Defending an Unfettered Free Market? Christians give up the moral high ground yet again

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 “Unfettered Free Markets Suck.”  

-Adam Smith’s great, great, great, grandson

I have just finished Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem’s book, “The Poverty of Nations.” In it they argue that prosperity is best arrived at by unfettered free markets, clear titles to property, and the rule of law – all of which make risk taking entrepreneurship possible. I agree with titles and law. I take issue with their first premise: the unfettered free market. I think that defending the unfettered free market is a mistake, especially for Christians. Before I attack it, here are some common arguments for the free market:

1) Free markets allocate resources efficiently. No one person or government can allocate resources the way competition, working freely, can.

2) Free markets take advantage of all of the information in a society, generating stability. No one bureaucracy can adequately plan the way every consumer’s needs can, stimulating through the mechanism of supply and demand, the fulfillment of consumer’s needs.

3) Free markets generate creativity and promote innovation. Steve Jobs says, “I can make a better phone” and we are all better off.

4) Free markets limit the abuse of power by keeping it distributed widely, into the hands of each and every consumer.

These all contain at least an element of truth. And, although I am acquainted with both Barry and Wayne and think highly of them, I would like to push back against the idea of unfettered free markets…[1] Unfettered free markets are simply not, to use a common colloquialism, “all that.”

1) Competition is imperfect. Agents in the UFM (unfettered free market) will naturally conspire to decrease competition – oligarchies anyone?

2) Bidding is also. The UFM assumes that we are all equally free to “bid” for services. Children and future generations, for example, are not. Companies can and do work against their own long-term interest for short-term gain (Chinese air pollution reaching American shores and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come to mind).

Photo credit: Lea Kelley

Photo credit: Lea Kelley

3) Cost divergence = markets that aren’t really “free”: The UFM assumes that the nominal cost (what I pull out of my wallet to buy a car) and the real cost (all of the expenses of driving my car: cost to build the roads, lost opportunity cost of land under the freeway, pollution cost of car, cost of administering and policing the roads) are equal. They are not. A government was probably involved in taxing consumers to cover the real cost. Societies’ must provide infrastructures. Do you want that infrastructure planned and inspected by disinterested parties or the company profiting from the bridge you are driving on? Thought so.

4) Socialists are happier. If the UFM was the best economic system then people living in them should be “happiest.” In fact, that is what Dr. Grudem and Mr. Asmus tell us. Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear that out. (http://goo.gl/FZSKVL) Bloomberg reports, The “happiest people,” year after year live in Northern Europe: 1) Denmark, 2) Norway, 3) Switzerland, 4) The Netherlands, 5) Sweden. All are tightly controlled economies. The U.S. ranks 17th.

So color me a believer in some government regulation of economies. Unfettered free market systems regularly create long-term nightmares that people band together and elect governments to solve. Drive up the I-95 toward Philadelphia. It looks like a scene from the movie Soylent Green. Consider also the chemical companies in East St. Louis. Those companies spent 100 years gerrymandered out of the school district of their plant workers so that they didn’t have to pay for schools for their own employees children…even as their toxic sludge oozed up into the basements of those schools. Humans can and should band together to make sure that some decision-making is centralized for the common good – automobile safety regulations, and eliminating lead paint on children’s playground equipment come to mind.) The issue is to figure out which regulations are “doable” (like lead paint) and which are not (a $30/hr. minimum wage) and then give government the teeth for enforcement. A government with no teeth is no government (Insert name of any one of dozens of countries with ineffective/corrupt governments here).

Regulating human selfishness is, by the way, biblical:

1)   “The love of money is the root of evil. The UFM assumes that I will love money and my self-interest…not God and neighbor. Do we really want a system that glorifies our sin nature, rather than one which acknowledges but works to moderate it? (1 Timothy 6:10)

2) Scripture assumes that humans, because of sin, are not “free,” but natural oppressors of other humans. (See Amos 2:6-7, 4:1-9). Has an unfettered FM really insured human thriving? Ask the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. O wait, we can’t.

3) We are told to “Bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal 6:2) Let’s employ the hermeneutic principle known as “the clear meaning of words: “Bear”: to carry.” “One another’s”: someone else’s. “Burdens”: That which is heavy.

4) Generosity, the “re-allocation of wealth,” was commanded of individuals (Deuteronomy 23:24-25) in early Israel…but the early government was too weak to provide services. To maintain a completely individualized system leaves aid unevenly distributed-a burden upon those in places with more poor. In an era with more social organization we can do better.

