« The Pope condemns the climate change prophets of doom | Main | Economists Left and Right »

Dec 13, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

will spotts

Even in the ancient world, land wasn't 'entirely' a zero sum game. Yes - like wealth today - it was often viewed in that way, and this led to actions in which one person or group benefiting always corresponded to harm to other persons or groups.

However, even then - and also in the medieval period - developments in agriculture could make a given tract of land more productive - thus increasing wealth without increasing land. (Consider the use of cisterns and irrigation - and later the use of different methods of cultivation. Even as different varieties of plants are domesticated these produce more food (or product) more efficiently. The overall prosperity increases.) Obviously there are environmental factors - sometimes increased productivity occurs at the expense of future productivity - but in theory, if the increase is in efficiency, the notion of increasing wealth equaling increasing harm to others was not true.

Brad Cooper

Good point, Will. And I think it would be fair to say that there was far more land available on a worldwide basis than was needed for agriculture (the zero-sum game for agricultural land being played at local levels).

Michael, I have thought about these issues a lot over the last several years--but in the last couple of months, you have spurred me on and deepened my thinking. Thanks.

Michael W. Kruse

Will, in reality, there never has been a zero-sum game of any kind. What I'm angling for is that mindset of ancients. My great-grandfather came to the US from Denmark in 1880 because he was the youngest of eight children and he wanted to farm. Older siblings had the land and if he wanted to farm and own his own land he had to go elsewhere. That simply was not an option for most ancient folks. Therefore, in a very practical sense, it was zero-sum game.

I also recognize that by various means and technologies some could manage their agriculture more effectively than others around them. That would make some marginally more wealthy than others. But to really create expansive wealth you would have to apply the same techniques to greater land areas. Since land was a fixed amount, there was a relatively low ceiling on how much wealth you could squeeze out of a given acreage. In modern standards we might be talking about the difference of making $30,000 per year through average methods and $40,000 through excellent methods, versus the guy who owns vast tracts and is making millions every year. I think this dynamic created a mindset close enough to a zero-sum game that we can call it that. That is what I’m driving at.

Michael W. Kruse

Brad, you are more than welcome. That is about the highest compliment I could wish for. Thanks!

Brad Cooper


I've heard what you've been saying about the change in our economic context from a zero-sum type game of an agricultural economy to the ever-expanding horizon of the modern economy fueled by the industrial and scientific revolutions combined with free trade. (And you've gotten me thinking about it even more since reading your comments at Jesus Creed a few days ago.)

I think that it is all very important and helpful and should figure prominently in our strategies to help the poor, but....

We must not forget that there is still a zero-sum game being played. It is not at the macro level but rather at the micro level of the personal finances of the poor. For a poor person, there is only so much money to go around. Spending money on food means that there is less money for other needs...and generally not enough.

That's why giving to the poor is just as relevant today as it was in New Testament times.

Outright giving must be combined with bringing the poor into an economy of abundance. But bringing the poor into an economy of abundance is not a simple act, it is a long involved process. It may take years. In the mean time, outright giving must be utiilized to meet the difference between what the poor need and what they have. (Or since we have already made the point that we are not cattle meant to live at a subsistence level....we must use outright giving to raise the poor beyond that level.)

Outright giving must also be used to provide education to bring the poor into that economy of abundance and to provide capital to jump start their participation in it.

Michael W. Kruse

Exactly Brad. You are anticipating where I'm headed (especially the "not a simple act" part.)

Brad Cooper

Also, I'm not as optimistic as you about completely eliminating poverty. Jesus said that the poor will always be with you. And we was not just speaking to the Twelve or his immediate disciples...but was reiterating what he had spoken through Moses in Deuteronomy. The poor existed in the land flowing with milk and honey and the stable economy of the Pax Romana and they continue to exist even here in northern Indiana in an American economy fueled by the scientific and industrial revolutions and free trade....and access to Amazon and eBay (a big help in lifting my family comfortably above the level of poverty).

While the new economy brings benefits to eliminate poverty, it also brings new costs and dilemmas for the poor.

For example, when our 19 year old daughter was only a few weeks old, she was very sick. Being a young father and dirt poor, I kept telling my wife that we needed to wait on taking her to the doctor. Because of that, she nearly died. She actually stopped breathing and turned blue before we took her. I learned that I must use the healthcare system whether I have the money or not....which leads to debt and greater poverty.

Bottom line: Modern healthcare systems bring great benefits to the poor, but they also bring great costs....reducing the financial benefits of the modern economy.

Also, shelter means more than a roof over our heads. It means a place that is safe and secure. It means a place that is warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer...which in northern Indiana means fuel bills for heating in the winter and at least minimal cooling in the summer (fans and window A/C.

Furthermore, participating in a modern economy means owning a car for most people. And for some it means owning a computer. For others it may mean something else.

The main point being that these are all costs that enter into the zero-sum game for the poor person's personal finances.


