Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Economics of Good and Evil

Genesis 3.1-19, Luke 4.1-13
A new theory has taken the normally dull world of economics by storm. There's even been a lecture tour about it where the author cycles onto the stage playing a swanee whistle. However, if you want the more conventional version, the best-selling book about it can be downloaded onto a tablet or Kindle for about £4.
The author is someone called Tomas Sedlacek [Sedlachek], who is supposedly one of the five hottest minds in economics, so you may already be thinking, 'Well that’s probably not for me!' except that the title of his book is 'The Economics of Good and Evil' and he argues that economics isn't really a science, governed by lots of impenetrable mathematics and dry as dust laws, but more like a story or a parable which uses ideas and pictures from everyday life to try to make sense of the world. When he looks for inspiration, Sedlacek turns to the Bible, to myth, religion and ethics, because he believes economics is really about the eternal struggle between good and evil.
So let's begin with the curse of Adam, who had a life of ease and leisure in the Garden of Eden until he disobeyed God. As a punishment God told him that he would have to work for a living. It doesn't sound so bad, does it? After all, a lot of people like working and they get depressed if they don't have any work to do.
Yet work can so easily become a burden, can’t it? And that's because there's always more to do. The grass always needs cutting, the flower beds always need weeding, the house always needs tidying, food always needs preparing or cooking. And that's before we even leave our front gate!
But that's not really Sedlacek's complaint. He says the curse of Adam is that, however hard we work, however efficient we become, however much we earn, we'll never be completely happy because it simply isn't possible to satisfy all our desires.
Jesus seems to be on the same page as Tomas Sedlacek. When the Devil took him to the top of a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus knew that he would never be satisfied.
And that's because of another curse, the curse of Eve. What was it that Eve wanted when she wandered carefree through the Garden of Eden? She wanted the forbidden fruit. From our earliest years we're always attracted to the next shiny thing that's just out of reach.
My baby grandsons illustrate this perfectly. The other day I was sent a video of one of them apparently crawling towards a toy train because one of his sisters was obligingly ringing a bell on it to attract his attention. But then, at the very last minute when she has been well and truly suckered into believing that he only wants to get to the train, he veers off and grabs the television remote control instead - the ultimate forbidden fruit which he is absolutely not allowed to have.
The curse of Eve is that we always desire the next thing, something we don't already have.  And that means it's discontent which drives our economy gets us out of bed in the morning. We go to work to satisfy other people's discontent by making things for them, or delivering and selling things to them, and in the process we satisfy our own discontent, which makes us want the money to buy more things for ourselves.
Sedlacek says it doesn't have to be like that. We could be driven by the desire to make the world a better place, and of course some people already are. That's why Jesus resisted the temptations of the Devil. They were all about satisfying his discontent, not about building up God's kingdom.
Discontent hasn't always been in the driving seat. At the start of the Industrial Revolution many skilled workers refused to work harder, to meet the growing demand for things, because they already felt that they had enough to be content. The first factories were set up long before any machines were invented, with the ideas of making people come to work for a fixed amount of hours, and when adults refused to work in the new factories young people and children were set on instead.
The way we create demand today is a lot more sophisticated. We have alluring adverts and a relentless process of research and design to create new things that people will hopefully want to possess. Adverts are the modern way in which the Devil takes us to a high mountain and shows us something we'd really like to have.
But the economics of good and evil are not just about the curse of Adam and Eve making us work to meet demands that can never be satisfied. Tomas Sedlacek says that it is also about how we decide what something is really worth.
Some things have a price but other important things are priceless - things like love, trust, integrity and so on, simply cannot be bought. But traditionally economics tries to give everything a price if it possibly can. So there's an economics of marriage, which says that people will be attracted to upwardly mobile partners whereas in fact most people - and we might even say all sensible people - don't make life-changing decisions on the basis of how much money they'll get in return. In most cases we get married or have children because that's what we want to do, regardless of the cost or the economic benefit. In fact sometimes our decisions make us worse off and we accept that's the price of happiness.