5) There are numerous injunctions to create government. Scripture repeatedly advises the appointment of “judges” – administrators of law and social organization (2 Sam 7:11, 1 Chronicles 17:10, 1 Chronicles 26:29, 2 Chronicles 19:5.) This starts when Jethro sees a need (Exodus 18:13-27). He then creatively solves the problem by generating a new solution: judges for disputes. Why can we not utilize this same method in economics?

6) Did I mention that Jesus told us to share? More than once, too: (Mark 10:21-22, Luke 6:20-21, Matt 25:34-36, Mark 12:41044, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 16:19-25, Luke 11:39-42, Luke 12:16-21).

The question is how best to administer sharing and some regulation for the common good. In Acts, the church gave that task to deacons. Are church buildings and local deacons the most efficient way to care for the poor? Perhaps in some places. Probably not in all places.

And then, there is still that question as to where the “happiest people” live. Again, the data says that Dr. Grudem is wrong. It is NOT the places with the most open and most unfettered free markets, but specifically those places in which markets have some public controls to protect consumers.

The sad thing for me is the way much of the American church defends partisan policies (no economic limits or regulations…Somalia comes to mind) as if this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do I really need to say that it is not? I recently posted on FB my joy that a friend, a music minister at his church, and brought to the U.S. as a 9 year old, received Deferred Action to be able to work. Christians railed against this…against a Christian music minister being given the freedom to  work in the market as the result of his parent’s illegal actions 15 years earlier. It generated 120 comments in 24 hours.

And we wonder that Christians are no longer seen as crusaders for good? O how we have fallen. In the 1840’s 1/3 of active abolitionists were ordained clergy. The church, once seen as a bastion of care for the less fortunate, is now seen as a tool of tax and charity avoidance. God’s people are commanded to care for the widow, orphan, and alien (Jeremiah 22:3, Exodus 12: 49, Mal. 3:5, Ps. 82:3, 68:5, 10:17-18, Ex. 22:22-23)  …And yet we argue for a free market for all…unless, of course, you might not be able to produce papers when stopped for Driving While Brown.

Julian the Pagan, in his (362 AD) campaign to revive paganism wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Where did this spirit go? Once upon a time we Christians were known for our love and self-sacrifice. We were known as great defenders of the week and great lovers of those in need.

Will the church reclaim a moral high ground? One in which we love our Lord and His least, last, and lost more than we love protecting our markets, our assets, and our borders?

 

 

[1] Barry is a great guy and a friend of Young Life. Wayne is also a very nice man, a best selling author, and has a most amazing array of memorized Scripture.

 

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Where is Your Help? A Sermon for a Shutdown America

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
 From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, 
who made heaven and earth.   (Psalm 121: 1-2)

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I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

As a month-old baby I was on the floor of the 1964 Republican nominating convention. My father was campaigning for Barry Goldwater. Democrats were ruining America. So we were Republicans.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

In college I read that Winston Churchill said, “Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal, has no heart…” The heartless were ruining America. So, in college, as a young man with a heart, I became a Democrat.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Upon graduation I became a teacher in a Christian school. I was popular with students and parents, but not the administration. I was, you see, too liberal. I am not sure I really knew what a liberal was, but I did know they were what was wrong with America. Mr. Churchill said, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” Not wanting to be brainless, I became a conservative.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

I embraced conservative talk radio as I moved to Wickenburg, Arizona. Wickenburg is, after all, a very conservative town. I, however, worked for a liberal church. They were clear that what was wrong with America was conservatives. So I began listening to liberal talk radio.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Eventually I realized that listening to angry people angrily telling me that the other guys are evil and that our only hope is in their political solutions was making me…angry.

im so angry i made a sign picketer

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

In Luke chapter 23 we read of Jesus’ trials. It is a vivid portrait of political chaos. In the first twenty-five verses, one can feel the tension as the Prince of Peace and Lover of our Souls, in the grip of angry religious people, is turned over to fearful political power. You can sense the confusion of the political leaders unable to figure out what to do with a hot potato Messiah.

Politics has always had a strange relationship with Jesus.  On this day they played ping-pong with him: Jesus is taken to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Wanting to avoid the blood of an innocent, Pilate, sends him to Herod, the ruler of Jesus’ home region, Galilee. Herod, sensing the religious elite’s ire, sends Jesus back to Pilate – all in order to figure out how to kill the God-man voluntarily laying down his life.

