floor and the ceiling the paramount issue? Isn’t the real question “How high is the floor?”
The only countries that have accomplished (at least temporarily) a comparatively level distribution of relatively high income are the Scandinavian socialist countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland (with a combined population of less than 20 million people.) These highly homogenous countries embraced a socialist model at a point in their histories when there were very high rates of literacy and education, and low natural population growth. However, over recent years, per capita GDP has been slowing, the institution of the family has been badly damaged, and excessive dependency has been created. The inability to achieve a birthrate at even the replacement rate places the future of the system in peril. It is questionable whether such a system could be replicated in other countries and it is not even clear that the system is sustainable in Scandinavian countries.
Contrary to McLaren's claim, capitalist systems have been far more equitable (but far from perfect.) in their distribution than other economic models, if by equitable we mean people rewarded relative to their economic contribution Just distribution has not developed Latin America countries, as well as in many other emerging nations, for many of the reasons I presented in my previous post.
Today we begin a discussion of the response to the fourth law of theocapitalism in Everything Must Change.
Theocapitalism Law #4. The Law of Freedom to Prosper Through Unaccountable Corporations: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic economy, and in the communion of unaccountable corporations.
Jesus’ Law #4: The Law of Freedom to Prosper by Building Better Communities.
Jesus offers alternative path to freedom – not through unaccountable corporations (the gangs of the rich) linked together to become wealthy using the labor of the poor, but rather through the rich and poor joining their labor for the building of a better world by the building of better communities.
The twentieth century was, in many ways, a battle between two economic systems. My friend Rene Padilla offers an interesting analysis of the two systems from a Latin American perspective. Communism, he says, specialized in distribution but failed at production. As a result, it ended up doing a great job of distributing poverty evenly. Capitalism, he says, was excellent at production but weak at distribution. As a result, it ended up rewarding the wealthy with obscene amounts of wealth while the poor suffered in horrible degradation and indignity. Latin America is still waiting for a viable alternative; as is the whole planet.
The twenty-first century began in the aftermath of the defeat of Marxism. The story of the coming century will likely be the story of whether a sustainable from of capitalism can be saved from theocapitalism, or whether unrestrained theocapitalism will result in such gross inequity between rich and poor that violence and counterviolence will bring civilization to a standstill, or perhaps worse. (219-220)
I fault McLaren’s characterization (ala Padilla). The battle has not been between two economic systems. The battle was between two imperial powers: One by a league of communist nations with the USS at the lead and the other by a league of capitalist nations, led largely by the US. Imperialism is the effort to politically and economically subordinate foreign peoples. Imperialism predates Marxism and capitalism by millennia. It has been an all too frequent practice by people who achieve considerable power relative to their peers. Capitalism is a highly productive economic system that creates great wealth. Therefore, capitalism creates significant opportunities for imperialism by its adherents but imperialism is not inherent to a market or capitalist economy.
Market economies, in theory, have participants who engage in non-coerced economic exchange. Everyone’s property rights are respected, from the poor to the rich, and there is rule of law that protects these rights. Nowhere has this existed with perfection (nor can it until the New Creation) but we can speak of significantly varying degrees of approximation.
Most of Latin America has operated under the latifundia or hacienda system. Hacienda’s begin in Latin America when very large land grants were made to Spanish nobles beginning in the early sixteenth century. These were virtual feudal estates. The patron ruled over peasants and serfs on his estate with help of a handful of assistants. It was a hierarchical patronage system the prevented any significant economic exchange at a horizontal level between the masses. While there was some evolution and variation over time, this structure has been the predominate ethos throughout much of Latin America well into the twentieth century. There was no rule of law or property rights in the sense that developed in the Western capitalist nations.
Today easily 80% or more of the economy in poor Latin American nations (as with much of the rest of the impoverished world) operates outside of formal economic structures. Getting a license to run an official business can take months and cost many weeks or months of pay. The poor hold no formal title to their land. Ownership is tenuously secured by neighbors knowing who has a claim to what. Ownership claims can be abrogated on whim by authorities or other powerful people. Therefore, despite occupying land, the poor have no way to leverage the land to finance other ventures. They’re disinclined to make substantial improvements to the land. They have no title and there are uncertain prospects about enforceability even if the did. This dilemma of murky ownership, shared by much of the poor all around the world, keeps upwards of ten trillion dollars of potential capital owned by the poor (globally) hidden and unemployed according to Hernando De Soto in The Mystery of Capital.
When USA corporations (and few other non-USA corporations) interacted with Latin American nations, either through ignorance or (often) by design, they have found themselves partnering in the vested interest of the latest incarnation of the hacienda patrons. Capital investment and economic exchange was with the 10-20% of the economy in the formal sector controlled by a small wealthy oligarchy. With the end of World War II, geopolitical considerations were added to the matrix of dysfunction. The USA used its military strength to not only protect investments of US corporations (ex. United Fruit Company), who were thoroughly in cooperation with the oligarchies, but to prop up these oligarchies as a defense against communism. Horrendous injustices were frequently a result.
What I have just described is not capitalism! It is imperialism by a capitalist nation. It is the suppression of free market exchange and the rule of law. What the poor have needed is market exchange, property rights, and the rule of law. McLaren writes:
Whatever the merits of trickle-down economics, Jesus offers a different plan. For him, both poor and the rich need saving; one needs liberation from addictive wealth and the other, liberation from oppressive poverty. Part of the work of the kingdom of God is to turn them from their ideologies of exploitation and victimization to a vision of collaboration in the kingdom of God – a kind of kingdom co-liberation. (221)
The economic answer here is not “trickle-down” economics but rather “peculate-up” economics. Ten trillion dollars of hidden capital needs to be brought into play by bringing the poor into the formal economy. The poor need to have rule of law that protects their rights. Most of these Latin American nations, until very recently, have never had a chance to experience anything that remotely resembles free market capitalism. (That is changing.) Capitalism has not been tried and found wanting; it was not tried!
Finally, read this statement again:
The story of the coming century will likely be the story of whether a sustainable from of capitalism can be saved from theocapitalism, or whether unrestrained theocapitalism will result in such gross inequity between rich and poor that violence and counterviolence will bring civilization to a standstill, or perhaps worse. (220)
Theocapitalism is the reality. “A sustainable form of capitalism” (read “no growth”), or just a non-theocapitalism form of capitalism, doesn’t exist. As I wrote earlier, in the context of Everything Must Change, theocapitalism and capitalism is functionally the same thing.
A big point of confusion in this book is that there is no definition of what non-theocapitalist capitalism is (if it is indeed even possible.) “Theocapitalism” and “capitalism” seem to function as catch-alls for everything we don’t like about the present order rather than a term descriptive of a specific economic system.
Today we look at the response to the third law of theocapitalism as presented in Everything Must Change.
Theocapitalism Law #3: The Law of Salvation Through Competition Alone: By win-lose competition alone you have been saved.
Jesus’ Law #3: The Law of Salvation Through Seeking Justice
When McLaren wrote about the third law of theocapitalism, he presented a quote from Andrew Carnegie about the necessity of concentrations of wealth and the importance of competition. I have not gone back to read the context of the quote but the essay it was taken from was written 1889. McLaren immediately follows the Carnegie quote with this observation.
“…Even religious fundamentalists who reject Darwin in biology typically celebrate an economic or social Darwinism, which reveres inequality in order to reward the fittest – the most industrious, the hardest workers, the most task-oriented (as opposed to people-oriented). The poor, this law states, should and must be poor because they are unfit (individually or as a group); the rich, even though they concentrate great wealth “in the hands of a few,” should and must be rich because they are the fittest competitors. To violate this law would be to work against the very structure of the universe, and would run counter to the will of God and his “gospel of wealth.” (194)
Well if this “social Darwinism” is the dominating view today, then why not present current evidence of it? There is an important justice issue that lives in a tension between two important justice claims. One is that everyone should be able to reap the rewards of their accomplishments. The other is that there is a communal responsibility to “take care of the least of these.” Apart from the ethical questions appropriating others resources, we know that when highly productive people are significantly deprived of the fruits of their labor the cease excelling and society begins to function at a mediocre level. Of course, I expect McLaren would jump in here with a “hooray!” Because it is economic growth (which is responsible for lifting humanity out of 20-30 year life expectancies and lives of misery living slightly above subsistence levels) that is the great driver of his “suicide machine.” I’ll have more to say on this later but once again what we get here is more unhelpful caricature.
For his presentation of the alternative to theocapitalism, McLaren turns to the story of James and John asking for positions of power when Jesus come into his Kingdom. (Matthew 20:20-28) He also draws on Matthew 23:1-12 to highlight Jesus teaching about not lording if over others. He writes:
The word competition has strange and almost mystical appeal to some devotees of the prosperity system of theocapitalism. If by competition we mean a respectful struggle that brings out the best in all competitors, this appeal seems legitimate enough. But if the term suggests a system that creates a few winners and many losers, we will find it hard to square with Jesus’ emphasis on concern for neighbors, a concern that extends to enemies and that singles out “the losers” (the last, the least, and the lost) for special care.
So it is not the hunger for domination through competition that will save us, Jesus teaches. … (217)
Later McLaren explains that in place of these base drives, Jesus calls us to to seek God's Kingdom and justice. The concern for justice is unfolded more in the discussion about the last law.
The concern about competition and domination expressed here is valid enough. I think it is important to highlight that Jesus was talking about competition and domination 2,000 years ago which means it did not originate with modern economies. It is part and parcel of the human condition. Wherever there are structures that create opportunities for power, competition and domination will present themselves. In Jesus’ day, it was about ascending one’s way up the ladder of the patronage system. In our day, it is about running the corporation, heading up the government, or just being better than everyone else at something.
Therefore, witnessing the presence of competition and attempts at domination in an economic system is not an indictment of that system. The question is how are these human inclinations channeled? In our day, we have established various separate spheres of societal life with separation of powers in an effort to thwart moves toward totalitarian control (“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) Furthermore, market economies channel greed and competition into productive activities. If you want to succeed you ultimately have to satisfy customer needs in order to make it to the top and stay there. We also expect moral institutions and families to instill values that place competition within its appropriate context and make sure it is seen as part of an array of other important virtues.
The reality is that market exchange is, at its core, about creating win-win, not win-lose, transactions. Those that excel at creating the win-win situations are the ones who tend to predominate over the long haul. Could we do better within our society? I suspect so. Can we create an economy free of competition and attempts at domination? Sure. Just as soon as the New Creation is realized in all its fullness.
Today we look at the response to the second law of theocapitalism as presented in Everything Must Change.
Theocapitalism Law #2: The Law of Serenity Through Possession and Consumption: “I believe in happiness through owning and using more.”
Jesus’ Law #2: The Law of Satisfaction Through Gratitude and Sharing.
McLaren opens this section reflecting on the behavior of Adam and Eve in the garden. They were given limits on consuming fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were tempted because the fruit of the tree “was good for food and was pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” (Genesis 3.6) From the point of violating limits, alienation and disorder became the human context.
“How ironic, then, that consumption itself would be prescribed by the prosperity system as a cure for the disease of consumption. It is as if the snake of Genesis 3 is still whispering to Adams and Eves Everywhere: Consume more! You will not die! One more bite and you will be wise, like gods, without limits! (210)
I’m not on board with McLaren’s interpretation of the Genesis passage. I’m not sure the original recipients of this narrative would have seen over-consumption as an issue in the passage. Rather the issue was consumption of a forbidden object that would achieve a desired end. For the story to have a parallel to over-consumption, I think it would need to have Adam and Eve consuming ravenous amounts of food in the garden in attempt to gain some altered state of being.
Furthermore, I’ve often encountered people who are proud of their wealth or income but I can’t ever recall anyone being proud of their consumption in the abstract (although over-consumption may be a by-product of a wealth status preoccupation.) To the degree consumption comes into the equation, it is an indirect way of saying “See how much wealth I have that I can spend this much.” (ex. Spending $100,000 on a wedding.) I don’t buy McLaren’s emphasis here.
That said, I agree with the basic point that many try to find happiness through wealth and use of material things. McLaren quotes David Korten:
Comparative international studies…report that once a nation has achieved a moderate level of per capita income, further increases in wealth bring only slight increases in perceived well-being…Beyond the minimum level of income essential to meeting basic needs, the authentic relationship of strong communities are a far better predictor of happiness and emotional health than the size of one’s paycheck or bank account …” (210-211)
McLaren elaborates on this point and I think it is a critical one. But economic growth (i.e. technological improvement, increased worker productivity, and expanded trade with other markets) has benefits beyond just increasing income for consumption. It drives costs and prices lower, making goods more affordable to lower income folks. It provides financial incentives and resources for folks to develop better goods and services that may improve our lives (less polluting technology, safer equipment, better healthcare, more nutritious food, new technology like the internet, etc.)
Growth is an abstraction. And this is the irony of the prosperity system in the suicide machine. It is, in a sense, utterly Platonic. The material thing doesn’t count in itself: what counts is the abstraction, the immaterial idea behind it – number, status, coolness, youth, beauty, fashion, growth. The things themselves – cars, cosmetics, companies, songs – are just means to an end, which is an abstraction that is by nature unattainable. After all, when have you reached the end of growth, or youth, or fashion, or status, or power? (212)
McLaren is getting at the "material good" versus "positional good" distinction I made yesterday. Material goods are goods that satisfy a material need while positional goods are goods that give us status because of the relative exclusivity of owning them. A Ferrari fills a material need of providing transportation but owning it also brings status because so few can afford one. While some goods tend to exhibit more of one quality than the other, they can’t be fully separated. But McLaren is missing very a critical point in this above paragraph.
McLaren writes, “Growth is an abstraction.” Well of course it is! Value and price are abstractions, so growth in value must also be an abstraction. How much is the Hope diamond worth to me if I’m stranded on island with no other human contact? How much is it worth to me if I live in an affluent society and would like to live a lavish lifestyle? The economic value of a good or service is whatever a buyer is willing to give up to acquire it and the seller is willing to accept in exchange.
McLaren is precisely right, “The material thing doesn’t count in itself.” Without a valuer, the material world has no value. But since God created the earth, there is a valuer. Furthermore, God has created living images of himself to work the earth. Because of sin and rebellion, humankind’s values may not be in line with God’s values. It is as if someone got into a store and switched all the price tags around. But there is no sense in which we may speak of value without valuers. There is no such thing as intrinsic economic value.
Therefore, economic growth in a sinless world would be a very positive thing. It would mean resources are being transformed from less useful states to more useful states in perfect communion with ultimate valuer. But we do not live in a sinless world. Therefore, economic growth leads to a tangled mixture of good and bad. Our mission is to discern how best the world can function to achieve something that approximates God’s values and vision.
At the end of Chaper 25, McLaren turns to the parable of the Loaves and Fishes, noting that Jesus had his disciples count what they had (five loaves and two fish) and then he gave thanks for this provision. Afterward they clean up and find they have more than they began with. McLaren explains that he used to believe this was about miracles but instead he now sees it as being about what happens when we respond in gratitude. What he implies here is the interpretation that, upon seeing Jesus offering gratitude, the people in the crowd acted generously toward each other and shared their food they had among themselves.
All this is good and well, but from whence came the food that the people shared with each other? Did they not have to engage in economic labor to produce the food they had with them? Benevolence and generosity is not an alternative lifestyle to economic production and growth. They are virtues that can’t exist without economic activity (transforming matter from less useful states to more useful states.) Indeed, these virtues are able to flourish all the more with economic growth. Without economic activity the people at the meal would have had nothing to share.