Brad Cooper

OK, I know I'm on a little bit of a rampage here....and hogging cyberspace on your blog! ;) But I had one more little thingy to add here....

Part of the reason I do not think that poverty will be eliminated is because of the presence of: epidemics and other natural disasters, terrorism and war....sin.

OK, I'm done. Keep up the good work, brother. Peace.

David M. Smith

Hi Brad,

I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, but I get the sense that you consider all of the poor as people who need to be helped. I grew up in a very poor family where no one in my family ever wanted help. What we did want though was for other people to be blind to how little we owned. I felt just as belittled by those who wanted to help as by those who looked down on us.

The Bible teaches us to be indifferent towards wealth. We are to treat everyone equally regardless of what the other person possesses.

Poor people, just like rich people, need honest friends. Poor people, just like rich people need to be valued for the contributions they make. Poor people, just like rich people, need to feel productive. There should be dignity in being a short order cook, a janitor, a hotel maid, and any other low paying job.

If you are an employer, you should make sure you are paying a fair wage. We should all tip appropriately, etc. But the best we can do for the poor is let them know their dignity has nothing to do with their income or their possessions and everything to do with their character.

One of the best things you can do for the poor is let anyone who uses the term “burger flipper” know what a jerk they are.

Sorry Michael, I hope I didn’t deviate from your topic too much. : - ) Attitude towards the poor is one of my hot buttons.

Brad Cooper


I do think that the poor need help. If they don't, they are not really poor. I have been among the poor for most of my adult life (though certainly not the poorest of the poor). I have never wanted help either (never used government help...except WIC and didn't use bankruptcy--though it was legally justified), but I have often needed help and there were times that if help would have been given, it would have brought great relief to me and my family.

I have found that receiving help takes as much grace as giving it...and this has helped me to grow.

But what resonated with me most was what you said about treating the poor with dignity. You are right on. The evangelical church has largely missed the mark on this one....and James has some huge warnings about this in his little letter.

Well, I had more to say, but I need to sit down with my wife and eat. Grace and peace.

Brad Cooper

Done eating. ;)

I need to clarify one comment above. There were many times when help was graciously given to me and my family by very dear brothers and sisters in Christ. But there were other times when we were simply ignored.

But I will certainly agree with you David, that the most painful part of being poor has been the attitudes that I have sensed from others in the Church. This has only very rarely been from the same people who have provided help, though.

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus fill your life, David.

Michael W. Kruse

No apologies needed. I love hearing what thoughts and emotions these posts generate.

I am going to get to the poverty question but I have been purposely avoiding using that as the beginning point. Rather than ask why are the poor, I’m asking where did economic abundance come from and how do we expand it? If it sounds like I'm not attuned to the plight of the poor, please stay tuned. As N.T. Wright says, I can't say everything, all at once, all the time. :)

Also Brad, I'd distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Relative poverty will always be there. Some will always have more than others. But can we eventually raise everyone on the planet to a basic level with shelter, clothing, and enough to eat? I think we can and I think we can do it within the next century. Calamities will come but if you have widespread prosperity and virtuous citizens, absorbing those calamities is much easier.

You used the difficult example of your daughter. Compared to historical standards, you would not have had the choice of encumbering large debt for her treatment. She would simply have died. Having the choice of encumbering large debt is better than not having the choice. That is on the right trajectory. How do we make the options even better? I think that is the challenge.

David M. Smith

Hi Again Brad,

OK, I completely agree with you. The label “Poor” is attached to many who are not really “Poor”. My family had a house, food most of the time, and always something holy to wear. We were comparatively very poor, but we did have what we needed to get through each day.

Some people and some families do need assistance from time to time, while other people and other families need more freedom to make their own choices and experience the rewards and or consequences of their choices.

I also agree with you about giving and receiving graciously. Unless we are willing to receive with grace, a giver will not be able to experience the joy of their gift. As much as I believe in self reliance, I am certain God does not want each of us to be a complete island of self reliance.

Thank you for your blessing. May the grace and Peace of our Lord fill your life as well.

Brad Cooper


I agree with the distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. It is an important distinction.

But it is not as easy a distinction as at first glance. Some people die from lack of food. This is obviously absolute poverty.

But then it starts to get murky. When do people have enough food? A nutritionally adequate diet? Proper healthcare? Adequate clothing? Adequate shelter? Adequate heating and cooling? Adequate access to the income needed to sustain them through retirement and beyond? Adequate meeting of other legitimate needs?.... These are not easy questions to answer.

At this point, we have good reason to be optimistic about making huge advances in reducing what can be identified as absolute poverty, but I don't think we will ever eliminate it completely. I believe political situations and the presence of deeply entrenched ideologies (spiritual deceptions at the political, religious, philosophical and cultural levels) will prevent this....Christ will eliminate poverty when he returns to establish his earthly kingdom and create a new earth.

Also, we can't overlook the impending threats of worldwide pandemics, large-scale war, the threat of honeybee extinction, etc. These could have unpredictable economic effects.