And yet today we continue to naively wait for our salvation to come from political systems.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Have we not made politics a Hunger Games for a dreadful America? We watch on tv and the internet as Americans point fingers and tear one-another down in a peculiar form of entertainment. The only winners are giant media conglomerates who have what they want: our eyeballs.

And we willingly play along, litmus testing one-another: Are you for or against immigration reform? Obamacare? Life? Marriage equality? After we litmus test each other, we try to convert one another to our position. Now I am not saying that political ideas are unimportant. I am asking why we are convinced they must divide Christians. After all: Politics do not and never did save. If it did the most political groups would be the most generous groups, the most open-hearted groups, the most joyful ones. Am I the only one who notices that the more politicized one becomes the angrier they appear? I don’t do many absolutes, but here is one: Political philosophies and agendas are NOT the Gospel.

We humans are conversion machines. We want to change people’s minds about everything: where to buy shoes on sale, what smartphone to use, who to vote for. So I ask, when you lift up your eyes, where is your hope set?

So be a good citizen: be informed and vote a Christ-surrendered conscience.

Be a good citizen: be charitable to those who do not share your convictions, assuming they too are people of good will.

But remember also that, If you claim the name of Jesus, you are a citizen of a King who said his Kingdom is NOT of this world.

And when you convert someone, make sure it is to the thing that matters most.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Perhaps America and Christianity once shared values. But cultures bob like an unmanned boat on the ocean. America is changing. Some of these changes will make us more just. Some will surely make us less so. One evidence that America and Christianity are, in some ways at least, increasingly at odds is shown in the way people today become angry when the church attempts to discipline them. One hears, “What I am doing is not against the law. Who is the church to tell me what to do?” The implied message is that God is not our authority, America is. Perhaps this was always so. Perhaps cultural change is revealing something that was always there, that many of us confuse an idol wrapped in Stars and Stripes with the Living God.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Have you noticed that valuing biblical principles is not the same as loving Jesus? I can want a biblical lifestyle without being captivated by the one that book came to reveal. I can live a “biblical” morality and remain my own functional deity.

Have you noticed that we often want moral absolutes for others, and moral flexibility for ourselves? Perhaps we don’t want grace, as much as we want permission?

Have you noticed that we can spend hours on media coverage and opinion shaping but very little time actually with God?

So I implore you – leave the politics, leave the anger, and leave the “principles.” Walk away from them to pursue Jesus’ presence and joyfully extend the Good News of God’s grace.

Consider what grace does: Grace forgives and welcomes…it cleans up our lives…it creates a community that embraces those at the fringes, and it causes us to love those whose lives aren’t yet in its grip. Grace is also supremely unfair and only made possible by the grossest of injustices.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Grace has only one source. One deadly, costly source: a cross. At that cross, on that old hill, we are all on equally slippery footing. There is no need to argue about who lives closer to the sun: We are all so far away that it matters not. At the Cross, and the cross alone, the grisly price of God’s grace, was shed for you and for me. It bids us to look for our salvation from one place and one place alone.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

                         My help comes from the Lord. 

*This post was yesterday’s sermon on Article 37 in a series at St. Jude’s Church on the 39 Articles of Religion, the foundational theological statement of Anglicanism. The topics were set in March. It was an ironic accident that the Article on the Christians relationship to the state came up this week. Scripture: Psalm 121, Luke 23: 1-25. The text of the 37th Article in contemporary English is:

“The power of the Civil Magistrate extends to all men, Clergy and Laity, in all things temporal; but has no authority in things purely spiritual. And we hold it to be the duty of all men who are professors of the Gospel, to pay respectful obedience to the Civil authority, regularly and legitimately constituted.”

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Today: Tears and prayers. But what next?

hc-newtown-school-shooting-20121214The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a punch to the gut of an already wobbly America. Can any of us imagine anything more horrifying than a classroom full of dead first graders?

I wonder if we are exhausting our ability to process senseless tragedy. I had a meeting with a friend yesterday. We had an important agenda, but in the wake of breaking news, this brilliant up-and-coming academic could discuss nothing else. My 16 year-old son asked to be tucked in for the first time in 5 years. My 70 year-old father-in-law, posted his shock on facebook. Even the president was reduced to tears. The media is full of information on how to process this with our children. But all over America adults sobbed ourselves to sleep last night.  Our theological frameworks are stretched. Our trust in our fellows diminished. Our numbness increases.

Several things I cannot get out of my head today:

1) The sinking awareness that it is easier for the mentally ill to get a gun than help.