Finally, McLaren writes:
There is a different economy, indeed – one based on contemplative gratitude and neighborly sharing, not consuming more and more, faster and faster. In the minds of some readers, at this point, I’m sure a thousand practical questions are coming to mind – legitimate questions, such as, “Is this guy a communist?” (no, I’m not) and “How could this kind of economic system ever be put into practice? What kind of detailed policies would it take? Isn’t the devil in the details?” But Jesus seemed unconcerned with those details; he left them up to people like us, I think, to work out. (214)
McLaren demonstrates over and over again that he has not made a serious effort to get his mind around the most basic economic principles, yet feels himself qualified to engage in vitriolic denunciations of economic systems. Christians have been working with these issues for centuries going back at least to the Scholastics (and even to the early church fathers with some of the rudimentary economic questions) yet McLaren writes as if we just woke up today and discovered Jesus teaching. Whatever shall we do with it? This behavior strikes me as hubris.
Brian McLaren identifies four laws of theocapitalism in Chapter 23 of Everything Must Change. We reviewed these in an earlier post. In chapters 25 and 26, he offers what he believes is Jesus’ challenge to each of theocapitalism’s four laws. We will take these one at time.
Theocapitalism Law #1: The Law of Progress Through Rapid Growth: “I believe in one god: Progress, maker of all that is, through rapid growth.”
Jesus’ Law #1: The Law of Good Deeds for the Common Good.
McLaren reminds us that Jesus did not consider the economy to be a bad thing. Jesus uses business images to describe the Kingdom of God. Money isn’t inherently dirty. Love of money is the problem.
Jesus envisions a truly new economy that is guided by a different framing story and that is, therefore, sustainable and not suicidal. The economy is “bound” to justice and not “free” of duties to neighbor and community. It is patient like a farmer who waits for his crops to mature and not in a rush for quick ill-gotten gain. In his economic system, the goal is fruitfulness, not consumption. (206-207)
Certainly the entire biblical narrative contains within it the pervasive idea that God is the ultimate owner of all there is and there are communal duties we owe to one another. However, I’m at a loss to know how one gets the idea of slow economic growth as a biblical principle. How does slowly discovering more efficient use of resources, slowly making improvements in worker productivity, and slowly expanding trade with others qualify as a more biblical model? This “slow model” is precisely what we’ve had for millennia with the overwhelming majority of people living at bare subsistence and enduring life expectancies at birth of 20-30 years. Why would we not try to expand the global economy as fast as possible, now that we have discovered how the cycle of prosperity works? I’m scratching my head here. My best guess is that McLaren equates economic growth with material resource consumption and he is trying to slow down the rate of material consumption. Certainly there will be greater resource consumption but economic growth is not a synonym for consumption.
McLaren spends some ink on the parable of “the rich fool” in Luke 12:13-21. His takeaway point is that we are to be rich toward God and, as illustrated in other passages, we do that by doing good deeds for others. We need to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven.
I believe McLaren overlooks a key point here. The problem is not that the man has amassed great wealth (in grain) but that he is using his wealth for no productive purpose. He can not possibly eat all he has stored, but neither is trading with others who might make use of it. He’d rather let others starve than trade or act charitably, because he has put his trust in his wealth. McLaren writes:
So, for Jesus, the goal is not amassing capital; the goal is amassing a portfolio of good deeds, good deeds particularly identified with care for the poor. For Jesus, exclusive concern for one’s self-interest qualifies one as a “fool.” (208)
In the case after case, Jesus calls people to repent and defect from the goal of growing their personal wealth portfolios, and instead calls them to grow their good deeds portfolios for the common good, especially the good of the poor and marginalized. The result will be qualitative improvement in the lives of everyone. (208)
But unlike the rich fool, most people who amass wealth in capitalist systems are not parking their wealth in a barn where it has no impact on others. Their wealth is invested with enterprises that create jobs and make opportunities for others to experience wealth formation. Their invested wealth creates a system where others can be employed and meet their own needs with dignity.
Who has the opportunity to do more deeds for the poor? The one who carefully invests resources, amasses wealth, and thereby has a steady stream of income to make available to the poor, or the person who does a one shot liquidation of assets and takes a vow of poverty to help the poor? Which one creates jobs and opportunities versus creating dependency? I don’t believe that Jesus calls us to repent of building wealth portfolios but rather he calls us to build them within the context of community and of seeking the welfare of others. One of the most important economic deeds someone can do is create a job for another. Amassing wealth and doing good deeds for others are not mutually exclusive.
Now in the quote above, McLaren uses the phrase “common good,” a favorite of his throughout the later part of the book. He writes:
The way of the kingdom of God calls people to a higher concern than self- or national interest: namely, concern for the common good. And for Jesus, achieving the bottom line of profit and financial success without concern for the common good qualifies one uniquely – not for the heaven of the Fortune 500 – but for hell. (208)
I think I understand what McLaren is trying to get at here but I have a problem with the idea of doing what is in the “common good.” Asking others to do what is in the common good is like my financial advisor telling me to only invest in stocks that will significantly appreciate in value. It is thoroughly accurate and virtually useless advice. How do I know which stocks are the ones that will appreciate in value? Similarly, how do I know which actions are in the common good? Is simply intending to help the common good sufficient?
I don’t find Jesus or the Bible asking us to contribute to the common good. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into giving to an offering he is taking for the church in Jerusalem by pointing out how the poor Macedonians have given generously. Were there not poor people in Corinth, or Macedonia for that matter? Why is Paul not telling them to give to poor, or the common good, in their own cities?
What we generally observe in the New Testament is that assistance primarily goes to the poor who are part of, or in some relationship to, the faith community. The good deeds are not done to some abstraction or statistical grouping called “the poor.” The deeds are to people known to the community of believers. It is the treatment of the poor in their midst that draws others to the community.
While there may be sound reasons for some wealth redistribution at the societal and international level (and I think there clearly are), I think it is erroneous to confuse this activity with the teaching about doing good deeds. We are not capable of knowing well what is in the common good but we can have a sense of what others need who are in relationship to us. If you multiply the number of communities behaving virtuously toward each other, then you develop multiple cells of good deed doers, each attuned to their own unique contexts. That is what restores a health of society. This causes me to return to a concern I highlighted in an earlier post:
When laws, taxes, the press, and courts fail to address human suffering and inequity, impromptu organizations spring up to supplement the equity system – nongovermental organizations, charities, and the like – organized to alleviate suffering through a range of interventions and projects. (56)
McLaren sees the prosperity system as a top-down macro operation where intermediate institutions spring up on in case of failure. Thus, when I read his passages about being willing to help the common good I’m unclear about what he means. Does being willing to do what is in the common good mean the relational help to the poor I’ve described? Or does it mean willingly supporting high taxation and significant government wealth redistribution so that the highest level of government can do their job as primary caretakers of the poor?
We are confronted here with the issue of subsidiarity, an idea in Christian ethics which holds that problems should be dealt with at the most localized levels of society with broader institutions supporting more localized institutions under them, intervening either to restore health when there is dysfunction or to address those issues that more localized bodies are not capable of addressing themselves. I’m concerned what we have here is the reverse of subsidiarity where the government defines what is the common good and all other institutions are ancillary entities that exist to support governments role. Our “doing good deeds” primarily becomes the payment of taxes or the appropriation of other’s wealth through taxation. It becomes about voting for the right social policy we believe to be in the “common good.”
McLaren also writes:
Herman Daly defines sustainable development in exactly these terms: “development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where development means qualitative improvements and growth means quantitative increase.” He says, “The path of future progress is development, not growth.” He calls this new path, not merely an economic system, but “an art of living” and “and ethic.” (208-209)
This bifurcation between “development” and “growth” strikes me as a false dichotomy. When we purchase a service we are rarely purchasing a quantitative increase. We are purchasing a qualitative change to our lives where someone more qualified than we are performs a task for us or we are free our time for other pursuits by having others do work for us. Robert William Fogel points out that the rising expenditures in healthcare as percentage of a family’s budget is not necessarily a sign of a problem. It means that people are now economically elevated to the point that they are turning their resources toward purchase of these qualitative goods. Purchase of these goods is driving innovation and the expansion of these qualitative goods. One might expect similar investments in qualitative services like counseling or life coaching. Increase in services is economic growth every bit as much as is the sale of material goods.
McLaren closes out this section talking about some international business leaders.
They are defecting from the undercover religion of theocapitalism and embracing a creed of economic sustainability (rather than maximum short-term profit), ecological sustainability, and social sustainability (which takes into account the preservation of families, communities, cultures, and other non-economic dimensions of life). (209)
I’ll have more to say about this “triple bottom line” concept later.
I concluded yesterday’s post by observing that Everything Must Change suggests that theocapitalism is an errant form of some more legitimate type of capitalism. Yet McLaren’s critique suggests to me that capitalism, “theo” or otherwise, is objectionable. Here’s why.
“Capital” is at the heart of capitalism. The word “capital” comes from the Latin caput meaning “head.” Head could be used to symbolize the whole entity, as in “a head of cattle.”
Think about a cow for a moment. A cow has two important economic properties. One property is production. If the cow is maintained, the cow will provide milk and fertilizer (in the form of manure) over a period of years. A cow can also give birth to other cattle.
The other property is consumption. The cow can be slaughtered and used for food. Other parts of the cow may be used for other purposes. If you use the cow for productive purposes, then you forfeit the consumptive uses. If you consume the cow, then you lose the productive uses.
Capitalism at its core is about creating a cycle that generates a growing herd of cattle, functioning at ever more productive levels. Just as the cattle rancher expands the herd through reproduction or through acquiring cattle from other ranchers, so is capitalism about expanding the productive capacity of society.
Some of the wealth generated by the “expanding herd” gets plowed back into creating more capital and part of it is used in consumption. The bigger the capital base, the more productive capacity there is available for society to use for purposes of consumption of goods and services. We no longer deal in cattle but the decision about whether to retain our income and plow it into appreciating assets (capital), or to use it for consumption is the same. Capitalism is about amassing a large stock of societal wealth that is placed in the productive service of societal wants and needs. Ideally, capital formation is a society-wide project where everyone is a steward of some amount of capital. Each owner works to expand their capital and uses some of it for their own welfare and the welfare of others. Economic growth is integral to capitalism. But let’s take closer look at economic growth.
Productivity is key to economic growth. Productivity is the cost of production on a per capita (per head) basis. Productivity can be measured per dollar invested, per hour of labor expended, or per some other standard. To improve productivity, mangers of capital may seek less waste of raw materials in production, likely through improving technology. Another option is use of more skilled workers. Competition from other producers forces retail prices down motivating all producers to reduce production costs and increase the output per worker. If a raw material becomes too costly, producers will turn to less expensive substitutes.
Production processes may have unintended consequences like excess pollution. Increased awareness of pollution’s side effects may drive producers (either willingly or by force of law) to alter production methods or seek substitute materials. Recycling waste may become a feasible way of meeting raw material demands (as presently happens with about 95% of retired automobiles in the US.) Eventually, the economic pressures push toward the use of renewable resources, because the extraction and processing of non-renewable resources becomes prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, growth need not mean greater consumption of raw materials. Services (ex. health care) in post-industrial economies are expanding as a proportion of the economy.
Material and Positional Goods
Also, economists differentiate between material goods and positional goods. Positional goods are goods whose value derives (mostly if not entirely) from their desirability relative to substitute goods. If I build a house on two acres of land in rural Kansas and build the same house on two acres of land in the Hollywood Hills overlooking L.A., the second house is going to cost much more. The exclusivity of the location, and the status it brings, is the determining factor. Owning a beautiful painting by a famous artist versus owning a beautiful painting by an unknown artist is going to cost more. Yet in both cases similar amounts of raw materials were used.
In reality, most goods have some mixture of material and positional qualities (like expensive cars). The positional quality of goods has little or no impact on overall quantity of raw materials used but they can contribute significantly to economic growth. A recent article in the New York Times demonstrated the people in the middle income quintile consume only 29% more than folks in the bottom quintile. People in the top quintile consume only double what folks in the bottom quintile consume. The primary difference between the top quintile and the rest is that folks in the top quintile tend to save more and to purchase more positional goods.
Most advertising does little to sell more goods. Rather it tends to attract consumers to one product versus other competing products (shifting market share). Advertising often achieves its success by emphasizing positional qualities. Increased consumption likely comes as a result of the decreasing cost of basic needs (like food, clothing, and shelter) thus creating more discretionary income for consumers. For many, the increased income goes into saving or the purchase of positional goods, not radical expansion of material goods.
No Growth Capitalism?
McLaren opposes significant economic growth, which he uses synonymously with resource usage and destruction. (58) The issues are significantly more complex and dynamic than this. Quoting Herman Daly, a prominent neo-Malthusian, McLaren writes:
One only need try to imagine 1.2 billion Chinese with automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, and so on, to get a picture of the ecological consequences of generalizing advanced Northern resource consumption levels across the globe. Add to that the ecological consequences from agriculture when the Chinese begin to eat higher on the food chain – more meat, less grain. Each pound of meat requires diversion of roughly ten pounds of grain from humans to livestock, with similarly increased pressure on grasslands and the conversion of forests to pastures. (203)
Precisely so, if technological realties and social realities are frozen in time and projected endlessly into the future! But things don’t stay frozen. Deforestation caused England to innovate into coal as a power source centuries ago. Demand for economical transportation across vast expanses in America led entrepreneurs to innovate into railroad technology. The increasingly inefficient and environmentally unfriendly horse method of personal transportation was answered by entrepreneurs inventing automobiles.
Projecting transportation technology thirty years into the future from the perspective of 1900 would have been exceedingly foolish yet neo-Malthusians do this without compunction today. In an earlier post, I’ve already shown that the US accomplished a twenty fold growth in gross domestic product and a threefold growth in population with zero growth in cropland acreage. World cropland usage has increased by 14% since 1960 despite a doubling of the global population. And dozens of nations around the globe have yet to upgrade to more productive methods already known today.
Nowhere does McLaren identify what he means by capitalism or what a non-theocapitalist capitalism would look like. MacLaren writes:
Just as airplane passengers in free fall feel that they’re flying (for a while), theocapitalism can produce a prosperity high in the short-term. But eventually, the flight becomes a crash: “The market’s own mindless expansion, effective as it is in the short-term inevitably brings its own long-term problems as if further taxes the planet’s carrying capacity beyond the already bad overload coming from the population increase. It’s not a question of ideology, but of physical limits.” (McLaren quoting J.F. (David?) Rischard of the World Bank, 201-202)
Rischard’s (and I presume McLaren) has a faith commitment in neo-Malthusian assessments, complete with its parochialism of the present orientation. It is only based on this commitment that he is qualified to suggest that he is responding to facts while others deal in ideology. A wide variety of economists do not believe that a few billion more human beings living at higher levels of affluence across the earth will take us anywhere near global caring capacity. The expected population stabilization level is under ten billion by century’s end (we are at about 6.6 billion today). Carrying capacity becomes a major issue only if you accept the neo-Malthusian thesis, which much like predictions of the second coming of Christ, prove false over and over again as proponents keep finding reasons why their new predictions are now accurate.
I do not believe McLaren has a clearly thought out economic strategy but you can’t have capitalism without growth. Without growth there is no way to lift billions of people around the world out poverty. Stopping growth and redistributing wealth to the poor is like taking leaves from a healthy plant and pasting them on a sickly one. It kills the healthy plant and the sick one dies anyway. Instead we need to study the healthy plant to learn what we can do to help the sickly one become healthier. Stopping growth will devastate wealth in developed nations and do nothing to help the poor because wealth, and wealth generation, is inextricably linked within an organic web of societal relationships. If robust economic growth is a criterion for detecting theocapitalism, then capitalism is theocapitalism.
