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The “Social Ethic Network” meeting was held at Union Theological Seminary, Sept 27-30, 2012.  I am pleased to share Peggy L. Shriver’s meditation.

By Peggy L. Shriver

This must be a great time to be an ethicist.  Most big issues seem to revolve around either love or money– if you prefer, call it sex or power.  And our society is currently terribly conflicted and confused about both of them.  Since we are about to discuss the economy and taxation this morning, I’ll sketch a few comments about money.

Joseph Stiglitz spoke here at Union a couple of weeks ago to an overflow crowd.  He was very conscious of speaking to a spiritually-focused religious audience.  And to a liberal one!   What I carried away most powerfully was his declaration of the failure of economics to know how to factor effectively anything other than money into its economic modeling.  The GDP doesn’t measure what we most value, so we do our economic thinking largely by ignoring other values.  For some time there have been serious efforts to study behaviors that demonstrate the role of other values in economic decisions, but hard core economists tend to discount them.  When talking with other economists or to business leaders, Stiglitz uses economic self-interest when trying to be persuasive on essentially other value grounds, such as the negative effects of inequality.

A mystery to many of us is why so many working poor seem to be persuaded to vote against their own self-interest, while the rich comfortably assume that what suits their own interests is best for all.  One explanation that has some validity, I think, is that working poor who side with the very rich are reluctant to give up their own American Dream version:  “But for my present bad luck there might go I!”   The Occupiers, however, have in fact declared that the American Dream has been rigged, so that for many Americans it has become the American Nightmare.  They no longer see Wall Street as a goal, but an enemy.

But most Americans are conflicted about it all.  Money so dominates as a “good” in our society that it seems natural to strive for more of it and to respect, if a bit grudgingly, those who have a lot of it.  For money is also power, influence, the “good” that opens the door to many other goods.  Yet Christians are also cautioned to be wary about money.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  ‘Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. . . Consider the lilies. . .”  “Life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. . .”  “Man does not live by bread alone…”   And the Bible thrusts the problem of the poor  before all believers.  Once Sen. Ted Kennedy   was asked by a reporter, “Why do you speak so often about the poor?”  Kennedy replied, “Haven’t you ever read the New Testament?”  He was fully aware that to eliminate all references to the poor in the Bible would tear it to shreds!

Meanwhile, the desire and effort to turn almost anything into a product or a way of making money in this culture persists.  My eye was caught by Jeremy Waldron’s review of a book I’ve not yet read–Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”  Extracting extensively from Waldron, I find Sandel evidently explores the marketplace, past and present, for examples of questionable uses of the market for some services and purchases.  Let me mention some of them.

–The selling of indulgences to buy your soul out of time in purgatory

–Employing a firm to structure an appropriate corporate apology program to match a corporate client’s needs and level of hostility

–LineStanding.com offering to pay people to stand in line, often used by busy Capitol  Hill lobbyists who want to attend a public hearing

–Selling “upgrades” in prison cells for $127 a night

–Buying a baby or child from desperate poor people, or body parts like kidneys

–Taking out life insurance on elderly strangers or strangers who have AIDS

–Purchasing sterilization for a drug addicted woman from that woman

One particularly intriguing example is worth special note:  a village in Switzerland was being considered for a nuclear waste repository.  A survey asked two questions: Would you vote to accept a nuclear waste repository in your community if the Swiss parliament voted to put it there?  A bare majority said yes.    A second question:  Would you vote to accept the repository if the parliament voted to pay each resident of the village monetary compensation (more than the local monthly per capita income) for locating it there?  What do you suppose they said?  NO  Only 25% would have taken the considerable compensation, because they viewed it as a bribe, no longer a civic duty.

Economists would claim that all these examples I cited would simply be voluntary transactions, no coercion.  But depending on the dire circumstances, the addiction, the fears, Sandel would argue that the voluntary aspect could be questioned.  Or how about fairness, often closely related to coercion?  Should scarce goods always go to the highest bidder?  When everything is for sale, the life of the poor becomes harder as they are increasingly left out.   Should standing in line for public events–or voting in an election this fall–become subject to who has the money to game the system or meet increasingly stringent requirements?   Money and power easily blend into one.

Money has become such a “dominant good,” to use Michael Walzer’s term, that it commands a wide range of other goods, defining our very selves.  We too often define other people by their wealth–they must be smart, wise, hardworking, good to have gotten where they are, or, they are lazy, stupid, uneducated, shiftless to have stayed so downtrodden.  Sometimes I watch one of those auction shows on TV and marvel at the dollar value placed on some items.  A variety of considerations, some not too evident except that they are of momentary public interest, go into those valuations.  I’m pleased when someone, hearing a surprisingly high dollar figure, says, “I’ll never sell it.  I want it to stay in my family.”  Something other than money is important here.  The meaning of that gold watch to a family is more significant than what a stranger might be willing to pay for it.  That person knows where the treasure of the heart is.

Our country has a lot of work to do on the place of money in our lives.  Advertisers in politics and business are spending a lot of money to convince us that moneyed power is what matters in making decisions about money and the other values of life.   When Joseph Stiglitz acknowledged the difficulty of measuring other values than money in economics, Cornel West rose to his feet.  In his usual four-syllabled impassioned speech, he said that spiritual values were indeed possible to measure, to see the effect of them in real life.  Christians live by a story, not a financial calculation, I understood him to say.  Compassion, hope, loving concern for one’s world and local neighbors, care for creation through new environmental understanding,  courage to act on behalf of others with strength from the Holy Spirit–by living out God’s story for us when we are truly faithful, there are shifts in outcomes in society.  Cornel West added that behavioral economists are indeed finding ways to measure values espoused by Christian faith–e.g. we do not live by bread alone.

You may imagine a more immediate challenge to Christian ethicists today, but this one is inescapable!

PRAYER:  Gracious God, please grant us the spirit of discernment.  Enable us to know what needs to be said in these dangerous times.  Give us the strength, the courage, the persuasive words and means to speak usefully your necessary truth.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

(for more info about the SEN event click here https://gracejisunkim.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/social-ethics-network/#more-898)


Peggy L. Shriver is a member of the “Social Ethics Network”.  She is an analyst, researcher and author:  former Assistant General Secretary for Research at the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  She is a Presbyterian elder and a serious activist.