2) The report that since Columbine in 1999, there have been 31 school shootings in the U.S. and 14 in the rest of the entire world. (Source: ABC Nightline)

Newtown, Ct. isn’t even our first mass murder this week. Portland has that distinction. Prior to that, in 2012 alone, there were 41 other murders in 7 other mass-shootings. (Source: Think Progress)

We will say prayers for the victims and for the shooter. We will pray for our country. Our grief will eventually subside. And, if past history repeats itself, do you know what we will do next? We will lock up our schools even more tightly.

Our communities will become a little more paranoid, and our children a little more afraid to venture and roam and try new things. Parents will helicopter more and children risk less. The cost of the Sandy Hook tragedy will be paid by every single elementary school student in America….and our entire society will pay a price for yesterday in lost inventiveness and entrepreneurship. (See Mindset: Carol Dweck)

When something like this happens we tend to “politicize” it in the worst possible way: We retreat into corners and lob partisan platitudes rather than work together to solve our problems. But what if “politicize” meant to “muster the courage to work together to make our nation a better place”? Then what better thing could we do to honor the dead than by working together to see that mass-killings stop? Surely we can meet in the middle and agree on the obvious: Criminals and people with mental illness should not have high capacity semi-automatic guns. It shouldn’t be easier for me to get an assault rifle than a law enforcement officer. We need to become better at identifying potentially dangerous people. We need more accessible help for those with violent tendencies. We need to take seriously the connection between violence in the media and video games and violence in the real world.

People are dying at an accelerating rate at the hands of unhinged people wielding high-capacity, semi-automatic weapons. And we can all agree that a risk-averse, fear-based future is not the right solution for our children. Do we really want to lock up our schools rather than our guns?

This is America. We will never have a country without privately owned guns. It will just never happen. But if we know that humans are sinful and broken, then surely those whose brokenness involves violence should not be in possession of semi-automatic weapons. Unlimited access to high capacity weapons and mental illness have proven to be a disaster: A study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that the gun murder rate in the U.S. is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined. (Source: Nightline) Google a timeline of shootings since 1982. The number that appeared upon cursory inspection to be committed with hunting weapons: 0

We are not a totalitarian state. No one will come and force a solution upon us at the point of their gun. In our system we have the opportunity and responsibility to work together to solve our problems.

We have the opportunity and responsibility to not allow these children to have died in vain. Pull together. Avoid the all or nothing rhetoric that is coming. Live peaceably. Pray faithfully. Worship in your faith community. Vote dutifully. Speak forcefully. Love relentlessly.

The President is right, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3) But what happens after that is up to you and to me.

What should Christians do the day after an election?

Imagine my surprise to wake up today and find out through facebook that, for ever so slightly less than 1/2 of America, we have fallen into an end-times apocalypse. While, at the same time, for ever so slightly more than 50% of America, we have just insured our temporal salvation…at least for four more years.

My 1500 Facebook friends are mostly Christians. How did we, the followers of a messiah who repeatedly refused to be a political deliverer, decide to look for salvation through the vote? How does a group, whose original identity was the anti-empire exclamation: “Jesus is Lord!” end up equating our political system with religious truth? Our original creed was a stark rebuttal to the “Caesar is Lord” mandated to be shouted as the emperor was carried across Roman roads. And yet today we look for salvation through the empire.

We would do well to remember the message that Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no other name under heaven.” (Acts 4:12)

We have a missio-dei, a mission of God that transcends our secular mission. It is a mission of thought, and mouth, and hands and feet. Imagine this: What if every Christian invested every dollar that was spent on elections and candidates on the poor, the downtrodden, the alien and sojourner, the unborn and the young single girl carrying them…what if we did that?

What if we took a page from the playbook of the early Christians? In 362 C.E. the commitment to society by Christians was so obvious that when Emperor Julian launched a campaign to revive paganism he realized the enormous challenge he faced in trying to win people’s affections back from the devotion of Christians. “When the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” [1] The church rose up to nurse the sick, care for widows, orphans and elderly, and even bury the dead of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Even the beneficiary of yesterday’s vote, the President himself, realizes that we are placing too much either on him or opposed to him when he pointed out that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” I would say actually that is another. A Nazarene carpenter.

But what should we Christians do the day after an election? Go back to being his hands and his feet. Live, serve, preach, pray, give, go and grow.


[1] Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperOne Publishers. (2006), 31.

Politics: Hunger Games for a Dreadful America

                                     …and what we could do differently.