The real constraints on capitalism are not material but spiritual. There is no amount of material wealth that can replace God. To the degree capitalism is about achieving our identity through wealth it is doomed to failure. We need to live within the relational limits God has given us. The most important limit is that you shall have no other god’s before God.
We now jump several chapters ahead in Everything Must Change to Part 6 of the book on “The Prosperity System.” Up to this point in the book there have been some polemic passages, many of which I found distasteful. This section of the book spins into a whole new level.
McLaren introduces his notion of theocapitalism, a term coined by Catholic Theologian Tom Beaudoin. McLaren explains that our prosperity system functions like a religion, or perhaps a religious cult. Drawing on Beaudoin, he identifies seven ways “consumer media capitalism” functions for us as a religion:
1. It gives us identity, helping us find or create our true selves. …
2. It helps us belong to a community of kindred spirits. …
3. It develops trust by making and keeping advertising promises, and thus reduces our anxiety about making choices …
4. It helps us experience ecstasy …
5. It communicates transcendence through sacred images and symbols …
6. It promises us conversion to new life if we try their product and join their brand “family.”
7. Ultimately, theocapitalism promises rest from the restless heart. (190-191)
In other words, theocapitalism is capitalism functioning as an idol. And this should surprise us? In Deuteronomy 8:17-18 God warns:
17 Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth ." 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth , so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
Self aggrandizement, greed, and idolatry related to possessions is one of the most persistent themes of the Bible. All of these existed prior to capitalism. Capitalism is by far the most effective means of widespread wealth creation in the history of the world. Does this make capitalism wrong, any more than the means by which prosperity was being earned in Ancient Israel? Isn’t the problem the spiritual condition of the recipients of the wealth and their response to it?
McLaren lays out for us the four spiritual laws of theocapitalism.
1. The Law of Progress Through Rapid Growth: “I believe in one god: Progress, maker of all that is, through rapid growth.”
2. The Law of Serenity Through Possession and Consumption: I believe in happiness through owning and using more.
3. The Law of Salvation Through Competition Alone: By win-lose competition alone you have been saved.
“…Even religious fundamentalists who reject Darwin in biology typically celebrate an economic or social Darwinism, which reveres inequality in order to reward the fittest – the most industrious, the hardest workers, the most task-oriented (as opposed to people-oriented). The poor, this law states, should and must be poor because they are unfit (individually or as a group); the rich, even though they concentrate great wealth “in the hands of a few,” should and must be rich because they are the fittest competitors. To violate this law would be to work against the very structure of the universe, and would run counter to the will of God and his “gospel of wealth.”
4. The Law of Freedom to Prosper Through Unaccountable Corporations: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic economy, and in the communion of unaccountable corporations. (194-195)
Frankly, I see this as a caricature of modern economies. Folks sympathetic to McLaren’s presentation point out that he is talking about theocaptialism not capitalism. I don’t agree. Why? I’ll explain in my next post.
Last November I returned home to Kansas City on a United Airlines flight from Chicago. As I placed my bag in the overhead compartment I noticed the guy in the window seat. I knew him. In fact I had known of him since I was in junior high school. This guy was a real loser.
This guy spent twenty years as an infielder for the Kansas City Royals. We all know that one of the primary functions of a ballplayer is to get hits. Yet over his career, this guy barely averaged three hits out of every ten times he came to the plate. One year he came very close to getting a hit in four out of ten plate appearances but that was still well less than half the time. Cleary everything needed to change about how the Royals recruited ballplayers. This guy was a real loser. His name was George Brett.
Now if you know anything about baseball, you know that George Brett was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame a few years back with much acclaim. He is considered one the best all around players to have ever played the game. Yet on average, he failed at the plate 70% of the time. That is better than all but a handful of the thousands of players who have played the game over the years.
So what was wrong with my assessment George Brett? What is wrong is I have merely presumed that it is possible for a player to get a hit every time they come to the plate. That is the objective after all, isn’t it? But have I fully appreciated the constraints to reaching that objective? Is perfect hitting a realistic measure of George Brett’s batting performance?
Near the start of this series I wrote a post called The Macrosociology Dilemma. I noted that structural-functionalist social theorists have a tendency to see society as an organism seeking equilibrium. Change happens through gradual evolution. Conflict theorists tend to see society as an endless power struggle between competing factions, each trying to make their interpretation of the societal narrative prevail (by coercion if necessary.) I pointed out then that these are truly flipsides of the human condition in that, as God’s image bearers, we were created for (and are inclined to) an organic interrelatedness. But as fallen human beings we are in conflict, joining with others in efforts to make our interpretation of reality prevail. Revolutionary change may at times be needed. We are not all knowing, we are limited by our personal contexts, and we are each corrupt in our own minds. How do we measure, in any given circumstance, what our situation is and what our response should be? At least three things.
First, we have to have some vision of what our ideal outcome would be. In this case, we want a guy who gets a hit every time.
Second, I think we compare present circumstances with past experience. How does George Brett compare with other ballplayers of the past 100 years or so of baseball? Are there historical examples of substantially better performance? If we look, we learn that Brett was exceptiona1! From this we conclude that there must be something in the nature of the game (to date) that makes exceeding a .300 batting average prohibitive.
Third, we have to ask if something fundamental has changed about present circumstances that would lead us to believe that we can obtain different results. To my knowledge, I’m unaware of any physiological changes, alterations to the laws of physics, or changes to the rules of the game, that would lead us to believe that batters can do significantly better. That being the case, we study people players like George Brett in the hopes of maturing more players who can play at least at his level.
As we move into discussing the prosperity system of Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, I envision market capitalism being in the seat next to McLaren as he boards an airplane. He has researched why seven out of ten times market capitalism has failed to get a hit. If we look at his analysis, we will find much of it compelling. He will have correctly measured the shortcomings. So when he takes his seat should he grumble about his misfortune of being seated next to such a loser or should he be asking for an autograph? That depends on how he answers questions two and three.
I will tell you right now that not only does McLaren grumble but he stands up, points his finger, and condemns it. He then offers his answer to achieve perfect batting that is disconnected from the hard learned lessons of human history and from sound biblical anthropology.
One of the pervasive themes of Everything Must Change is that economic systems that emerged during the time of the Enlightenment, and subsequent eras, are a marked departure from (if not anathema to) Kingdom visions for humanity.
…Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment was to distance humanity from creation, or in Lenardo Boff’s terms, to place ourselves over and above and against it rather than with it and alongside it and for it. Great pains were taken in recent centuries to describe how different and distant human beings were from animals, even when evolutionary theory suggested that we were part of one family tree. This distancing of humans from creation was no less strong in religious communities, and no doubt there were some good reasons for it. But there were some poor reasons for it too.
The industrial world is driven by its own imperial, colonial framing stories, we need to remember, and these narratives thrust Europeans in to the world to conquer, plunder, profit, and control. Non-Europeans were “savages,” not neighbors and fellow human beings in God’s world. God’s creation was no longer “brother sun and sister moon,” but instead, a store of raw materials buyable at a price to exploited by industrialists. In the theological wing of colonialism, God no longer cared about sparrows and wildflowers; God cared for people’s souls (and perhaps only for some special “elect” people’s souls), each of which would be extracted like a Hostess Twinkie from its cellophane wrapper either at death or at the end of the world. (137-138)
Is our modern economic system a consequence of the Enlightenment? Economic historians are not of one mind on the specifics of the origins of the modern economic system and why it emerged in Europe, but common central themes do emerge. Nearly all of them are rooted in values and events that predate the Enlightenment. Many have their roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Here are a few influences:
1. Linear Time – Throughout the ancient world, time was understood as a cyclical phenomenon with episodes endlessly repeating themselves, just as with the cycles of nature. Humanity was in a framing story that frequently equated worship of the gods with compliance to these cycles. Judaism, with its vision of a “genesis” extending on the establishment of the Kingdom of God, created a linear flow to existence.
2. Progress – Linear time carried with the idea of processing toward some end. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all carry with them the idea of processing through time. But only Christianity has the idea of progressing through time (i.e., the Kingdom emerging). Both Judaism and Islam have law-giving writers (Moses and Mohammad) whose followers “look back to” so they may keep the law given once and for all time. Christianity has Jesus who offers the vision of a coming Kingdom and has his followers orient themselves toward living as if the coming Kingdom were in the present. The Kingdom in both the testaments has the idea of restored shalom, which includes (but is by no means limited to) the idea of economic prosperity. The story of the Bible begins in a garden and ends in garden-city, symbolizing the inclusion of the material contributions of humanity and human institutions in the New Creation.
3. Reason – Jews can read what Moses wrote. Muslims can read what Mohammed wrote. But Christianity can’t read what Jesus wrote because he did not write anything. What we have are multiple witnesses (testaments) to what he said and did, and a record of the early churches struggles to put his teaching into practice. This very means of revelation compels us to reason our way to the truth in the context of covenantal communities. Furthermore, the orderliness of God in Creation, who is not of Creation, gave rise to the idea that the natural world can be studied and comprehended. Study and manipulation of the natural order is not a violation of sacred objects but rather a quest for understanding that brings us closer to the mind of God. It is a maturing of our stewardship role as junior partners in God’s on going mission of bring creation to its fullness. Science is the methodological application of reason to learning about the natural order.
4. Risk – Assessing the possibility of calamity or success in complex undertakings in the ancient world was generally not possible because events were believed to be in the hands of the gods or the fates. Because Christians believed he world was ordered by God, future events and their contingencies could be assessed and risk values assigned to various options. This risk assessing ability began to emerge by the 1400s as sea exploration and trade began to become ever more complex and risky. Risk assessment is at the core of capitalist activity.
5. Individual Worth – The idea of each individual created in the image of God departed from ancient views that saw the individual as someone who exists at the pleasure of the state. The seed of the image of God concept eventually grew to the point of supplanting justifications for slavery and instituting care for those at the margins of society, including the unborn and unwanted infants. It gave grounds to the idea that human beings have a measure of God given autonomy, including in the production and use of wealth.
6. Property Rights – The Old Testament law and New Testament events take for granted the idea of property rights, with the caveat that God is the ultimate owner of all that is and has expectations about how we will use resources entrusted to us. Stewardship is inseparably linked with owning property as we see in the inalienable land ownership arrangements in the Jubilee Code of Leviticus 25.
7. Limited Government – The Old Testament theocracy civil structure was highly decentralized with families, supported by clans, supported by tribes having responsibility for daily living. Economic historian David Landes notes that when Korach challenges Moses leadership in the desert that Moses defends himself against charges of usurpation by saying, “I have not taken one ass from them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” (Numbers 16:15) When the Israelites demand a king, Samuel relents but he warns them what a king will be like and of his own leadership quips, “Whose ox have I taken or whose ass have I taken.” (1 Samuel 12:3) Hierarchical power players were considered a threat. This egalitarian decentralized form of community is suggested again in the New Testament era but with the entwining of the Church with the Roman state in the fourth century, hierarchical power structures were brought into existence. It wasn’t until centuries later, with innovations like the printing press and people having the ability learn the Bible for themselves, that we began to see a rediscovery of the egalitarian tendencies of the Bible.
All of these factors and more created an environment for present economic systems to emerge.
By the twelfth century, elements of the modern banking system were in place with banks based in northern Italy having branches throughout modern Western Europe. Share ownership in rudimentary corporations (although without limited liability) emerged. Double entry bookkeeping was coming into being. Small manufacturing operations were springing up everywhere in rural areas where waterwheel powered equipment was used for everything from shaping metal, to making cloth, to grinding grain. Much of this technology was spread by Cistercian monks as they diffused technology across the continent and became Europe’s technological advisors. Small assembly and manufacturing operations were springing up in the suburbs around European cities. Many of the basic elements of economic theory, like the idea of price being determined by supply and demand, had been worked out by the Scholastics. All this was prior to, or contemporary with the Reformation, and certainly prior to the Enlightenment.
Elements of the Reformation contributed to the emergence of greater respect for personal liberty and personal property but my basic point is that proto-capitalism existed well before the Enlightenment. Adam Smith, writing in the late eighteenth century, was notable not because he had conceived of anything particularly new, but because he had eloquently described what people had witnessed was emerging over past generations. Enlightenment proponents wrote a counter narrative about the origins of what was emerging and cast themselves as the originators the new economic age that had broken free from the “Dark Ages,” a term now discredited by historians as Enlightenment propaganda used to aggrandize their own contributions.
There is no question that from the Enlightenment on there have been strong forces that have sought to bend economic action toward the achievement the autonomous-self. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with economic growth (or progress). The basic elements of modern market economies are actually so deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethos that it is hard to imagine there emergence without it.
What troubles me about McLaren’s framing of the issues is that I get the sense that he wants us to believe that for millennia humanity went about living carefree lives attuned to nature. Then the Enlightenment came along, ripped people out of their bucolic bliss, drove people into poverty, purposefully went to work on the destruction of nature, and created a modern dystopia of oppression, poverty, death and destruction. This just is not true and projections of current realities unaltered into the future don’t warrant his claim unsustainability. Hopefully, my earlier post have demonstrated just how precarious life was prior to the rise of modern economies and how astonishing is the breadth and depth of prosperity that is sweeping across the planet. We are far from utopia, but I believe McLaren radically under appreciates the good that has transpired over recent centuries and is all too ready to through the market driven economic growth baby out with the Modernist bathwater.
At the beginning of Part 3 (Chapter 10) in Everything Must Change, on “Reframing Jesus,” McLaren offers the emerging view of the gospel contrasted with what he considers the conventional view. At the end of this section McLaren will write that his conventional view articulated here “…can be modified with an almost infinite number of variations – Protestant or Catholic, Calvinist or Arminian, Pentecostal or traditional – but the basic shape of the story is similar despite differences in the details: …” (80)
The Human Situation: What is the story we fin ourselves in?
Conventional View: God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, God has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings – except for those specifically exempted – will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.
Emerging View: God created the world as good, but human beings – as individuals and as groups – have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering further and further into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward in sickness and evil.
Basic Questions: What questions did Jesus come to answer?
Conventional View: Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die? How can God help individuals be happy and successful until then?
Emerging View: Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: What must be done about the mess we’re in? The mess refers both to the general human condition and to its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under domination of the Roman Empire and who were confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.
Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus respond to the crisis?
Conventional View: Jesus says, in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell. That is the good news.
Emerging View: Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with the good news – that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now. That is the good news.
Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus important?
Conventional View: Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God, which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on Earth and more rewards in heaven.
Emerging View: Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation form evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they can earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. (78-80)
What is the basic story common to conventional Christianity?
Earth is doomed, and souls are eternally damned unless specifically and individually saved, and the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation. (80)
I think McLaren is overreaching here. Christian Century magazine was founded 100 years ago because Mainline Christianity believed that the Kingdom of God would be ushered in during the twentieth century. A few decades latter there would be disillusionment with this expectation but Mainline denominations, who continued to dominate the religious scene until at least the 1970s, never adopted the “conventional view.” Nor do I believe a great many Roman Catholics would subscribe to the conventional view. This conventional view strikes me as reductionistic to the point of becoming a caricature of any Christian who doesn’t share the “emerging view.”
The conventional view strikes me as indicative of certain streams of conservative and Fundamentalist of Christianity from which I think McLaren wants to emerge. I think his “conventional view” is the context from which he has emerged. There is nothing wrong with this. We all come from some context. What I find objectionable is the extrapolation of his context to the context from which Christianity is emerging. As someone who has been wrestling against the liberal foundationalism of Mainline Christianity, I don’t even exist according to this framing of the issues.
