Too brief thoughts on faith and economics

[I’m in the process of expanding each of these bits below into something that will hopefully look less like ranty crumbs of thought, but in the meantime…]

The still prevalent myth is that ‘the economy’ is something neutral, fairly abstract, best left to the experts and best understood in graphs and numbers. This is harmful nonsense.

On experts and ‘the economy’: When trading in complex jargon and shorthand, the experts often obscure,  unwittingly and sometimes deliberately,  important facets and dynamics of what is really at the heart of ‘the economy’: the individual and corporate lives of persons in relations, producing, exchanging, consuming; social practices and forms of interaction with ineradicable moral underpinnings.

On numbers: Numbers are important, graphs are useful, and metrics have an important role to play in making decisions as consumers, professionals, and policymakers, but when numbers [are used to] obscure important human, social and moral issues we must pause, probe, and pull out what is really at stake.

Economics is about belief and behaviour – it cannot be reduced to empirically-observable and predictable systems. Behaviour is observable but will always have an ‘excess’ and ambiguity of meaning that resists reductionist classifications and theories.

On power: Concentration of [cultural, political, economic] power into the hands of a few is bad news for the many. Statism and plutocracy are equally toxic examples of this.

Here’s what Guy Brandon says in Crumbling Foundations: A biblical critique of modern money:

The Bible shows a distinct wariness of centralised authority. Over the course of biblical history, God’s people suffered repeatedly under oppressive and abusive rulers: first the Egyptians, with their extensive state bureaucracy and all-powerful god-king Pharaoh; then under the Assyrians and Babylonians, responsible for exacting heavy tribute and for the exile of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah, respectively; and finally under the Greeks and Romans, in the New Testament, who denied the Jews their autonomy as a people and persecuted both them and the new sect of Christians. The Israelite monarchy itself was a concession to the people (1 Samuel 8) and its consequences for the nation were disastrous. The monarchy was a source of national idolatry, and few kings received God’s unconditional approval. Concentrated power, whether political, financial or technological – the three tend to go together, today and in biblical times – risks being distant and indifferent towards its citizens, at best, and more likely exploitative, oppressive and coercive.” (p. 12)

On alternative economics: We need more democratic / grassroots / ‘consociational’/associational / cooperative economic arrangements and initiatives: town hall economic consultations, credit unions (church-led/hosted credit unions!), community banking, community land trusts, social enterprises, other initiatives springing from community organising. The more power is dispersed and shared, the better: people exercise and express the dignity of (economic) agency, proximity facilitates strong relationships and clear accountability, resources are allocated more fairly, creative ideas can be implemented more easily etc. All this is an outgrowth of core biblical teaching, which is captured well by the principle of and teaching around subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching.

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