It sounds obvious, doesn't it. And yet the temptation to value things inappropriately can be awfully strong. Where would love films be without the temptation to climb up to the highest pinnacle of the Temple and throw yourself off in the hope of receiving fame and fortune?
So, for example, we watched a film the other night where boy meets girl, girl likes boy and they become firm friends, but suddenly the girl - but it could have been the boy - is offered the chance of a lifetime to advance her career. She gives in to the temptation and then, on her very first day in her new job, realises she’s made a mistake. However, on her way to the exit someone chases after her. 'Wonderful news!' he says. 'The boss wants to see you to discuss your future. Take the elevator to the top floor and you'll find him waiting for you there.' What's the girl to do? What was Jesus to do? When economics tries to put a price on priceless values we have to resist.
And yet, how many people stay in a job which they don't like, which they feel is reducing their quality of life and harming their relationships, jut because they feel that they need the money? And perhaps they do!
Or how many people try to buy contentedness - which we already know is impossible - by putting a price on values like happiness, or peacefulness or tranquility? That is, after all, how holidays are sold to us. And who am I to say that a holiday might not actually make us happier, or more tranquil, for a while?
There are no pat answers, because temptations come in subtle form and can be very hard to distinguish from genuine opportunities. Who's to say that if Jesus had given in to temptation, and built a solid career for himself based on property or prestige, he couldn't have done a lot of good?
However, value is not the same as price. It was Oscar Wilde who said that some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and he was right. And true values, like honour and love, are above price. They simply cannot be bought.
Economists sometimes try to argue that religion, philosophy and the arts have value only because they create jobs or offer people material benefits. So, for a example, I once helped to write a report which set out to demonstrate - and did demonstrate in fact - that religious organisations add a great deal of value to the economy of Yorkshire by employing a lot of people, and by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Religious organisations run schools and community learning classes. They help to keep people out of hospital by making them feel cherished and so on. And yet their true value, their intrinsic worth, is beyond price. They are worthwhile not because they create wealth or save money, but because they make us better people.
So what about the temptation to turn stones into bread? Obviously, if it's just about miracle working, it's simply another variant of the temptation to raise our profile or gain prestige. But what if it arises from a genuine desire to help those at the bottom of the pile, the people who really can't afford to buy enough bread? Isn't this the Devil at his most persuasive, at least for people of faith and goodwill? Isn't this part of the attractiveness of the best religious movements, that they take unpromising material and somehow transform it?
Tomas Sedlecek sees the story of Joseph and his brothers as the first story ever told about the economic cycle, because Joseph understands that a boom is always followed by a bust and he teaches Pharaoh an important lesson, always save in the good years so that you can ride out the crisis when it comes. Other people, including Joseph's brothers, must beg for food when famine strikes, but the Egyptians are sitting pretty. They have found an honest way of turning stones into bread, famine into plenty. They haven't done a deal with the Devil, because he can't airbrush away the harsh reality of drought. Instead, they have planned responsibly to avoid anyone having to starve.
Isn't this why Jesus rejects the Devil's enticements? Because, no matter how humane it sounds to turn stones into bread, it’s only really encouraging a 'spend now, worry later' attitude and storing up trouble for the future.
For many years regeneration projects offered services to local residents for free, as though life owes all of us a living. When the money ran out people were indignant and felt they had been enticed into a culture of dependency built on the false promise that we can always have a free lunch.
Tomas Sedlacek reminds us that in the Bible, including the parables of Jesus and the Lord's Prayer, the word debt is very closely related to the word sin. I think it's pressing the case too far to equate the two and say that it's sinful to go into debt or to lend someone money, although many Muslims would certainly say that and it used to be mainstream Christian teaching too. But in Lent, of all times, we have to take seriously Jesus' challenge to the Devil.
Tomas Sedlacek says we cannot go on as we are. Our model of prosperity is based on what he calls ‘Growth Capitalism’, the idea that we always have to make more and consume more in order to be successful, but there must be a better way of organising society.

He doesn’t want a world in which the captains of industry continue to reward themselves with huge pay increases while the incomes of the poor are squeezed and disabled people have their cars taken away. Instead, he wants us to find a fair and equitable cutting what we spend by doing less and doing it more sustainably.

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