Economics: Claiming our right to the territory

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Photo by Marga Santoso on Unsplash

Now more than ever, all of us who care about the good management of our common home need to dare to wade into the territory of economics and ask the big values-laden questions.

When I was ten or eleven, my father, who taught college economics, would ask for my help creating the multiple choice questions for his exams. He would ask a question, I would come up with an answer that made sense to me in the absence of any text-book knowledge, and that became one of the choices. As a teenager, I witnessed his growing disillusionment with classical economics theory and its complete disinterest in human generosity, community or the environment. The sum of such childhood experiences left me feeling that I had a right to think about economics — and a right to expect it to make sense.

Leading an intensive week-long workshop series on faith and economics at a conference recently, I had one overall goal — for people to come out of it believing that they too had a right to bring their thinking and values to the realm of economics.

The barriers are significant. Although early economic philosophers saw the field as infused with moral implications, economists of later years were eager to transform it into a hard science, where accurate measurements and tested formulas could lead to unassailable conclusions (my father called it “physics envy”). Many economists are happy with the benefits of this approach — being able to dismiss the general public as incompetent, and relieved of responsibility to address the common good. In the face of such barriers, it’s not surprising that many people just cede the whole territory to the “experts”.

This is a problem! Now more than ever, our economy needs the public to wade in with our values intact. So it helped to start our workshop with the reminder that the word “economics” comes from Greek roots meaning “management of the home”. (Ecology is “knowledge of home”.) Well, we all know something about the home.

So we made a list of some principles of good home management: creating a place of rest and refreshment; not taking more than your share and giving back extra; knowing what’s coming in and going out; keeping people safe; seeing that everybody has a role; taking care of the little and vulnerable ones; keeping the future in mind; giving up on what doesn’t work; knowing where things belong; gathering together to do larger projects; looking beyond the strictly functional; cleaning and taking out the trash (and knowing where the trash ends up); being kind.

Such principals are intensely relevant to our larger home management process, but the economy has strayed far from them. There was a time when we at least had language about promoting the common good. From Roosevelt’s New Deal and the start of Social Security, through the social planning of World War II, Medicare and Johnson’s War on Poverty, there was an assumption that the government had a duty to mitigate the grossest inequities of a market-based system for the benefit of the citizenry at large. (How many people know that the federal income tax rate in the 1950’s for income over $250,000 was 91%?)

Since the 1970’s, however, a significant shift has taken place, very much under the radar of general public awareness. A “neo-liberal” economic ideology has gained ascendancy, grounded in the belief that an unrestricted market will best serve our overall economic interests. Taxes have been adjusted to benefit those with more wealth, restrictions on the financial sector have been rolled back, corporate power and influence have grown. In consequence, the public sector has been squeezed, inequality has ballooned, credit card and student debt have mushroomed, and economic insecurity has gripped more and more of the population.

Equally troubling, underlying social welfare policies and neo-liberalism alike lies an assumption that our well-being depends on continued economic growth — which is setting us on a collision course with our finite planet’s resources and ability to sustain life.

These are not times to tinker with formulas and rates. These are times to step in boldly with our values intact and ask the big questions: Who is the economy for? What increases well-being? What makes up our common wealth? When is less better than more? What is our responsibility to the future? Who should decide?

We are all needed here: the innocents, like the child who saw that the emperor had no clothes; the people of conscience who can say that things are just not right; the farsighted ones who can speak for the seventh generation; those who stand on their faith values; the people in my workshop — and everyone else — who claim their right to have a voice in the management of our common home.