Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's the Values, Stupid!

“Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, work for the Kingdom of God, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the poor. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Luke 12:29-34
When it comes to Presidential elections, James Carville was right, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Sometimes elections are about war and peace, but most of the time they are about the economy.

But the economy is about values.

We often talk about the economy as if it had a life of its own, as if it were an independent being. But the economy is a human construct. We designed it and built it, over the centuries. And we have modified it many times. Some times the changes have been intentional and other times the changes have been the unintended consequences of other decisions. Some changes have been good and others have not.

When Jesus says that your heart will be where your treasure is, he sets forth a fundamental economic truth: the economy is a reflection of our values. Our individual spending is a reflection of our individual values, family spending reflects our family values, and national spending reflects our national values.

Last night I heard Dave Ramsey, who presents himself as a Christian financial adviser, commenting on the debt ceiling compromise. He said that although we all get things from the government that we like, the math tells us that our growing debt is unsustainable. We can’t afford it, he said. We can’t afford Social Security (in its present state) or health care, or a host of other programs. I often find myself agreeing with Dave Ramsey, but his pronouncement left me wondering.

It is true, of course, that we cannot indefinitely spend more than we take in.

But why is it that the democracies of Western Europe can afford guaranteed pensions and universal health care, and we can’t? Why do they have lower unemployment, longer vacations, and paid maternity/paternity leave? Why can Germany maintain and grow manufacturing jobs and we can’t? Why do they have a lesser gap between rich and poor?

And maybe the biggest question of all: why aren’t we asking these questions on a broad scale? Thomas Friedman has written extensively on these issues, but he remains a solo voice.

The issues are complex. There are no easy answers. One reason that Western Europe prospers is that they do not spend even a significant fraction of what we do on national defense. And one reason they can do that is that we provide defenses for them.

The mathematics of our economy are critical. And the calculations are complex. One of the fears expressed by many economists is that when we cut government spending we will slow down the economy and actually increase the deficit.

But our values are also important.

Jesus argues that if we get our values right, then everything else follow.

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