This has been a persistent experience of mine as I’ve tried to engage in emerging church conversations. The emerging church conversation to this day still seems to be driven by its response to (and defining itself contra to) evangelicalism. I think this presentation of two views reflects this. There seems to be little critical engagement with Mainline Christianity (or any other stream) apart from ecclesiastical critique. The theological critique is about how not to be an evangelical. On the contrary, based on the references in McLaren’s book, there appears to be a ready embrace of theologians like Jesus Seminar promoters Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossen, so popluar in Mainline circles. From my context this isn’t emergent. It is merely revisiting the same old things those of us in Mainline denominations have been hearing for years.
I'm not going to spend considerable time on theological issues but I wanted to raise this issue because I believe it is indicative of a tendency to be contra-evangelical. This has implications for how issues like prosperity are viewed later in the book.
We are about to turn specific passage from Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren but before we go there I want to recap my central observations and clarify my perception of some key issues. My primary concern over the last eight posts has been McLaren’s claim that we are living with a “suicide machine.” By this he generally means grinding vast numbers into poverty, exhausting material resources, and destroying the environment through unsustainable economic growth. This view suffers from a parochialism of the present in at least two important ways.
First, it fails to appreciate the trajectory of human events up to this moment in time. Human life has been one long history of famine, disease, war, and bare subsistence living up until the past three centuries. Life expectancy at birth was 20-30 years old and infant mortality rates were 200-300 per 1,000 births. Global life expectancy is now approaching 70 years and the infant mortality rate is dropping rapidly through the range of 50-60 infant deaths per thousand, with the African AIDS epidemic having a significant drag on further progress. After millennia of little change, global per capita income increased by magnitudes over the past two centuries and the percentage of people living at subsistence is shrinking by the year. The most rapid economic growth is in emerging nations and the growth is greatest among the bottom quintile of these emerging nations. The cycle of prosperity is steadily spreading throughout the planet, enhancing the quality of life for billions of people.
There clearly are a variety of significant disparities between various peoples. Yet McLaren takes a snapshot picture of present realities, and without historical reference, simply presumes present economic systems are creating poverty rather than lifting people in to more prosperous lives. As my posts have gone to substantial lengths to show, you can substantiate that claim from the historical record.
Second, with regard to resource depletion, McLaren appears to be a true neo-Malthusian, projecting existing technologies and rates of consumption into the future without allowance for innovation and resource substitution. As we saw with Thomas Malthus’ predictions of endless cycles of human societal collapse in the early eighteenth century, with Jevons predictions in the mid-eighteenth century of England running out of energy within a few decades, with the predictions of imminent collapse by the neo-Malthusians of the 1960-1980s, or with the thought experiment of placing ourselves in 1910 and planning how much cropland the USA would need in 100 years, there is a profound tendency to understand and account for innovation.
Because of this parochialism of the present, McLaren casts the emergence of pollution as the by-product of the unqualified evil of modern economies. Yet that pollution led to the dramatic emergence and expansion of global prosperity mentioned above. As people move into greater affluence, environmental protection rapidly ascends the scale of issues to be addressed by society. And in fact, economic growth has actually contributed in unexpected ways to environmental protection as evidenced by the fact that the world population has more than doubled since 1960, but the net amount of land converted to cropland has grown only by 14%. Scientific rationalism and economic growth has empowered us to feed twice as many people with minimal additional encroachment on natural habitats.
With all this said, I feel I also need to add some clarification. My point in recent posts has not been to show an equally distorted picture of economic advance without blemish.
The world has gotten where it is today via far less than noble behavior by world players. Colonialism, while having little contribution to creating the wealth of Western powers, did significant damage to the productive powers of colonized nations. Slavery and domination were frequent. The USA was late to the colonial game and participated little in European style colonialism but we have an ugly history of genocide against native peoples and slavery. The USA has far too often used its might to thwart productive developments in regions of the world when geo-political or business interests made it worthwhile.
Still, even within this dark and ugly past shines forth some virtue. As Jared Diamond so aptly shows, nearly every culture throughout history that has developed superior technological and economic capabilities has engaged in colonialism and domination. The West was no different. What is unique is that certain values embedded with Western Judeo-Christian culture have severed as transformative agents leading societies away from atrocities and toward shared prosperity for everyone. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
McLaren, and many within the emerging postmodern church circles, over identify the ideas of progress and economic growth with Enlightenment and Modernist ideologies. Just as with developments like science, a narrative was spun by secularist thinkers that Enlightenment thinking, freed from the tyranny of religious thought, brought progress and economic growth into existence. In fact, the historical record shows a “hijacking” from Christianity of ideas like science, progress, and economic growth that had been coming to fruition within Christianity. They were employed in support of Enlightenment fantasies of the autonomous self. It is my reading of McLaren that he believes ideas of progress and economic growth are anathema to God’s framing story. It is my view that progress and economic growth are thoroughly Christian ideas that need to be recovered and placed back in the service of holistic shalom. McLaren’s understanding of the biblical narrative seems to be that it begins in a garden and ends in a garden. My understanding is that it begins in a garden and ends in a garden-city (i.e., the New Jerusalem), incorporating the material contributions of humanity into the created order. McLaren appears to me to see only an evil suicide machine born of Modernism. I want to know how we can redeem the good of recent human developments and lose the bad.
We will turn now to some specific passages within the book.
The hot environmental topic today (pun intended) is anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. The leading theory is that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing a greenhouse gas effect that is causing global warming. McLaren seems to take this as indisputable fact. I don't. However, I'm not interested in debating that point here. We will assume that CO2 is the driving cause. CO2 emissions must be reduced. That leaves us with options of reducing our CO2 by switching to alternative power options and/or contracting the global economy.
The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) estimates that global temperatures will rise by about 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Political Scientist Bjorn Lomborg has looked at the IPCC reports and other research to get some idea of the impact such warming will have. There will be problems but nothing approaching the hyperbolic apocalypse portrayed in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and similar media (a portrayal McLaren lauds on page 202.) The following is just a sampling of the exaggerated problems placed in perspective by Lomborg. (I’m drawing heavily on Lomborg’s book Cool It with some supplemental additions. I highly recommend the book for the full story.)
Extreme Hurricanes and Cyclones
Al Gore claims that warming will lead to dramatic increases in hurricane activity. The UN World Meteorological Organization (parent organization to the IPCC) published a report in 2007 that says that no conclusion can be drawn from science that conclusively links hurricane activity and global warming. (Lomborg 73) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association released an updated report of hurricane statistics last year that concluded that, “These records reflect the existence of cycles of hurricane activity, rather than trends toward more frequent or stronger hurricanes.” The reason the most recent cycle of hurricanes appears more intense is because so many more people now live in their potential path of these storms. Therefore, we take greater notice of the events. Had the Miami hurricane of 1926 occurred with today’s population where it is today it what have been twice as destructive as Katrina. The 1900 Galveston hurricane would have been greater than Katrina as well.
Heat Related Deaths
Al Gore gives us images of people dropping dead from extreme heat. The fact is that cold climates are much greater (by magnitudes) human killers than heat. Since the nature of the warming we are now experiencing is driven by more moderate temperatures in the winter, warming will lead to fewer net deaths. A 2006 survey of the world estimates that the net result of warming by 2050 would be 1.4 million lives saved each year. Only Africa showed a net loss per year of 50,000 people. The study further reported that this trend would continue until at least 2200. (Lomborg 38-39) Rising temperatures will create problems for some people in specific areas but those are problems that can be addressed on a localized basis.
Melting Ice Caps and Rising Sea Levels
In Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore shows what happens if the ice cover on Greenland or half the ice in Antarctic were to melt. Sea levels woud rise 20 feet. But no scientific body suggests that anything remotely near this level of melting will occur. Melting polar ice does not raise the sea level any more than ice cubes in your glass increases the liquid level in your glass of ice water. Sea level increases come from glacier’s melting and running to the sea, as well as rises in temperature that cause water to expand. The UN estimates a one foot increase over the next century. (Lomborg 60) How serious is that? The IPCC estimates that a three foot rise (triple the estimate) would cause less than $6 billion dollars damage over the century. Consider that sea levels have risen by about one foot over the previous 100-150 years. People gradually adapt to these changes. The fact that I had to inform you that we have just experienced the same level of change over the past century should tell you how threatening this is.
It is also worth noting that ice is forming in some places in the world while receding in others. For instance, much has been made of the melting of the Larsen B ice shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Yet ice core samples show that the area was likely open water 6,000 years ago and reached its maximum ice accumulation over the last two hundred years. It is now contracting from this maximum expansion. Ice accumulation and thawing is constantly in transition at the poles.
New Ice Age in Europe
A year or two ago you may have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow, where climate change leads to a tipping point that results in a reversal the Gulf Stream ocean current, ushering in a cataclysmic ice age over most of North America and Europe. The Gulf Stream last shut down about 8,200 years. Yet scientists estimate that the resulting net temperature drop was about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Virtually all of the ice on Greenland would need to melt to repeat the events of the 8,200 years ago. The IPCC expects the melting over the next century to achieve one one-thousandth of the effect necessary to cause such an event. (Lomborg 87-92.)
Polar Bears and Species Impact
One of Al Gore’s most heart tugging presentations is polar bears drowning to due to melting ice. Over the past forty years the population of polar bears has expanded from 5,000 to 25,000. Eighteen of the twenty or so subpopulations are stable are growing. Only two have experienced some decline and that is largely due to hunting. It is also the case that the two declining populations are located where the climate has been getting colder, while the two populations that are growing the fastest are in areas where the climate is getting warmer. (Lomborg 5-6) While warming well likely have a negative impact on some species it will cause others to flourish. The threat to various species is far more related to encroachments of humans on habitats rather than changes in climate.
Lomborg addresses a host of other cataclysmic claims (malaria, food production, water shortages) and the fact is that the impacts of global warming over the next century are mixed. The most problematic ones are not that challenging to address provided that people across the globe have the resources to address them. Activists frequently make the claim that the poor, who are the least able to respond to consequences of global warming, will be the most adversely affected. Once, again we encounter a parochialism of the present, projecting present circumstances unaltered into the future. If economic growth continues in emerging nations, then by centuries end, in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, we will not have subsistence level farmers responding to changes but people with the resources of typical European living today. Still, if CO2 truly is the driver in warming the planet then we must eventually find a way to reverse the CO2 problem.
Strategies like the Kyoto Accord’s plan to reduce emissions back to 1990 levels will cost $5 trillion over the next century. The net result will be that the warming will have been reduced by 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit for 4.7 degrees to 4.4 degrees. It would postpone the 4.7 degree rise five years from 2100 to 2105. (Lomborg 22. He insists that this is “scientifically entirely uncontroversial.”) The net savings from this $5 trillion investment? $2 trillion dollars. (Lomborg 33) Kyoto, and similar emission reduction strategies for existing technologies, are exorbitantly wasteful.
Lomborg argues (and I strongly concur) that the solution to reducing CO2 is implementation of new energy technologies. The money being poured into emission reduction would be far better spent in technology development. In the meantime, we should be doing our best to expand material abundance around the globe. That will enable people to better address whatever future challenges they may encounter. We are better off investing our resources in preventing HIV/AIDS, addressing malnutrition, expanding free markets (particularly the elimination of trade barriers in Europe and the US), and in wiping out diseases like malaria. For relatively small investments we can make an enormous improvement in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. We need to move people along the Environmental Transition Curve (discussed in the previous post) as quickly as possible.
There are challenges to the expansion of material abundance around the world. But to suggest that expansion of material abundance is all about destroying the environment, as Everything Must Change does, is oversimplification of a very complex issue. By definition, accessing resources, processing resources, and human activity in general has an impact on the environment. Yet human beings are material beings (i.e., part of nature and the natural order) whose flourishing is a sign of a healthy environment. Nature isn’t just that which is non-human. Thus, an environment where humans flourish is a healthy environment. McLaren's view in appears to be that everything begins and ends in a garden. However, the biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a garden-city. Human culture, government, art, and cities are a human contribution to the created order. They are part of the New Creation at the end of the narrative.
Darrel Cosden notes that the natural world is both our habitat and the object of our work (see the stewardship commission in Genesis 1 and 2.) Humans were not placed on the earth as preservationists. We are to be stewards, bringing the created order to fulfillment. But the created order isn’t mere fodder for our every whim and desire. God created the earth and it is good. It is worthy of our conservation. The problem is when human flourishing becomes destructive to the habitat God placed in our stewardship. The problem is correctly discerning when our efforts toward human flourishing have become destructive. Modernist paradigms have not ushered in the Kingdom of God but neither are we living in dark dystopias on the verge of apocalypse. Proper Christian stewardship requires that we not become ensnared either by Modernist hubris or anti-Modernist reactionary movements, but that work to discern what creates flourishing for humanity and all creation.
To close this post, I've included Lomborg's twenty minute TED presentation that covers some of the points made in this post.
From reading Everything Must Change, I get the idea that we have two options.
Is there a third option? Is there an option that leads to robust economic development, to human flourishing, and to a healthy environment? I believe there is.
Return with me to America in 1910. Imagine that we have foreknowledge that the population will increase more than threefold over the next century. The present cropland in use is 330 million acres. The amount of cropland in use, as a ratio of population, has not changed dramatically over recent years. How much additional cropland will we need to accommodate the future population growth? Approximately 700 million acres will be needed, an area approximately the land area of the US east of the Mississippi River. What actually happened?
Through improvements in farming methods, irrigation, fertilizer, storage and transportation, seeds, and other variables, enough food was produced to not only accommodate the growing domestic population but to generate a surplus for sale and distribution to other nations. Corn yields per acre increasing by 60% between 1977 and 2007, is just one example of these changes. In fact, government subsidies are paid to some farmers not to grow crops so prices can be kept at stable levels. But in addition to food production, this explosion in productivity has empowered tremendous overall economic growth. Note the impact on gross domestic product.
One of the single biggest threats to biodiversity is destruction of habitat. The World Conservation Union estimates that habitat loss, of which agriculture is the biggest contributor, affects 85-90% of bird, mammal, and amphibian species. (The Improving State of the World, 117-118) Think of the millions of acres of land alone that were conserved, not destroyed, because of economic growth. Up until 1960, the world was in a situation similar to that of the United States in 1910. However, due to infusions of technology and aid around, conversion of land to cropland around the world has slowed drastically. Despite a 160% increase in population since 1960 the amount of cropland has expanded by 14%. And there still are vast regions of the planet where existing technologies have yet to be applied. As the world population is likely to grow again by half before leveling off in a few decades, agricultural technology will indirectly be protecting billions of acres of habitat around the world.
The economic growth generated by new technologies has not been without trouble. Factories and vehicles turned out a tremendous about of pollution in Europe and in the United States. As scientists began to assess the harm caused by pollution, and as people had ever higher incomes meeting their basic needs, demand began to grow for a cleaner environment. The 1960s became a major turning point for cleaning up pollution. The chart below from the EPA shows the levels of pollution for the six major air pollutants and how they have dropped by 54% since 1970; this while population grew by half and GDP tripled.
The American experience exemplifies what economist Indur Goklany describes in his Environmental Transition theory. The graph below illustrates what Goklany calls the Environmental Transition curve.
Those who are familiar with the Kuznets Curve will recognize the similarity, except here "Time" has replaced per capita income (or GDP) on the X-Axis. Goklany describes the Environmental Transition hypothesis this way.