What is my issue with today’s political climate? The negative, fear-based motivation of it all. The “other side” is invariably characterized as demons conspiring to rob our children of their oxygen, education and leave us eating Soylent Green. In fear-based politics there is always a winner and a loser. We are given a choice to root for or against. We are held hostage by twisters of our emotions in a media driven, two-party Hunger Game. Is there not a better way?

What if instead we tried to “Find the Win”? This isn’t a new idea. Win-Win wasn’t new when Steven Covey made it one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But it is an idea that would take us out of the polarization and demonization of the other half of America.

How could “Find the Win” could help a complex situation? Let’s take one hot button issue as an illustration: Illegal immigration:

We are told that we will either let ourselves be over-run by brown hordes stealing our jobs and ruining our hospitals and schools, or we are heartless hate-mongers causing those who are doing exactly what we did (come for a better life) die agonizing deaths in the desert after being raped and exploited by coyotes. These words have power because there is a kernel of truth to them…it has all happened and is all happening. But what if instead of looking at illegal immigration through the lenses of fear politics and winners and losers we looked at what everyone needs to gain through immigration? What if we found “wins” for everyone?

We know what some group’s wins are:

Mexican government: Needs to export an overabundance of underemployed males. Underemployed males create all sorts of trouble in a culture.

Mexican families: A chance to find a better life…and the ability to live free of fear as they do so.

But what about some of the other groups?

American business: Like it or not, American business needs immigrant labor. There are jobs that second generation people do not want. I have a college friend who packed fish 100 hours a week this summer in Alaska. The crew was ½ American, ½ from around the world. Why? Because not enough Americans applied so they had to pay to transport labor from other countries.

The U.S. Government: The U.S. Government spends scads of money patrolling the border, funding training and equipment for the Mexican Army and says that they are only spending a small percentage of what they need. The American government needs to keep Mexican criminals – who prey on Mexican nationals out. Why do Mexican criminals want to come to the U.S.? Because illegal immigrants will not call law enforcement when their homes are invaded for the money from their cash paying jobs. Our border policy has this un-anticipated, neighborhood devastating consequence.

The American John Q. Public: It is true that there are entire swaths of Phoenix where you could spend a month on the street and never hear English spoken. It is true that public school education is being watered down by overwhelming numbers of non-English speaking children whose parents do not understand the system and move when progress is being made. It is true that our medical system is being overwhelmed by non-paying patients, many of whom are immigrants. However, those of us who are John Q. Public also need the cheap products and cheap food that cheap labor provides. Like it or not, our economy runs on Walmart diminished labor costs. I bought a leather basketball last week. It cost half of what a leather ball cost when I was in college-with no accounting for inflation!

So how do we help everyone get their’ win?

Americans want people who speak English and understand American culture (the way they did when they came to the U.S). John Q. Public’s win is people who understand living in the U.S., like how the school system will bless their family with college education available to all, and that the quickest path to wealth is home ownership in an appreciating neighborhood.

Those things could be taught in English language/Life in America night schools all over Mexico. Three nights a week people could take English classes and one night a week “Life in America” class. When they demonstrate mastery of the language they have a graduation where students get a work permit, chance to apply for a drivers license, a job, a bus ticket and an apartment. When Mexican workers get to America they would understand the educational system’s value to their family, they would have access to the information to be invested in their children’s academic success. Immigrants would understand that growing a lawn and (this will sound offensive, but it bugs White America) trucks parked in the driveway rather than the front yard help their home values and make their neighborhood a safer place to live. (Broken Windows Theory)

Who would pay for this? The Mexican government would allow free use of elementary schools after hours (since they benefit from direct renumerations from workers Western Unioning money to Mexico). American businesses, with contribution from those desiring immigration, would pay to fund teachers and line-up apartments & bus tickets. Apartment deposits & tickets would be repaid from first month’s salaries. Workers would be free to bring families after four months and apply for dual citizenship after three years of a clean record.

The border would become a place where no law-abiding citizen ever needed to tread. Therefore enforcement would become much simpler: The only people out there would be criminals and cartel members.

Everyone would get what they need: the Mexican government, Mexican immigrants, American citizens, American business, and the American government. Both political parties would accomplish the values that they say they uphold.

Look for the win: Language & Culture School with a job and dual-citizenship onramp. It is simple, logical and meets everyone’s needs. Everyone wins. The solution seems so obvious when you start with the assumption of helping people get what they need rather than what will go wrong if someone else gets what they need. Why has no one suggested this? I think the answer is simple: There are no losers.