Without a doubt, I agree that taking on debt is far better than seeing my daughter die. But it only increases financial poverty and stress, rather than relieve it....which actually greatly reverses the positive effects of the modern economy as it concerns the poor.


Brad Cooper

Hey David,

Thanks for returning the blessing.

I think that what you experienced was some level of poverty. You obviously thought so. You were obviously not the poorest of the poor, but there were probably times of intense strain just to provide for basic needs. I think that this is what the Bible means by poor. I don't think it means only those who have not been able to feed themselves for several days.


David M. Smith

Hi again Brad,

I have been in life situations where I had nothing but debt. However, I have been debt free, mortgage excepted, since having my own children. I doubt I will ever understand the stress my parents experienced to meet our basic daily needs or the stress and sorrow you experienced providing for your daughter.

There are many adults who survived a childhood of poverty who grow up to be rich. My experience as a child has had the opposite effect. I am not willing to do what it takes to become rich because I don’t view wealth as something I need or even want. I tithe and share what I have, but I have never been in a place of deciding how to use my abundance.

Michael, will you be providing parameters for what would or would not be considered abundance?

Everyone except the richest person in the world and the poorest person in the world has some people better off and some people less off than themselves. Compared to some, I do have an abundance, while compared to others, I am in poverty. Therefore, doesn’t everyone have a moral obligation to help those with less and a reasonable expectation for other believers to help them?


Back to the topic.

There are two other ways that I can increase my wealth. I can steal wealth from someone else. I can persuade the government to steal wealth from someone else and give it to me. I am not advocating these methods, but they have been fairly common throughout history. The second one still has plenty of advocates.

Production and trade do not automatically increase wealth. The normal human inclination when we produce more is to consume more. Increased production and trade only really builds into increased wealth, if we can keep our consumption at a lower level.

American wealth was kick started by the Puritans who worked extremely hard, but were incredibly frugal in the way that they lived. By way of contrast, the Spanish stole large amounts of gold, but because they got seriously into consumption, there wealth quickly frittered away.

Michael W. Kruse

All good points Ron. I stayed away from theft and government redistribution. I don't see those as creating wealth, just redistributing.

True that production and trade don't automatically produce wealth but there are essential.

As to Spain, they also didn't seem to escape mercantilist thinking quickly enough, did they? Restricted trade, suppression of a work ethic by ill gotten goods, and reckless spending all seemed to do them in.

Brad Cooper

Hey Ron,

What are you trying to say?....That I careened wildly off topic right from the start? Guilty as charged. (The sad part is that I didn't even realize it until you provoked me to reread Michael's original post.) :)

Seriously, though, I do apologize....especially seeing how hard Michael works to systematically break the big picture down into smaller issues. So anyways, sorry, Michael (and all who are reading this).

I am going to chime in on topic shortly, but first....I have to watch Survivor with my family. :)


Michael W. Kruse

"I have to watch Survivor with my family."


Survivor. Now there's an economic model! :)

I am trying to keep these short and focused but Friday's will be even slightly longer. Sorry for the length.

Anyway, this is a multifaceted interlocking topic and it is hard to be too talk about one aspect without another. I do like the passion around this issue.

Brad Cooper

Where does wealth come from?

The Biblical answer to that is simple: Wealth comes from God.

James 1:17 says: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights..."

And even more specifically to this discussion, Deuteronomy 8:17-18 says:
"You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth,..."

Wealth comes from the amazing way in which God has designed plants to multiply exponentially.

Wealth comes from harnessing the energy found in the things that God has created: water, solar, wind, petroleum, wood, etc.

Wealth comes from using our ability to analyze and think creatively. It comes from our ability to communicate. And it comes from our numerous other abilities.

All of these things are endowed to us by God. Apart from him we would not exist nor would we continue to exist or do anything.

Michael W. Kruse

One of my favorite images of this is communion. We don’t celebrate communion with grain and grapes. We celebrated with bread and wine. Bread and wine are the products of human labor added to the provision of God. It provides wonderful symbolism for the co-creative work of God with his junior creative partners.

Brad Cooper

Great point, Michael. It does indeed point to how God takes great pleasure in the fellowship that we share with him when we take what he has given us and use that creative part of us that is made in his image.

It reminds me of something that I was thinking about tonight at work: I've seen you make the comment probably at least three times now about how God's plan for us started in a garden (which he wanted us to take care of....my addition to your thought) and ends in an opulent garden-city.(To this you added: "Cities were the ancient world’s symbol for human community, commerce, government and art. In the end, God redeems not only human beings but their contributions to the world.")

This has huge implications for the Biblical narrative...for understanding the big picture of what God wants for us and this planet. (And a big piece of the big picture that I never quite saw this clearly before.) I'm glad you kept repeating that point....because I'm a little slow sometimes! ;)

Thanks, Michael.

Michael W. Kruse

I'm glad the garden to garden-city image sticks with you. It is one of the most powerful reminders to me.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Kruse Kronicle on Kindle

Check It Out