"...society is on a continual quest to improve its quality of life, which is determined by numerous social, economic, and environmental factors. The weight given to each determinant is constantly changing with society's precise circumstances and perceptions. In the early stages of economic and technological development, which go hand-in-hand, society places a higher priority on increasing affluence than other determinants, even if that means tolerating some environmental deterioration, because increasing wealth provides the means for obtaining basic needs and amenities (e.g., food, shelter, water, and electricity) and reducing the most significant risks to public health and safety (e.g. malnutrition, infectious and parasitic diseases, and child mortality). Also, in those early stages, society may, in fact, be unaware of the risk imposed by a deterioration in the specific environmental impact, measured by the particular indicator in question. However, as society becomes wealthier; tackles these problems; and, possibly, gains more knowledge about the social, health, and economic consequences of the environmental impact in question, reducing the environmental impact due to the specific indicator automatically rises higher on its priority list (even if the impact does not worsen). But because the first increments of economic activity further increase environmental impact, it becomes an even more important determinant of the overall quality of life. Accordingly, lowering the specific impact becomes even more urgent. (The Improving State of the World, 106-107)
The Kuznets Curve uses only affluence on the X axis. Goklany points to the need for sufficient time for the technology generated by rising affluence to emerge and be deployed. Consequently, technological innovation may lag to varying degrees depending on the particular set of issues a nation confronts. Furthermore, critical to the performance of the Environmental Transition Curve are democracy, property rights, and rule of law. Individuals must have just social institutions by which they can make their growing concerns felt.
Environmentalist Seymour Garte drives the importance of this home in Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of our Planet. There is a tendency by some parties to resist moving toward less polluting technology even when it becomes apparent that failure to do so is harming others. Property rights are important because they give us a basis for challenging those that harm our property and our persons through pollution. Political freedom and rule of law are important in providing just means for bringing polluters to accountability. Without this freedom, many of the improvements that have been made to the environment would not have been possible. I would also add that is by these same processes that alleged polluters can seek justice against overly aggressive environmentalists.
The process is often messy and rancorous. If we had perfect knowledge about all issues and impacts involved, we would no doubt discover that improper balances have been struck on any number of issues. But that is precisely the point. We don’t have perfect knowledge. That is why these less than perfect outcomes by divine standards, sometimes achieved only through adversarial engagement, are probably the optimal we can hope for. It is hubris to believe that state run expertocracies or perfectly functioning markets can move us closer to divine wisdom. Russia and former Soviet Bloc nations had increasing per capita income but horrendous levels of pollution. Several Latin American countries have had rising per capita income but due to corruption and inadequate government, aid and trade has tended to impact only the top minority of society. There is little recourse to address abuses, including environmental issues. Political freedom, property rights, and rule of law are the only soil from which sustainable cycles of prosperity can be generated.
Addressing environmental challenges can be costly. Businesses and industries may find it more costly to operate which means their goods will become more expensive to consumers. The more economically advanced a society is the less of a burden this is. Subsistence societies do not allow for human flourishing and they are not environmentally friendly. When people are trying to live day to day there is little concern about long-term environmental consequences. As economic growth takes root, environmental issues will still not be an immediate priority but as described in the Environmental Transition Curve people will increasingly have both the will and the resources to care for their environment.
Now any astute reader will note that have eschewed the issue of CO2 and global warming. What impact does the issue of global warming of emerging cycles of prosperity and how should we respond?
I've made the case that Everything Must Change suffers from a parochialism of the present. It fails to see the trajectory society has been moving. But there is another way this parochialism is at work. It merely projects the present into the future. It fails to sufficiently take into account future adaptations in human behavior and technology. A particularly variety of this mindset, known as Malthusianism, extends back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. (More recent versions are frequently called neo-Malthusian.)
Thomas Malthus was an early nineteenth century British minister who analyzed parish records spanning many years. He published his research in An Essay on the Principle of Population, in 1798. At the core of Malthus’ observations was the relationship between population and resources. He observed that while resources tend to grow arithmetically (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…), population tends to grow geometrically (i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16…). Population always outgrows the ability of resources to support the population.
Aside from the normal causes of death like accidents and old age, factors like war, pestilence, and famine also served as a check. These would reduce the population to manageable levels. Population would increase again and repeat the cycle all over again. Being opposed to contraception and abortion, the only solution Malthus saw was late marriage and abstinence. His outlook for humanity in the century ahead was one of catastrophic economic disaster. Malthusian thinking predominated in the early years of the nineteenth century.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, other Malthusians appeared. William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) wrote The Coal Problem in 1865. Concerning Jevons, Angus Maddison writes:
Jevons estimated that British coal output was 83.6 million tons in 1861, and projected a need for 2,607 million tons in 1961, if 'the present' annual growth of 3.5 per cent persisted (in fact production grew from 1820 to 1860 at about 3.8 per cent a year). Such growth 'would exhaust our mines to a depth of 4,000 feet or 1,500 feet deeper than our present deepest mines' (p. 274), and bring a prohibitive rise in prices. He rejected the feasibility of substitutes -- timber, wind, water, tidal energy, hydrogen, or petroleum. ... He also rejected the feasibility of large scale imports, because of heavy transport costs. ... He recommended 'wholesale emigration' to countries like Australia of the US which had much larger coal reserves. In fact British coal production peaked a 292 tons in 1913, fell to 118 million in 1973 and 26 million in 2003. In 2003, British energy consumption was equivalent to 370 million tons of coal, about a seventh of what he projected for 1861, and British coal provided only 7 per cent of it. Thus Jevons failed to see the possibilities for reducing energy intensity, was wrong about substitution possibilities and the pace of technological advance. He also demonstrated the fragility of centennial forecasts. (Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030, AD. 353)
Those old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s will remember the last neo-Malthusian revival with people like Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and Jimmy Carter and his Global 2000 Report. These folks predicted exhaustion of most major commodities, increased number of famines, and unprecedented global unrest from shortages and economic collapse by 2000. In 1980, economist Julian Simon offered a $1,000 bet that commodities chosen by his opponent, at date in the future chosen by his opponent, would be cheaper than they were in 1980. Ehrlich took him up on the bet, choosing a handful of commodities to be valued after ten years. A decade later, Ehrlich paid up when every commodity had fallen from its 1980 price.
In the past decade or so we’ve seen another neo-Malthusian resurgence that is married to cataclysmic climate change scenarios (which we will visit soon), suspicion about economic growth, and an anti-technology predisposition. Much of what is called the “sustainable growth” movement is permeated with neo-Malthusian thinking and McLaren appears to be squarely in this camp. People who don't hold neo-Malthusian are viewed as sinful people who refuse to live within limits (meaning the overwhelming majority of economists.)
Like failed second coming forecasters, each new revival has reasons why this time it is going to come true. The problem with the Malthusian views is the failure to appreciate the dynamism involved in the cycle of prosperity discussed in the previous post. If the supply of a commodity is becoming scarcer for the commodity, then the commodity’s price will climb. Commodity prices factor in anticipated growth in present and future demand, estimated quantities of natural resources, and the capacity to extract resources for productive use. What has happened to commodity prices over the years? A 2001 study looked at commodity prices over the previous 140 years and charted the following trend.
Paul Cashin and John McDermott conclude:
“…while there has been a downward trend in real commodity prices of 1.3 percent per year over the last 140 years, little support is found for a break in the long-run trend decline in commodity prices. …”
Keep in mind that over this 140 year period the earth's population grew by a factor of five and the per capita gross domestic product grew by a conservative factor of ten. Meanwhile, resources have become more abundant! How is this possible?
When a commodity becomes scarcer, several things happen. Suppliers are motivated to search harder for more of the commodity, to find ways to renew supplies of it (i.e. the lumber industry), and to embark on recovering less accessible deposits of the commodity. Entrepreneurs enter the markets. They begin offering substitute commodities, they recycle the existing commodity, and they begin to find ways to use the commodity more efficiently. In the Ehrlich vs. Simon bet, most of the commodity prices went down because of better extraction or processing techniques (ex. better smelting for tungsten) or substitute commodities came into the market (ex. aluminum began replacing tin for some uses and sand made into fiber optic cable began replacing cooper.) Users of the commodity will likely decrease usage as price increases and/or look for alternatives.
Donald Hay writes in his book, Economics Today: A Christian Critique:
Assuming that an exhaustible resource is going to be put to a good use, are we justified in depleting it and so depriving future generations? Our response is in the affirmative, but with a reservation. If a substitute does not exist, then it is presumptuous to believe that our needs are greater than those of a later generation. In practice, it is hard to find an example of a resource without a biologically renewable substitute. For example, the fossil fuels could, in principle, be replaced by wood or solar energy. Metals are more of a problem, but it is not impossible to conceive of a culture that uses no metal in its artefacts (and metals can be recycled their availability over time). (298)
Jared Diamond is a biologist and geographer who has contributed greatly to our understanding about past cultures but he too unfortunately lapses into a Malthusian mindset. McLaren references him in his book. If you look at most of his examples of resource exhaustion, two factors are at play. First, there was insufficient scientific and technological knowledge to allow innovation to develop. Second, assuming there was sufficient knowledge, there were insufficient feedback loops about supply and demand of waning resources. The cycle of prosperity provides a dynamic feedback loop that prohibits an abrupt exhaustion of resources, even as it generates the human and financial capital to address new challenges. The market will inhibit the total depletion of resources because people will abandon the commodity when the price is too high, long before its exhaustion. Human and financial resources empower aggressive searches for new solutions.
The remarkable improvements in human life over the last couple of centuries do no warrant pessimism. It is not a suicide machine. I believe Indur Goklany gets it right when he writes:
...these overall improvements in human well-being contradict the view advanced by Jared Diamond, for example, that new technology creates more problems than it solves because it replaces old problems with new, more difficult problems. A more accurate characterization of new technology is that it generally replaces imperfect existing technologies with improved, but still-less-than-perfect technologies. (The Improving State of the World, 374)
Just as Malthus could not see the impact of the Industrial Revolution on resource availability, I think many neo-Malthusians are blind to the evolution of renewable, reusable, and synthetic fabrication (from renewable resources) that is taking place in our lifetimes. Had Malthus’ perspective won out in the early nineteenth century, it is hard to imagine the devastating impact it would had on generations down to this day. The same caution needs to be sounded about neo-Malthusians today.
In closing this post, I'm sure many are aware that there has been a recent spike in oil and commodity prices. None of this has an impact on the long-term trend of commodity prices. Artificial factors intervene from time to time to cause prices to spike or drop. For instance, OPEC may decide to restrict the rate at which they pump oil. That doesn't change the actual quantity of oil available. Economic growth in emerging nations likely has some impact in the short term on commodity prices but it is worth noting that with both the US and emerging economies slowing, commodity prices have still gone higher. The recent rise in prices likely has much to do with the present unusual situation of negative real interest rates. See this article by Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel.
The bottom line is that we are not running out of resources or depriving future generations of a better life. On the contrary, economic growth accomplished through developing cycles of prosperity is an important gift we can give to our children and it is absolutely essential for lifting billions of others around the world into prosperous lives. Parochialism of the present is the real suicide machine.
Next we will turn to environmental impact.
We have seen that there has been a sharp rise in prosperity as measured by health and longevity, and in terms of income. All this has come in an era when the world population has grown more than 600%. Economist Robert Fogel attributes this to technophysio evolution. Indur M. Goklany in his recent book The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, gives a wonderful chart that links Fogel’s technophysio evolution to the larger context of economic growth and prosperity. I have presented a significantly reconfigured and simplified version of the chart of the one you can find on page 91 of his book. Because the chart represents a continuous process we can begin almost anywhere. I begin with the impact of technology on food production because this is where Fogel begins his discussion about technophysio evolution.
A. New technologies (like plows, irrigation, fertilizer, crop rotation methods, or storage methods) emerge that generate higher crop yields.
B. Increased food supply means better diets and improved human capital. Raising livestock becomes more feasible. People are sufficiently nourished for productive work and strong enough to fight off illness. Infant mortality begins to decline and life expectancy increases.
C. People with better diets are more productive and generate more goods and services, increasing wealth.
D. Wealth makes possible the development of new technologies as well as making existing technologies more affordable and efficient.
E. Technology contributes directly to human capital by making medicine and medical technologies available, making life safer through safer production methods, and reducing side effects like pollution.
F. Emerging technologies create goods and services apart form agriculture, thus adding to economic growth.
G. Economic growth and wealth enables people to purchase goods and services that will improve their physical, mental, and spiritual lives, thus improving human capital.
H. Improved human capital (physical, mental, spiritual) produces more people able to apply themselves to generating new technologies and effectively using existing ones.
I. Technology facilitates trade through improvement of infrastructure and the development of devices like ships, ground transport, planes, pipelines, and fiber optic cables, to name but a few. Ability to transport large quantities of goods both improves the distribution of the food supply and brings larger numbers of people into market exchange networks.
J. Trade with other societies increases the quantity, quality, and variety of food supplies available.
K. Trade with other societies results in exchanges of knowledge and ideas that can be used to improve human health and general well-being.
L. The formation of markets allows for greater specialization in economic behavior, thereby improving efficiency of economic growth.
M. Greater economic production and excess food supplies create the opportunity for trade with other societies.
Tracing the emergence of this model of growth is beyond the scope of this series but I do think it is worth noting that many of the key ideas that lead to its emergence (like scientific rationalism, risk assessment, individual rights, and progress) had distinctive roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Enlightenment and Modernist scholars have successfully severed the Judeo-Christian roots from the equation of economic growth in the minds of most folks. “Modern progress” is cast as departure from Judeo-Christian roots rather than being seen as grounded in those roots and extending from them. It is my sense that McLaren equates the emergence of the above model as a divergence from Judeo-Christian roots. To the degree that elements of the model have directed humanity toward achieving total autonomy, they are. But the basic elements of the model could only have emerged in a Judeo-Christian world. I believe they can be redeemed. McLaren seems to believe everything must change.
Having now reviewed the astonishing changes of the last few centuries, and having presented a model that hopefully illustrates the dynamic forces that brought them to be, we need to turn to environmental issues raised in McLaren’s book and suggested by this prosperity model. I can imagine readers agreeing with most of what I’ve written to this point but asking if this growth is sustainable. Won’t we soon deplete nonrenewable resources and destroy the environment? McLaren writes in Everything Must Change:
Our story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as far as possible. As a result, we burn through nonrenewable resources without concern for their eventual disappearance, draw down renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and produce more waste products than our environment can absorb, manifesting a host of negative symptoms, some realized, others largely invisible to us as yet. Rapid and extravagant resource use (with corresponding waste production) is so profitable for some people that they can avoid or remain in denial about most of these negative symptoms for a very long time. In fact, their “success” makes it highly improbable that they will ever be willing to acknowledge the unsustainability of their way of life. This is the prosperity dysfunction. (68)
What is the impact of economic growth on resources and the environment?
Two “L” shaped graphs highlight the extraordinary changes in human prosperity over the last twelve thousand years. After millennia of infant mortality rates of 200-300 per 1,000 and life expectancy at birth of 20-30 years, most people today are living in nations where infant mortality rates are dropping below 50, on their way to the single digit levels of the West. Global life expectancy is pushing 70 years. These “L” shaped developments contribute to the development of yet another “L” shaped curve. Look at this chart of world population:
We can get a better sense of population growth if we break the chart into two segments:
From 10,000 BCE to 5000 BCE, the global population increased from about 4 million to 5 million. Beginning in the fifth millennium, the plow was invented, irrigation began, and cities emerged. There was an up turn in population during the Greco-Roman era beginning in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Much slower growth followed in the third through eighth centuries CE. Population fluctuated until after the major European plague in the mid-1300s, after which population resumed an upward trajectory, particularly accelerating in the seventeenth century.
Many have attributed the population explosion of recent centuries to the Industrial Revolution but clearly its impetus predated the Industrial Revolution by one or two centuries. Economist Robert Fogel attributes this population growth to what he calls the Second Agricultural Revolution beginning in the seventeenth century (the First Agricultural Revolution beginning around 9000 BCE with the discovery of farming techniques.) The Second Agricultural Revolution, starting in Europe, involved a combination of improved crop rotation methods, better planting and cultivation techniques, new technology, and improved storage and distribution methods. Beginning in the early nineteenth century (c. 1820) the Industrial Revolution built upon the gains from agricultural advancements.
