Inklings of Truth


Of Money and Meltdowns

By Audrey Stallsmith

The recent demonstrations outside Wall Street have puzzled some of us, since we don't see how Wall Street is to blame for our current economic troubles.  The big banks, perhaps.  But Wall Street is more like a barometer, that measures the current economic climate, than a controller of it. 

Like Chesterton, who favored distributism, I tend to prefer small farms and businesses.  According to Wikipedia, distributism holds that  "the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state or a few large businesses or wealthy private individuals." 

We could probably say that God favors such a plan too, since Old Testament laws held that property must return to its original family every 50th year.  Or, possibly, every 49th year--depending on which biblical scholar you believe! 

So, in essence, buyers weren't purchasing the land but renting it.  Since the Israelites frequently ignored the requirement that land be left fallow every seventh year, however, I suspect many of them also found ways of getting around the requirements of the jubilee years.

And, while I would like everyone to be able to own their own property, I have to concede that not everyone wants to.  Perhaps with good reason.  As a farmer's daughter, I can testify that  farms and other businesses require a large investment of time and dedication.  And you don't get to quit working at a specified time of day, as most salaried employees do. 

Not to mention that profits are never guaranteed.  How much a farmer will make in any specific year generally depends on such unpredictable elements as how good the weather was that summer and how high crops and/or livestock are selling as a consequence.

The profits of other small businesses also vary according to how much in demand their product is.  Some people, naturally, want a more predictable income--and more time with their loved ones--and opt to be employees rather than employers.  Not that farms and small businesses prohibit  togetherness, since they generally require that family members work as well as play side by side.

That can actually strengthen the family bond, but it doesn't always work out that way.  The stresses involved have also shattered more than a few clans instead.

Like many small farmers, my dad had to work a salaried job he disliked--as a rural mail carrier--to support six children.  Though he would have preferred to be farming full time, he was willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of his family. 

Many other small businesses require supplemental income as well.  Not to mention that some seem to crash and burn just when they are approaching success.

As an avid gardener, I tend to keep an eye on the reviews given to garden businesses.  And I've noticed that some, which are highly praised and become popular as a result of their attention to customer service, tend to lose that praise once they become too big to offer such good service.  Thus losing much of their increase as well!

Distributists would probably hold that this is why businesses should remain small.  But how is that to be accomplished?  By limiting how much they can sell?  That doesn't seem fair to either them or their customers.  In other words, making distributism work would probably require even more government regulations than we already have.

And most of us distrust the government--with good reason.  Not because it wishes us evil, but because it prefers to decide for itself what is good for us. 

As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, that government "would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?"

Although the free market system of demand and supply may seem unfair sometimes, at least it is still somewhat free.  And even us romantic types who dislike the industrial revolution have to admit that--before it happened--a large number of people were starving to death.

They may now just be "cogs in a machine," but at least most of them can afford to feed and clothe their children.  Which is a benefit that many previous generations didn't have.

Unfortunately, keeping everybody working also depends on keeping everybody buying.  And, as Dorothy Sayers so astutely pointed out, "A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand."

At least our current economic difficulties have made us more aware of the value of things--and much less likely to waste them.  Writing during World War II, Sayers asked, "Can you remember – it is already getting difficult to remember – what things were like before the war? The stockings we bought cheap and threw away to save the trouble of mending? The cars we scrapped every year to keep up with the latest fashion in engine design and streamlining? The bread and bones and scraps of fat that littered the dustbins–not only of the rich, but of the poor?

"Do you realize how we have had to alter our whole scale of values, now that we are no longer being urged to consume but to conserve? We have been forced back to the social morals of our great-grandparents. . .to estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."

Unfortunately, too many people these days are still griping about not being able to have their junk instead!  Much of our present complaint is, I suspect, due to feelings of entitlement.  We think we deserve to have all the things our parents had.  But, as recent collapses have made clear,  the "easy credit" that provided those benefits was built on the sand Sayers warned us about.

And, as a nation that has recently been involved in several military conflicts, we should ask ourselves as she did, "What is going to happen when the factories stop turning out armaments? No nation has yet found a way to keep the machines running and whole nations employed under modern industrial conditions without wasteful consumption. For a time, a few nations could contrive to keep going by securing a monopoly of production and forcing their waste products on to new and untapped markets. When there are no new markets and all nations are industrial producers, the only choice we have been able to envisage so far has been that between armaments and unemployment."

In other words, the fact that some of our wars appear to be winding down might actually make our financial situation much worse!  So things aren't looking too well for those who derive all their delight from dollars. 

In addition to having what we want, all of our favorite books and TV shows also assure us that we deserve to do what we want--and to make a good living at it.  What they fail to admit is that such unalloyed self-fulfillment is not always possible.  Perhaps not even desirable.

After all, we find out what we really love, if we are willing to do it even when we can't make much money from it.  My dad probably would have been better off financially, if he'd quit farming altogether.  Just as I would probably be better off money-wise, if I dedicated the time I spend writing to more profitable pursuits.  But the farm, I'm sure, fed Dad's spirit in a way that his other job did not.  Just as my writing and gardening feed mine.

Of course, he gave his best to his paying job too.  The folks on his mail route appreciated his dependability, many saying they could set their clocks by him.

And that is, I think, what God expects of us.  That we will always do our best, whether or not we are sufficiently compensated for it in this life!  "Whatever you do," Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24 "work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (NIV)

Nothing can be perfect in this world, including our economic systems.  All of them will collapse eventually, including our own.  At that point we will, as Tony Campolo writes in "What St. John Said about the Economic Meltdown," "have to ask how much we have been a people whose lives and resources have been invested in God's Kingdom, so that the collapse of our political-economic system does not threaten us. In the context of the collapse, with whom will we stand? Will we be with the merchants, and weep because our lives and resources have been invested in Babylon; or will we be able to join with those who shout 'Hallelujah' because the seductive Babylon and all of the evils that go with her seduction are no more?"

We will be with the merchants, if all our time, money, and enthusiasm are invested in this present world.  Campolo concludes, after watching many of his investments dwindle in the current economic crisis, that he should have given even more of his money away instead. 

And, long before the current crisis, C. S. Lewis wrote, "I am afraid biblical charity is more than merely giving away that which we can afford to do without anyway."  He insists that "the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . .If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small."

In other words, we should be laying up treasure in heaven and trusting God--not expecting the world to provide security or fulfillment for us.  As Lewis suggests, "If you think of this world as a place simply intended for your happiness, you find it quite intolerable.  Think of it as a place of correction and training and it's not so bad."    

After all, nobody expects basic training to be unalloyed fun and games!  Instead, it's the difficult patch that we must get through to prepare ourselves for better things.  But, because the human spirit was made to rise to challenges, we may find ourselves actually enjoying the difficulties.  And, paradoxically, the less recompense we demand from this life, the happier we are likely to be.  Then all the joys we do experience "down here" will appear as unexpected bonuses!

Finally, we should recall the intent behind the year of Jubilee.  It was meant, scripture holds, to remind people that everything they think they own--including themselves--really belongs to God.  Thus, what we call our property is only on temporary loan from the real Owner. 

As you may recall from the parable about the talents, we are supposed to invest (use) what he gave us.  But for His benefit, not for our own.  So we should hold everything loosely enough that we can gladly hand it all back--either at our deaths or at that final Jubilee!