Robert Fogel calls the phenomenon we have experienced in recent centuries “technophysio evolution.” Technology improved agricultural to the point that vast numbers of people could eat beyond mere subsistence levels and live healthier and more productive lives. Better agriculture production also required fewer workers freeing up labor for other pursuits. These other pursuits included pursuit of new technologies that both bettered people’s lives and further improved agricultural production. Thus, a cycle of technophysio evolution was set in motion.
To understand the impact technophysio evolution has had on global population, we can look at what demographers call the Demographic Transition Model (DTM). The DTM is a model reflecting the experience of Western Europe, extrapolated to interpret anticipated global demographic trends. There are four phases to the DTM:
Stage 1: Death rates (deaths per 1,000 population) and birth rates (births per 1,000 population) vary but tend to balance each other out. Prior to the eighteenth century, this was the near universal story for humanity (although as we have seen, very slow steady growth had been the norm for many centuries before.)
Stage 2: Death rates begin to decline significantly. Birth rates stay constant for a while and then began to drop in a pattern similar to death rates. Though both are declining, the birth rate stays significantly above the death rate for decades (see the dashed line in the chart.) This leads to a significant increase in the population.
Stage 3: Death rate decline begins to slow and level out. Meanwhile fertility rates continue to decline leveling out at a later date. The population continues to experience growth but at an ever slowing rate.
Stage 4: Death rates and birth rates stabilize at or below replacement levels.
Wikipedia provides a chart for 250 years of Sweden’s history that illustrates this. Notice the parallel death and birth rates until the beginning of the 1800s. The stages are demarcated for you at the top of the chart.
Stage 2 emerged in Europe because of technophysio evolution. Increased agricultural productivity led to a surplus of food and an improved diet. Improved health and vigor meant more productive people. It reduced the death rate as people lived longer and people lived more productive lives. (Fogel notes that, in England, agriculture improved the caloric intake but the rapid urbanization created health problems that tended to retard advances in life expectancy until the late nineteenth century.) With improved health, and enough resources to meet basic subsistence needs, people began to address environmental problems like waste elimination and personal hygiene. This lessened the amount of disease and allowed more people to live longer and more vigorous lives.
Stage 3 was a period when the infant morality rate (children dying before their first birthday) was noticeably lower. Whereas only four or five children out of eight might have lived to adulthood in the past, now seven or eight children might reach maturity. Fewer children were needed to perpetuate the family and birth rates declined. Increased industrialization also meant urbanization and a departure from traditional values about family size and the role of women. Women no longer gained as much status from family. They become more educated and literate, often entering the workforce. This led to greater affluence and greater sophistication in knowing how to create a better quality of life. People become evermore empowered and greater demands were made for environmental improvements, safety, and health care.
Stage 4 has seen a stabilization of death and birth rates. Concerns about quality of life issues including environment and health have risen in importance.
Some believe there may be a stage 5. At some point our ability to extend life expectancy will hit a wall and the death rate will rise a little before stabilizing. With affluence, death rates may begin to increase because of decreased physical activity and increasingly unhealthy lifestyles like overeating. How birth rates will respond isn’t known. Whether this is true and to what degree is a subject of debate.
Now we can extrapolate the DTM to represent global changes, with one significant change. The distinguishing feature of the global model is that instead of a relatively smooth transition into declining death rates over decades, death rates plummet in a short time period. Most developing nations have experienced their population explosions in the years after World War II when large amounts of aid, vaccines, and technological knowledge were made available. Traditions and customs about family size can’t adapt as quickly. Therefore, the gap between birth rates and death rates (see dashed line in graph below) is considerably larger than with the DTM for Western nations. This leads to very rapid population growth.
Here is chart showing global birth and death rate from the 1950 with projections until 2050:
Another distinguishing feature about the global DTM is the linkage between increases in per capita income and improvements in living conditions. In the Western DTM, per capita growth in income seemed to draw living conditions to higher levels. The global experience has been more a matter of improved living conditions and health drawing per capita income to higher levels. Aid and technology transfers from the West have essentially shortened the learning curve for other nations that are following the West through the demographic transition.
It is important to note that the DTM is not without controversy. Looking nation by nation there is considerable variation in how demographic transitions are taking place. Still, the DTM serves as a good standardized that helps us frame questions about specific nations and regions. It does seem to keep capture a sense of the overall global trend.
How can we model this technophysio phenomenon we live in? Brian McLaren offers a model of is societal suicide machine in Everything Must Change. Next we will look at the economic growth machine that made possible the recent rapid growth in population while expanding prosperity.
(For a scholarly presentation of technophysiological evolution, see The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the Demographic Transition Model.)
The previous two posts have illustrated the improvement in prosperity spreading across the globe as measured by long life and the soaring improvements in economic status. But there is at least one other measure of prosperity we need to visit as we assess Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change. What about political freedom and civil liberties?
At the close of the eighteenth century, the number of democracies in the world could be counted on one hand and they represented only a tiny fraction of the world population. By the late nineteenth century, democracy was beginning to spread to more nations. Today, most nations feel obliged to characterize themselves as democracies, regardless of their actual circumstances.
For decades, an organization called Freedom House has been using a variety of criteria to evaluate nations on their political and civil rights. They rank nations into seven categories but more generally rank them as “free,” “partly free,” and “not free.” In the two tables below I have compared the state of freedom in the world between 1975 and 2005. The population of each nation at the time was assigned one of the three statuses. Each percentage below is the percentage of people of a designated region with a given status. Pay particular attention to the size of the green bars as they indicate the percentage of people living in “free” countries.
There percentage of the world living in free countries has soared from 16% to 43% over the last thirty years. Only the Middle East and North Africa region has actually moved away from freedom. Significant improvements are seen in most other regions of the world.
The relationship between longer lives, more income, and greater freedom, and other aspects of prosperity show up in other indicators as well. Here are just three:
Keep in mind that the population of the world has nearly doubled over the time elapsed in these graphs. Thus, if the percentages are increasing, the absolute numbers are growing rapidly. I could go on with more stats like the precipitous drop in conflicts around the world over the fifteen years (click here) but you get the picture. The world is becoming a more prosperous place for more and more people!
With that said, I want to be clear on a few issues. Nothing I’ve written in these last three posts in any way justifies colonialism or the horrific abuses that occurred with oppression. Nor does it justify interventionist acts committed by the United States and other world powers in pursuit of their own interest. Nor does it suggest that there is not abuse today or that every corner of the world is growing prosperity. But what it does suggest is that, in a stumbling bumbling manner, the world has been experiencing a widespread, and spreading, outbreak of prosperity that dwarfs anything humanity has encountered before.
Again, McLaren describes the prosperity system this way:
The prosperity system seeks to fulfill our desire for happiness – our desire not just to survive, but to thrive. We associate happiness with enjoyable sensations, so through the prosperity system we create ways to fulfill that desire – for good tastes, for pleasant and interesting sights and sounds, for enjoyable tactile, intellectual, and emotional experiences – and for relief from the opposites (such as disease, injury, or boredom). (55)
And yet his “frame-in-time” perspective paints the image of a world falling under the dark oppressive hand of the United States and evil theocapitalists, driving the poor into the ground and destroying the environment. I have purposely not touched on environmental issues yet but what I hope I’ve effectively made clear over these last three posts is that, when viewed from outside a parochial present oriented lens, the idea that the world is a “suicide machine” with regard to human prosperity is simply indefensible.
In the next couple of posts I want look at what sparked the changes of the last three centuries. We will then take a look at some environmental issues before returning to look at some the specifics of McLaren’s claims.
(For further enlightenment, I'd also invite you to check out this entertaining and informative 20 minute presentation at the TED conferences by Hans Rosling about the improving state of the world.)
We have now seen how prosperity, measured in terms of long life, is spreading throughout most of the planet. Yet when most people of think of disparity between nations, they usually think in terms of levels of income. Income is correlated with other factors that empower us to not only survive but thrive.
The common refrain we hear today is “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” and that perspective is present in McLaren's Everything Must Change. N. T. Wright, a theologian whose work I’ve found very helpful and a theologian with high standing among many in the emerging church community, writes:
And now we have the new global evils: rampant, uncaring, and irresponsible materialism and capitalism on the one hand; raging unthinking religious fundamentalism on the other. As one famous book puts it, we have ‘Jihad versus McWorld.” (Whether there is such a thing as caring capitalism, or for that matter thoughtful fundamentalism, isn’t the point at the moment.) …. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in macroeconomics to know that if the rich are getting richer by the minute, and the poor poorer, there is something badly wrong. (Simply Christian, 8)
It also doesn’t take a Ph.D. in macroeconomics to verify such claims either. :) As we attempt to escape "parochialism of the present," what can we say about income on a historic basis?
Comparing income across eras is difficult. Inflation and other variables make direct comparison impossible. Furthermore, comparing contemporary currency based economies to barter economies will not work. To aid in this comparative analysis, economic historians have developed a concept called “purchasing power parity” (PPP). The value of a dollar at a fixed point in time is chosen and the value of income at all other points in time is pegged to the purchasing power of the fixed dollar. For our purposes, we will be using a PPP measure of “1990 International Dollars” (I$). Annual per capita Gross Domestic Product (the total market value of all final goods and services produced within a given country in a given period of time, usually a year) will be used as a proxy for income.
Not all economists agree on how to achieve parity between the present and more distant eras. Angus Maddison, one of the foremost authorities on this topic, suggests that I$400 per capita is a subsistence level of income and was typical of subsistence living prior to the industrial revolution. However, economist Brad Delong, who has done his own analysis, claims:
“A large proportion of our high standard of living today derives not just from our ability to more cheaply and productively manufacture the commodities of 1800, but from our ability to manufacture whole new types of commodities, some of which do a better job of meeting needs that we knew we had back in 1800, and some of which meet needs that were unimagined back in 1800.” (Brad DeLong)
Therefore, DeLong puts historic subsistence living at I$90, but both scholars end up with similar income estimates in recent eras.
Another difference is that while Maddison has tended to focus his analysis on the past two millennia, DeLong has analyzed more distant eras. Either way, when you plot their data over the past few millennia on a chart, you get this:
DeLong reports that it took from 10,000 BCE until 1750 for per capita GDP to double from I$90 to I$178. (I$109 in year 1 CE.) Maddison reports a per capita GDP of I$467 in 1 CE and I$616 in 1700. The following chart shows their estimates between 1600 and 2003:
You can see that the growth accelerates beginning in the early nineteenth century. Many have suggested that the industrial revolution began not long after 1750 and it is true that many inventions came in to being not long after that time. However, there was a lag time of a few decades between the advent of various technologies and the placement of them in productive use. Maddison argues for a beginning point of 1820 (as do other economic historians.)
Maddison offers us some other powerful insights by doing a regional analysis. The popular history of the world is that through colonization, the West European nations enriched themselves by robbing other regions of the world of their resources, thus driving them into destitution. Let’s take a look at the impact of colonization and the industrial revolution on those regions outside Western Europe, West European Offshoots (like USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and Japan:
Every region of the world has experienced magnitudes of growth since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We see this is particularly true after World War II. The former USSR data is a bit distorted on the graph because there was a significant drop in per capita income during the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, growth has returned over the past decade. Russia’s per capita GDP has grown nearly 25% in the three years after 2003.
The truly bleak portion of the picture is Africa. Africa was actually ahead of Asia in growth throughout the twentieth century until the 1980s. Inability to establish sound governments and the AIDs epidemic have stagnated Africa’s growth and even reversed it in several sub-Saharan nations. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the few stagnate or declining regions of the globe but this reversal did not begin until the 1980s.
The fact is that there has been a significant improvement in the absolute per capita income of nations outside the West. And not only are people not getting poorer outside the West, non-Western emerging economies have been growing at a faster rate than Western economies.
(Source: The Economist)
However, as this chart below shows there is a lot of catching up to do:
The realities of world economic growth are more complex than I can nuance in this short post. There are disparities when we disaggregate the data. Still, the percentage of people living on the equivalent of less than I$1 a day has shrunk from 39% in 1970 to less than 20% in 2000. The UN anticipates it will be less than 10% in 2015. All this during a period when the world population doubled!
Nearly half of humanity lives in forty nations that are experiencing 7% annual growth, a growth rate that will double the size of the economy every ten years. A recent article in the Economist reports:
...since the mid-1990s, the incomes of the poorest fifth have risen everywhere except, marginally, in Latin America, where they have been affected by after-shocks of debt crises. In Asia, the real incomes of the poorest fifth rose 4% a year; in Africa, by 2% a year, faster than the rise for other income groups.
The overall picture is one of unprecedented improvement in the lives of billions of people around the world. Whatever we may think of the rate of change, the overall picture is not one of the poor getting poorer under the oppression of Western consumerism.
Finally, a closing note on the impact of colonialism. Economic historian Paul Bairoch highlights two powerful and pervasive myths about colonialism in his book Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes. One is held by the right and the other by the left. The one held by the right is that the nations of Western Europe achieved their growth through free trade. He shows convincingly that only after about 1960 did free trade begin to be practiced widely among nations. The other myth, more pertinent to our discussion, is that colonialism was the backbone of European economic growth. On the contrary, Bairoch shows that imports of raw materials into Western economies accounted for a small fraction of total raw materials and colonial markets for finished goods never amounted to but few percentage points of the overall economy. In fact, colonial possessions, originally established when mercantilist thinking was in vogue, may actually have stunted the economic growth of colonial powers during the industrial revolution because of the high “carrying cost” of maintaining colonies.
The real damage done to colonies was less a matter of the resources extraction and far more about suppression of industrial development within the colonies. The good news is you don’t need colonialism to develop a strong economy. The challenge is to nurture industry among the former colonial states and that is happening around the world right now.
So once again when we look at our present circumstances in the context of the flow of history we see an expansion of prosperity working its way throughout the world. But there are a few more indicators we should take note of as well.
Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change suffers from a parochialism of the present. I mean two things by that. First, it is lacking in historical perspective. Second, it takes present circumstances, values, rates of consumption, and technologies, and projects them unaltered into the future. It is like take taking a frame from a video clip, ignoring everything that has come before that frame, and then predicting the future course of events by projecting that moment-in-time frame forward into the future. We need to widen out our perspective to see our present snipet of time in the dynamic historical sequence of events.
McLaren describes the prosperity system this way:
The prosperity system seeks to fulfill our desire for happiness – our desire not just to survive, but to thrive. We associate happiness with enjoyable sensations, so through the prosperity system we create ways to fulfill that desire – for good tastes, for pleasant and interesting sights and sounds, for enjoyable tactile, intellectual, and emotional experiences – and for relief from the opposites (such as disease, injury, or boredom). (55)
Frankly, I think this is a fairly sound characterization of prosperity. Too often, prosperity is looked at exclusively as an issue of income or wealth. Wealth and income are merely means (but important ones) to achieving these higher values. So if we wanted to measure prosperity, as opposed to purely income/wealth differentials, how would we do it?
Demographers have a ready answer for that. They frequently use life expectancy and infant mortality rates as measures of prosperity. The life expectancy rate is the number of years you would expect someone to live at the time they are born based on actuarial science. The infant mortality rate is the number of children that die between birth and their first birthday, per 1,000 live births. Long life is a near universal indicator of prosperity across cultures and time. It is an important measure to demographers because achieving it requires a complex mix of variables, like a sustained nutritious food supply, a sanitary and safe environment, relatively little disease, absence of war, and a stable social life. Because the first year of life is when human beings are most vulnerable, their ability to survive the first year of life says a lot about the state of their society; thus the significance of the infant mortality rate.
So what can we say about this measure of prosperity throughout human history? Here are estimates that are typical of social scientists and economists who study these issues:
For most of its existence, Homo sapiens lived in far-flung hunter-and-gathering communities, each of which was quite small and barely able to reproduce itself. Life expectancy at birth was hardly twenty-five years on average, and those persons who survived childhood often died violently, in combat with other hunters, at relatively young ages. (Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, 48)
In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third died in the first year of life. Hunger and epidemic disease ravaged the survivors. By 1820, life expectation had risen to 36 years in the west, with only marginal improvement elsewhere. (Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, 69)
Before industrialization, at least one out of every five children died before reaching his or her first birth day; that is infant mortality measured as the number of children dying before the age of one, typically exceeded 200 per 1,000 live births. … In the United States, as late as 1900, infant mortality was 160; …” (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 27)
For much of human history, average life expectancy used to be 20-30 years. By 1900, it had climbed to about 31 years … By 2003 it was 66.8 years. (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 31)
To put the last statement by Goklany in perspective lets graph the estimated life expectancy on a chart:
If we show only the last two centuries we get a clearer picture of what has happened:
Turning to infant mortality rates, look at what has happened over the last fifty years:
Note that the average infant mortality rate for developing nations in 2003 is at the same level the rate was for the developed world fifty years ago. The trend continues downward. This is not to say that every nation, or every region within a nation, or every subgroup within in a nation, have prospered equally well. Note the tragic impact of the AIDS epidemic on sub-Saharan Africa by looking at these maps of life expectancy and infant mortality from wikipedia:
During the 1990s there was a small decrease in both measures for the former Soviet nations but that trend has turned positive again. There are disparities between Anglos and non-Anglos in the United States. Disparities exist, but only about a dozen (mostly small) African nations have infant mortality rates above 100. The great majority of the total world population lives in nations with far lower rates including India (34.6) and China (22.1).
Using life expectancy and infant mortality as measures of prosperity, the world is far more prosperous than it has ever been in absolute terms and the gap is narrowing between the top and bottom. More amazing, most of this change occurred over a time when the total world population grew sixfold, from less than 1 billion in 1800 to about 6.6 billion today!
So as we look at the trajectory of change in the world we find unprecedented rises in prosperity. It is uneven growth but the every corner of the planet has improved and the gap between top and bottom nations is closing. This is the first consequence we need to be aware of as we look at the historical performance of McLaren’s “suicide machine.”
But there are other measures we need to visit as well.
Brian McLaren devotes Chapter 9 of Everything Must Change to the framing story concept. You will recall from the previous post that at the center of Brian McLaren’s societal machine was a dark gear that represented the framing story, coordinating the other three societal systems.
To elaborate, McLaren uses the analogy of a human body. We are sixty trillion cells organized into ten organ systems. What happens with our massively complex integrated bodily system depends on the story we have about whom we are and our place in the world. Our “framing story” is what guides the use to which we put ourselves.
If our framing story is wise, strong, realistic, and constructive, it can send us on a hopeful trajectory. But if our framing story is dysfunctional, weak, false, unrealistic, or destructive, it can send us on a downward are, a dangerous, high-speed joyride toward un-peace, unhealthy, un-prosperity, even un-life. (67)
So what does our present story look like? I didn’t find a specific section that said “here is the operative framing story.” However, the following two paragraphs should give you some idea:
If our framing story tells us that we humans are godlike beings with godlike privileges – intelligent and virtuous creatures outside of a limited environment of time and space, without potentially fatal flaws – we will have no reason to acknowledge or live within limits, whether moral or ecological. Similarly, if it tells us that the purpose of life is for individuals or nations to accumulate an abundance of possessions and to experience the maximum amount of pleasure during the maximum number of minutes of our short lives, then we will have little reason to mange our consumption. If our framing story tells us that we are in life-and-death competition with each other, that only the fittest will survive, that each species and group is in a violent struggle to outcompete and gain independence and safety from or dominance over all others, then we will have little reason to seek reconciliation and collaboration and nonviolent resolutions to our conflicts. If it tells us that we are simply masses of atoms in a complex ultimately meaningless fermentation and decay process, that there is no ultimate purpose to existence, no higher value to the story, then we will have little reason to seek transcendence.
But if our framing story tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God’s wisdom, character, and dreams for us … then our society will take a radically different direction, and our world will become a very different place. (67)
We touched on the three societal systems in McLaren’s societal model in the previous post. In this chapter he explains the dysfunction that has been created by our framing story for each of the systems. I quote these in full:
Our story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as far as possible. As a result, we burn through nonrenewable resources without concern for their eventual disappearance, draw down renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and produce more waste products than our environment can absorb, manifesting a host of negative symptoms, some realized, others largely invisible to us as yet. Rapid and extravagant resource use (with corresponding waste production) is so profitable for some people that they can avoid or remain in denial about most of these negative symptoms for a very long time. In fact, their “success” makes it highly improbable that they will ever be willing to acknowledge the unsustainability of their way of life. This is the prosperity dysfunction.
Our framing story does not lead us to work for the common good. Instead, it legitimizes the growing gap between rich and poor in a variety of ways. For example, the story may imply that God has blessed and favored the rich and powerful, or that the poor and vulnerable are lazy and irresponsible and therefore are getting what they deserve. All the while the bellies of the poor ache from hunger and their children die of treatable diseases.
The poor respond in various ways. Some poor people decide to join the story of the rich by immigration – legal or illegal. Other poor people resent the rich for not helping them and may blame the rich for their own property. They graft their growing resentment into their unique versions of the framing story, justifying their strategies for crime, war, terrorism, and hatred. Meanwhile, the rich see how the rage of the poor grows as the gap between themselves and the poor grows. The rich express their growing fear through guard dogs, high walls, and razor wire, through expanding defense budgets, and through preemptive war doctrine. The more the poor infringe upon the comfort of the rich through immigration, crime, war, and terrorism, the more the rich protect themselves and shut the poor out, creating a vicious cycle of us/them alienation and polarization. Every social grouping – national religious, ethnic, tribal, political, social, or educational – is drawn into a vortex of rich/poor conflict. Each group becomes a competing us/them faction that seeks advantage for “us,” not a common good for all. This is the equity dysfunction.
Our framing story does not lead these competing factions to reconcile peacefully. Instead we find, nested in the larger framing story shared by both rich and poor, a huge bank of patriotic and religious stories that celebrate how “redemptive violence” has helped good people (“us”) to defeat evil people (“them”) throughout history. Thus when push comes to shove, good people and evil people alike trust violence as the way to peace, and our framing story squelches the creative, peaceful alternatives. When more and more nations (or religious or ethnic militia) arm themselves with more and more lethal weapons – not to mention when some groups acquire biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons – everyone feels less secure, and every regional conflict contains the seeds of terrifying escalation, resulting in an increasingly anxious global society. Gradually, the world becomes locked in a vicious cycle of tension between an anxious global empire of the rich and an angry global terrorist revolution of the poor. This is the security dysfunction.
Again, a look in the mirror can make this all very clear. Your sixty trillion cells and ten biological systems can be thrust into a life of service to humanity or a life of crimes against humanity depending on the framing story you live by. The various subplots of your life – we can call them episodes or narratives – all take shape within this larger framing story: the narrative of your marriage, your career, and hobbies, for example, live in dynamic relation with the framing story to which they contribute and by which they are to some degree driven. (68-70)
At the end of chapter 9, McLaren suggesting that framing stories tend to follow various themes:
Victim and revenge narratives keep old memories of past offenses alive; victimization becomes an excuse for current problems and a stimulus for future retaliation. The offense-revenge cycle can preoccupy a society for centuries even millennia … Some nations may upgrade their warrior narratives for domination or imperial narratives, which tell them that they deserve to be in control of other nations and that they aren’t actually secure unless they’re in control.
Withdrawal or Isolation Narratives
Other nations may tire of these overtly violent narratives and instead chose withdrawal or isolation narratives. They are similarly addictive, but instead of an offense-revenge cycle, they work with a fear-protection cycle. Leaders keep their people in a state of constant fear of outside attack or internal uprising, aided and abetted by the news media an sometimes by religious leaders as well. … The feeling of being in danger itself becomes addictive: without a real or imagined threat, the society loses its framing story and must find or create a new potential enemy.
Other societies work on what we will call theocapitalist narratives, which mythologize markets and their products with a divine power to bring happiness. The economy’s “invisible hand” moves mysteriously to solve all problems and meet all needs. These consumerist narratives must stir desire for material wealth beyond the level of need or even comfort by making the constant stimulation and satisfaction of desire and end in itself. This desire appears productive (especially in comparison to the previous framing stories) but easily becomes no less addictive than the other narratives – whether its addiction focuses on oil, amusement, sex, food, technology, work, leisure, or an abstraction such as growth. (71-72)
Beginning with Part 3 (of 8) in the book, McLaren explains what he sees as the framing story Jesus brought us and explains what impact living out that story would have for reorienting the functions of the societal machine. He makes some judgments about our present circumstances that are consequences of the present suicide machine narrative. He cites statistical and anecdotal evidence along the way he believes confirms the suicidal nature of the machine we live with. So before we go there, I’m going to take the next few posts to correct what I think is a decidedly parochial weakness in this book. It is a parochialism of the present.
McLaren presents his model of society in Everthing Must Change in terms of the following diagram on page 63:
At the core of the model is the "societal machine” composed of three interlocking systems. They are:
The prosperity system seeks to fulfill our desire for happiness – our desire not just to survive, but to thrive. We associate happiness with enjoyable sensations, so through the prosperity system we create ways to fulfill that desire – for good tastes, for pleasant and interesting sights and sounds, for enjoyable tactile, intellectual, and emotional experiences – and for relief from the opposites (such as disease, injury, or boredom).
To fulfill this hunger for happiness, the prosperity system feeds civilization with the products and services that people want to obtain – or “consume” if you will. The prosperity system comprises a host of subsystems that cooperate to keep the prosperity system coming – agricultural systems, manufacturing, energy, transportation, education, entertainment, communication systems, and so on.
Of course, when some individuals or groups of people have a bigger share of desired products and services than other, jealousies arise. Sometimes those jealousies erupt into violent attempts to steal some of that prosperity, or at least to interrupt another’s monopoly of the means of achieving it. The danger of interference from others in the pursuit of happiness means that all who desire prosperity will also desire security – protection from the danger of interference.
To protect a successful prosperity system from interference, a society develops a security system, also comprising a wide array of subsystems: weapons systems, intelligence systems, broader control systems, policing and surveillance systems. Then, of course, it us recruit, train, and support personnel and infrastructure to manage these security subsystems.
Security systems are important, but they are often very expensive in terms of both money and personnel, all the more so when enemies and criminals keep developing new means of subverting yesterday’ defenses. So, along with the desire to pursue greater happiness through the prosperity system, and then to guard all means of achieving that happiness through an expanding security system, a society must develop ways to equitably spread the rising cost of systems maintenance and development, Thus, the third component of the societal machine comes into play.
The equity system seeks not only to fairly spread the expense of the security system, but also to support the expansion of the prosperity system in equitable ways. For example, by breaking up monopolies, the equity system assures that some members of society don’t gain unfair advantage over others. Or by equitably spreading the expense of building roads, the equity system helps the prosperity system transport more products and services to more people who to enjoy them in more places, and it makes possible the happiness that comes from travel.
The equity system fulfills the desire for fairness in four primary ways. First, it develops and enforces laws to protect people’s freedom to pursue prosperity and security – including protecting one person or group’s freedom from inequitable encroachment by others. Second, it levies taxes to distribute the shared expenses of developing and maintaining all three systems. Third, it establishes or protects the press and court systems so they can investigate and report the truth of inequities. When laws, taxes, the press, and courts fail to address human suffering and inequity, impromptu organizations spring up to supplement the equity system – nongovermental organizations, charities, and the like – organized to alleviate suffering through a range of interventions and projects.
Equity, as I’m using the term, doesn’t mean equality. This distinction is important. Equity means fairness and justice, the outcome of wise and virtuous judgment, without prejudice, favoritism, or corruption, but with a human sense of mercy and compassion. Equality, which means mathematical sameness, can actually be an expression of inequity: for example, most of us would agree that it would be inequitable for a sick or disabled person who can’t work to be treated exactly the same as healthy, able-bodied person who refuses to work. …. (55-57)
Notice that the machine is encompassed by an oval. This oval represents the Earth’s Ecosystem. Within that ecosystem we find resources, renewable and non-renewable alike, represented by the four bars on the left. Solar radiation enters our ecosystem from beyond (top left) and our consumption of resources results in waste and heat distributed back into the atmosphere (top right).
Now McLaren envisions this oval ecosystem as a type of “fishbowl.” In the diagram preceding the one above (p. 62), McLaren shows the resources emblem and the machine diagram as the same size and relatively small relative to the ecosystem. In the diagram I have reproduced, he shows an enormous machine crowding out the ecosystem. The implication is that if it grows much bigger it will cause everything to collapse. Our societal machine has become a suicide machine.
The final element in the diagram is the framing story we visited yesterday. That is represented by the black gear at the center of the diagram. It is the framing story that meshes all three of the societal systems. We will turn to McLaren’s observations on the framing story in the next post. After that I will begin to offer my critique and supplement some desperately needed historical context.
With that said, I want to make one observation about a mindset that is evidenced here and throughout the book. Nowhere in this description, and indeed I do not believe elsewhere in the book, is there mention of the institution of the family. Then there is the following observation, which I quoted above:
When laws, taxes, the press, and courts fail to address human suffering and inequity, impromptu organizations spring up to supplement the equity system – nongovermental organizations, charities, and the like – organized to alleviate suffering through a range of interventions and projects. (56)
There are only individuals and the state. The preeminent institution in society is the state. All other institutions, like voluntary associations, are “impromptu organizations [that] spring up to supplement” the state in achieving equity. Yet if we look at the biblical narrative, the only institution established by God prior to Genesis 3, was the family. Most Christian social thinkers believe the narrative implicitly anticipates the necessity for larger institutions beyond the family but they exist to supplement the family. There is warrant for this throughout the biblical narrative. The family is the primary social cooperative unit in society. Families, kinship groups, churches, and intermediate institutions are presumed to have a closer relationship with people and are therefore more likely to have their best interests at heart. The state intervenes only in those matters more local institutions can't address themselves or in order to restore functionality where dysfunction has emerged. The state is ancillary to families and voluntary associations living justly with each other as they live out internalized virtuous values. I’ll have more to say later but you may wish to consult my Government Equals Society post from an earlier series.
Acknowledging in the introduction of the book that the title is hyperbole, McLaren unpacks his purpose in writing the book. He is concerned that we will see this as just another diatribe. He writes:
If we’re going to get anywhere, I have to convince you – and fast – of at least four things. First, that I’m not another blah-blah-blah person ranting about how bad the world is and how guilty you should feel for taking up space in it. Second, that I can help you understand some highly complex material and make it not only accessible but maybe even interesting and inspiring. Third, that when you’re done with this book, you’ll not only better understand the world and your place in it, but you’ll also know how you can make a difference. (You’ll also be able to engage in dialog and further research through the book’s website – www.everythingmustchange.org.) And fourth, I must convince you that making a difference is not another dreary duty for and already overburdened person, but rather that making a difference is downright joyful – fulfilling, rewarding, good. (1-2)
A little later McLaren writes:
Jesus’ message is not actually about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. (4)
Then he comes to the focal point that sets the stage for the rest of the book. It is all about the “framing story.” McLaren believes that our present framing story (I’ll define that below) has precipitated four global crises:
1. Environmental breakdown cause by our unsustainable global economy, and economy that fails to respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in producing great wealth for about one-third of the world’s population. We’ll call this the prosperity crisis.
2. The growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, which prompts the poor majority to envy, resent, and even hate the rich minority – which in turn elicits fear and anger in the rich. We’ll call this the equity crisis.
3. The danger of cataclysmic war arising from the intensifying resentment and fear among various groups at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum. We’ll call this the security crisis.
4. The failure of the world’s religions, especially its to larges religions, to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the three previous crises. We’ll call this the spirituality crisis. (5)
So what is a framing story and what does it have to do with this?
By framing story, I mean a story that gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, where things are going, and what they should do. (5-6)
The answer to our problems is changing the framing story.
McLaren titles Part 1 of the Book (Chapter 2-5), “Two Preoccupying Questions.” He explains that two questions have preoccupied him all his adult life. First:
What are the biggest problems in the world? By biggest, I mean problems that cause the most suffering in the present, that post the greatest threat to our future, that cause most of the other problems, that like at the root of what’s wrong with the world – and therefore at the root of what must be done to set the world on a better course. (11)
What do the life and teachings of Jesus have to say about the most critical global problems in our world today? (12)
And for McLaren this raises the question:
Why hasn’t the Christian religion made a difference commensurate with its message, size, and resources? What would need to happen for follower of Jesus to become a greater force for good in relation to the world’s top problems? How could we make a positive difference. (12)
Throughout the rest of Part 1, McLaren gives testimony of his personal journey. He is particularly attuned to the reality that, in what is increasingly becoming a global village, former colonizers and the colonized have to come to grips with each other. He explains how too often the gospel that has been taught (and is still being taught) in developing nations by westerners has been incomplete. It is truncated and doesn’t address the problems people face. By changing the framing story to the full message God has given, a revolution of hope can be unleashed that will change the world.
In Part 2 of the book (chapters 6-9), McLaren helps us understand how he conceptualizes the societal systems, environment, and framing story fitting together. It is a machine metaphor which he describes, in its present state, as a “suicide machine.” It is his macro-sociological model. We turn to Part 2, “Suicidal System,” next.
What do you think of what has been presented so far? For those that have read the book, do you think I've captured the essence of what he wrote so far?
As I began to read Everything Must Change, I already knew that Brian McLaren was a gifted pastor, speaker, and author. But as I read the opening chapters of the book I discovered that McLaren is morphing into somewhat of a sociologist. (Surely he is not far from the Kingdom of God. :) ) As we will see in coming posts, McLaren presents his view of how society works at the most macro level. He then uses this model to articulate his solutions to the biggest problems we face. But before we go there, I want to make a few observations related to macro-sociological theories.
Most macro-sociology models can be grouped into one of two broad categories: structural-functional and conflict theory.
Structural-functional models see society as a complex web of interrelated institutions and values that work together organically. The tendency of society is toward a state of social equilibrium with people and institutions coming to consensus. Changes to the environment or innovations from within society create disturbances, but the system is always evolving and adapting in an effort to restore equilibrium. Evolution and adaptation often lead to further specialization of functions and every increasing complexity.
Conflict theory models see society as a power struggle between competing factions over scarce resources (like wealth or status.). Inequalities are inherent. The advantaged population controls the societal institutions and the narratives used to explain social realities. The system is structured around getting the less advantaged to internalize the legitimacy of power held by the dominate group. Change is more revolutionary than evolutionary.
The two theories are virtually incompatible. If society truly is a complex organic entity, ever seeking equilibrium, then it can not at the same time be a power play by one segment of society over another. Either equilibrium is merely an illusion created by those with power or the inequalities are a reflection of a complex system seeking equilibrium.
Now as I went through grad school, reading scholars and listening to professors make their cases for which of these schools had greater merit, I was also processing this material through the lens of the biblical narrative. Both schools of thought have considerable merit and provide useful avenues for conceptualizing research but neither alone captures a biblical anthropology. What dawned on me is that the two combined are twin reflections of the human condition as presented in the biblical narrative.
Genesis teaches that we were made for community with God and with each other. We do not exist except in relation to “the other.” There is indeed an organic integration of human beings, living and functioning as one in community. This seems to be parallel to the structural-functional view.
But the Genesis narrative continues on with the fall from grace and its consequences. Brother turns on brother. Chaos ensues. God starts over with the remnant of Noah’s family. At Babel, people attempt to write their own narrative and assert themselves but God confuses that project. From that point forward in the biblical narrative, there is a continuous stream of one empire or another seeking dominance, as well as endless stories of domination and conflict among the people of Israel. This all seems to be parallel to the conflict theory view.
It was been my experience that conservative Christians who engage sociology have gravitated toward the structural-functional theoretical model. The model has great value in explaining how various institutions and values interrelate to keep society functioning. It shows why theses institutions and values must be “conserved.” However, the epistemological problem is that we are ultimately pushed toward the conclusion that what “is,” is what should be. If there were some more optimal state, then society would have evolved it. On what basis do we offer a critique of what is?
One profound evidence of this structural-functional mindset is the declaration by some conservative Christians that men and women are “Equal in being, unequal in function/role.” Altering gender roles will harm societal function. According to theologian Kevin Giles, the language of “roles” and “functions” entered the debate in the late 1970s, just when the embrace of this type of sociology became in vogue with conservative Christians.
Meanwhile, progressive Christians gravitate toward conflict theory. This model has great value in offering critique of existing relationships and unmasking how power is used. It offers legitimization for social transformation from what is. However, the epistemological problem here is that whatever “is,” is oppression. Even after a transformation, the new order is still a result of some group’s dominance of another. Any state of affairs exists can be rationalized as less than optimal if a dissident group can make their will prevail. With no sense of legitimate functioning apart from dominance, there truly is no way of evaluating optimal justice between competing values.
Liberationists, social progressives, and Anabaptists gravitate toward conflict models, though they may differ in their responses to specific injustices. Many would claim to have surmounted the inherent circularity of replacing oppression with oppression. God has revealed to us what justice is and we can institute justice in the place of oppression. But this too is an illusion because each person claiming to have the mind of God on these matters, whether they have power or are from the margins of society, has been shaped by a particular context through which they interpret and distort justice. Their vision of justice just becomes another expression of domination. According to the biblical narrative there is no perfect shalom until the New Creation. Given that, on what basis does one conclude that a present reality is not the optimal that can be realized relative to other achievable alternatives?
My conviction, as a Christian trying to make sense of macro issues in the world, is that we are compelled to live in a tension between these two paradigms. Each paradigm is a separate lens in a pair of glasses that generates binocular 3D vision. We must resolutely use both lenses. Over reliance on one lens may lead us to legitimize injustices and not seek God’s best. Over reliance on the other lens can lead us to destructive unintended consequences and imprudent declarations that everything must change.
All of us come from a particular context. A sizeable number of people who are drawn to the emerging church and to Brian McLaren’s writings are people who have come from theologically and politically conservative church backgrounds. As I begin this series on Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change I think it is important for me to share with you some of my context.
Many of you know that I’m in the Presbyterian Church, USA, flock. While that has been true for twenty-five years, I was raised within the Wesleyan-Arminian Holiness world of the Church of the Nazarene. There wasn’t a great deal of discussion about politics in my home as I grew up but I would characterize the values I did hear expressed as coming from a New Deal Democrat perspective on the world. Jimmy Carter was elected president when I was a senior in high school, and while my folks never told me how they voted in elections, but it was pretty clear that the Carter election was a good thing.
My dad was a professor and a research scientist. He worked on energy research throughout much of his career. During the summers of my high school years he did internships at Oak Ridge, TN. Energy conservation and resource depletion were topics I grew up hearing much about. In the summer of ’78, I worked with my dad on building his passive solar home. It was outfitted for using solar panels but the panels were a bit too pricy and therefore never installed.
I went to Mid-America Nazarene University for college, but even prior to college I had my doubts about the doctrinal specifics of Nazarenedom. Even more discordant for me was what I perceived to be an obsession with personal piety and obliviousness to broader social issues. From my earliest memories I’ve been curious about society, government, justice, history, and change. Regrettably, aside from a few helpful professors and good friends, that passion was not widely shared. I think the last proverbial straw on the camel’s back for me was the steady parade of Religious Right rising stars brought into our mandatory attendance chapels in 1980, culminating with a visit from Jerry Falwell. I was looking for a new home.
I did encounter some great stuff in college. I initially majored in history but switched to sociology. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Social Construction of Reality, made a big impact on me (as did other of Peter Berger’s works). I was intrigued with his insights into modernity and what would later come to be called postmodernism. David Moberg’s The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern gave me new sociological insight on my own faith heritage. John Howard Yoder, E. F. Shumacker, Arthur Gish, and Ronald Sider were other authors I was exposed to by a couple of professors. Sojourners and The Other Side magazines were regular sources for class discussions in a couple of classes. Francis Schaffer’s work was also intriguing to me. Not because I necessarily agreed with his take on all issues but because he demonstrated that an Evangelical could integrate a broad range of history, philosophy, theology, art, and social sciences responsibly.
After college, I went on to graduate school at Kansas State University to study sociology/demography. Much of the focus at KSU was on the sociological impact of economic development, especially as it related to changes in agriculturally developing nations. I was interested in demography but it did not qualify as an academic focus at that time, so I specialized in social change and supplemented with demography credits. Development, change, social theory, and modernity/postmodernity were recurring themes in my studies.
It was while in graduate school that I was drawn into the Presbyterian world. I won’t give all the details but suffice it to say that I found an environment where I felt my theological issues, and my the concerns I had about the world, could be addressed. The Presbyterian world seemed to fit well with my circumstances. (At least at the congregational level. My education about higher levels of Presbyterianism came years later.) While I never severed from my roots, from the early 1980s on, my world was far more influenced by the world of Mainline Christianity. The friendships I developed at two missional communities (the Potter’s Wheel and Wellspring) in those days were formative as well.
My work life eventually landed me back in Kansas City in the mid-1980s. I worked for the regional United Way as both a research analyst and an allocations specialist. The latter responsibility had me supporting volunteers in their detailed reviews of twelve neighborhood serving organizations that served the poor throughout Kansas City, MO. As I worked with these agencies and reflected on the multitude of services they offered, it quickly dawned on me that central theme to so many of the issues being addressed was the inability of people to generate a steady flow of income. This was when my interest in the economic aspects social problems really began to take hold.
That interest led me to enroll in the MBA program for Economic Development at Eastern University in ’87. The aim of the program was to equip people, both theologically and in terms of business acumen, to aid in microeconomic development in both developing nations and in the US. I had classes with people like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, but also an array of less well known but very experienced professors as well. Some of the greatest epiphanies for me come in an Urban Economics class where my professor John Stapleford did a great job of exposing us to the unintended consequences of so many efforts to address urban problems. From that time forward I have had a very deep suspicion (but not total rejection) of government economic interventions. Over the years I’ve continued to read widely on these issues and my thinking has evolved but I trace the framing of those issues back to those seminal days in MBA school.
My work life since that time has not always been in microeconomic development, but it has tended to stay close to the issues of entrepreneurship and working with small organizations. There has been the development of a network of friends working internationally. Non-professionally, I’ve served with a few different public policy organizations. Probably my most time consuming volunteerism, in recent years, has been my work with the Presbyterian Church, USA, as I’ve been drawn into leadership positions. There are many things to like about the PCUSA but one thing that is routinely a source of concern for me is the use of political progressive ideologies as a litmus test for faithful Christianity by too many Presbyterians. In many ways, it is the flipside of what so many Evangelical Christians express about conservative influences in their own settings.
Part of what initially had me enthused about the emerging church conversation was to see young Evangelicals actively engaging culture and faith. It looked to me like a place where something could emerge that was neither the narrow personal gospel wedded to conservative politics of the Religious Right nor the well-worn Niebuhr-inspired Christian socialism or liberation theology of the Mainline world. The jury is out about where this all leads but my hopes have dimmed considerably of late. This book, and its enthusiastic reception, is just one example of why.
Many emerging church folks have done a lot of work deconstructing the foundationalism and political alliances of the Right. That is only logical as that has been their context. The response by some emerging folks is what I would call apolitical, looking to build community. Others have adopted an Anabaptist separatist approach to political issues. But for those who see a call to political action as part of their discipleship, my perception is that the response is overwhelmingly parallel to the Religious Left politics of Sojourners (of which McLaren is on the board) or to the perspective and tactics prevalent in Mainline denominations. In fact, it has been my observation that many of those in Mainline denominations who are drawn to the emerging church world are drawn because they value the missional critique and feel completely at home with emerging church expressions of social justice issues. Re-examining justice issues is not on the agenda. The critique of liberal foundationalism and progressive politics seem absent to me.
This hopefully gives you some context about where the following posts are coming from.
Must everything change? Last year Brian McLaren published a book entitled Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Presently McLaren is traveling about the country on an “Everything Must Change” tour. I read his book last fall. I’ve debated ever since whether or not to respond, and, if so, how.
I’ve read most of McLaren’s books. I particularly appreciated his “New Kind of Christian” trilogy. I thought he had some important things to say in “Generous Orthodoxy.” I’ve seen him speak on a few occasions. I’ve listened to or read a variety of interviews. I’ve seen him in action in some small group discussions at the Emergent Village gathering in Glorieta, NM. I even chatted briefly with him on a couple of occasions (for probably a sum total of less than two minutes.) I’ve also been around Emergent stuff going back to 1998 and while McLaren does not speak for Emergent or the emerging church in any formal sense, he is unmistakably a significant informal leader who shapes the direction of dialog.
Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that Brian McLaren is a nice guy, with a big heart, and an active mind, who is seeking to follow Jesus. I knew when I cracked the cover of “Everything Must Change” that there would be parts of the book where I would have significant disagreement. However, based on past experience, I expected to read an informed and “generous” presentation of views. Frankly, I was disappointed. I found the book to be uncharacteristically polemic. His reflection on problems was thoroughly ahistorical, thereby distorting the context and trajectory of present circumstances. As to economic matters, I found the analysis to be a neo-Malthusian politically progressive retread of Niebuhrian Chrisitan-socialist thinking so ubiquitous in Mainline Protestant academic circles.
Some are critical of the book because they perceive McLaren has abandoned susbstitutionary atonement, or distorted some other doctrinal point. For the record, I embrace the New Perspective on Paul. I think the idea of opposing/transforming the empire are valid characterizations of key aspects of the church’s mission. I think the idea of looking at things in terms of a “framing story” is a useful lens. I do think McLaren overreaches with some of his biblical analysis but these are not my primary concerns. My primary concern is related to his characterization of the state of world affairs, especially as it relates to what he calls the “prosperity wheel” in his presentation of the issues.
Against my better judgment, I’ve made a decision to make a lengthy response to this book in the form of a series posts. I will be honest in letting you know up front that there are statements in this book that I find downright exasperating. I promise to do my best at being irenic in tone but I can’t promise I'll be entirely successful. (The Kronicler has a Karnal sarcastic streak a mile wide.) The spirit is willing but ....We will see. :)
What I propose to do is to give you some of my personal context . Then I will devote a few posts to my understanding of the world situation. After that, I will engage McLaren’s book. I’m not going to do a chapter-by-chapter review but rather I will lay out his basic thesis and then focus primarily (but not exclusively) on his handling of the prosperity issue. I can’t promise that this will be done in an uninterrupted stream but I do expect the posts to come on a fairly steady schedule.
Anyway, that is what you can expect for the next several posts at Kruse Kronicle, along with the usual news aggregation. Discussion is welcome. Flaming (me or others who comment), not so much. :)