Category Archives: economics

A Graceless Apocalypse: Thoughts on “Slabtown” (The Walking Dead)

Beth in "Slabtown," courtesy IGN's excellent review.
Beth in “Slabtown,” courtesy IGN’s excellent review.

[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]

“Everything costs something, right?”

Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while.  Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross.  In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta.  In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened.   The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately.  Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”

Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital.  Outside is nothing but zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped.  But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened.  Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them.  “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says.  Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.

“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture  of life without grace.  Everything costs.  Nothing is simply given.

Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently.  With God, nothing is earned, all is given.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace.  When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”

Icon of Christ the Sower
Icon of Christ the Sower

My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.

We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge.  “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace.  Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way.  We only recruit new church members with “resources.”  We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals.  We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors.  The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.

But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace.  Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible.  Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.

That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money.  Thanks be to God.

Painting with Warren Buffett

The following is one of my favorite excerpts from Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet, which I cannot recommend enough (whether you are an introvert or extrovert).  Warren Buffett, the famously introverted and successful investor, was at an investing conference just prior to the burst of the 2000 dot-com bubble.  Present at the party was lots of “new money,” investors and venture capitalists who had recently become very wealthy.

“Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group.  He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects.  Some dismissed him as a relic of the past.  But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.”

Buffett saw that the bubble was about to burst, and told the happy crowd exactly what he thought.  They were not pleased with his remarks, and dismissed him as hopelessly backwards.  Next year, though, when the bubble did burst, Buffett was proven right:

“Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own ‘inner scorecard.’  He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd.  ‘I feel like I’m on my back,’ says Buffett about his life as an investor, ‘and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away.  I like it when people say, Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting. But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, Why don’t you use more red instead of blue? Good-bye. It’s my painting.  And I don’t care what they sell it for.  The painting itself will never be finished.  That’s one of the great things about it.'” (177)

Thought for the Day: How the 1% Have Helped Me

Short and sweet (or bitter, depending on which side of the Marx/Smith divide you fall on):

My seminary education would not have been possible without the 1%.  I went to Duke Divinity School, a part of Duke University, which of course was built on a tobacco fortune.  There is still massive wealth associated with the University; like it or not, such institutions, no matter how high their purpose or how much their professors despise the accumulation of wealth, rely on the highest wage-earners and their philanthropy.  As Dave Ramsey recently pointed out, the top 1% also give a vast majority of the charitable donations in America.

You can’t love the milk and hate the cow: they are connected.  Inextricably.  I’ve found it troubling that so many of my fellow pastors – whose seminaries, churches attended and churches served relied heavily on the generosity of those who made enough to give a lot – have bought into the OWS ideology utterly hook, line, and sinker.  You can hate the system all you want to, but many of you, like me, have benefited from it in innumerable ways.  To pretend otherwise in fits of pious grandstanding is nothing short of dangerously naive.

Good Ecumenism, Bad Economics

A group of protestant bishops and other leaders, mostly from the mainline, recently wrote a letter to congress urging them not to make serious tax cuts because of its potential to impact the poor both at home and abroad.

A noble sentiment, to be sure, but is it good economics?  It includes this line:

Discretionary programs that serve the poor and vulnerable are a very small percentage of the budget, and they are not the drivers of the deficits. Unchecked increases in military spending combined with vast tax cuts helped create our country’s financial difficulties and restoring financial soundness requires addressing these root imbalances.

There is no mention of the housing crisis; of the poor stewardship and worship of the almighty dollar and the American dream that led many to purchase homes they couldn’t afford.  Instead, the blame is laid at the doorstep of two things that the left does not like: the military and tax cuts.  Nevermind that the military is a major distributor of aid and assistance to foreign countries (think of the Marines following the Tsunami) and in domestic crises ( the Coast Guard following Katrina, or the National Guard after, well, everything).  And nevermind that tax cuts free up capital to be used for job creation – which is precisely the medicine needed to treat poverty.

The nanny state is untenable.  I think I could make a case that it is un-Christian, too. In his “Choruses from The Rock” T.S. Eliot wrote,

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

The transfer of moral agency away from the individual to the state is a serious problem in modernity.  By and large, the Church has bought into this notion that the state can do our morality for us.  There was a time when it was the duty of the churches to build hospitals, care for the outcast, and feed the hungry.  After Marx, we are apt to worship the state and look to it to do all our ministry for us.

More and more I think that we get the politics we deserve by not doing our job in the social sphere.  If Britain is any example, the state is evolving into a beast too hungry to satiate, and we want to keep feeding it.  All the social welfare programs in the world will not best the original program of social justice: Christ working the world through his Church.

Let us lament that the state still has anyone left to help.  If Christians in America were doing our jobs, the state would have much less room to step in.

Still that increasing a few taxes and cutting military spending will solve things?  Check this out:

P.S. I only found out about this letter because I am on the mailing list of the IRD.  I don’t like the IRD; I think they are as obviously in the pocket of the right wing as this letter indicates our church leaders are in the pocket of the left wing.  But I stay on their mailing list because it’s the only way I find out about crazy things like this that my church does.  A necessary evil, I suppose.

Maddow, Moore, and blah blah blah

https://i1.wp.com/farm5.static.flickr.com/4055/4423522885_9d44a6d95e.jpg

Regardless of which side you take on the union issue in Wisconsin, calling this a “class war” and an attack on the “working people” is sheer nonsense.  State officials are working people.  State senators and congressional reps typically serve two jobs or more.  A good friend of mine is a state rep. and works very hard for not much money.  “Working people” elected fellow “working” citizens who are doing their jobs and trying to have a workable budget.  But for Michael Moore to rage against wealthy people is a bit silly.  He’ one of them.  But as for “working people”?  He’s not one of them.

As for subverting the democratic process…well, maybe you don’t like every aspect of this bill.  But subverting the process also includes not showing up to vote.  Brave.

See an epic meeting of blowhards here.

P.S. Unionized industries are the most inefficient and lackluster of any.  Think transportation, education, etc.  I’m going to go take a shower now.  I feel dirty.

A Glimpse of the Future

From the Gray Lady:

Europeans have boasted about their social model, with its generous vacations and early retirements, its national health care systems and extensive welfare benefits, contrasting it with the comparative harshness of American capitalism. Europeans have benefited from low military spending, protected by NATO and the American nuclear umbrella. They have also translated higher taxes into a cradle-to-grave safety net. “The Europe that protects” is a slogan of the European Union.

But all over Europe governments with big budgets, falling tax revenues and aging populations are experiencing rising deficits, with more bad news ahead. With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle, at least not without a period of austerity and significant changes. The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions.

“We’re now in rescue mode,” said Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.

It is interesting that we are sliding in this direction just as Europe, and especially Greece, is realize that this social and economic model is simply untenable.  It should be no surprise.  Congress gives themselves a raise pretty much every year.  As a people, we have realized that putting the right people in office can likewise increase our own government benefits on a regular basis.  A people who gives little to their country but demands every kind of cradle-to-grave benefit will only have some combination of tyranny, corruption, and poverty as their reward.

This is the shape of the “change” to come.  As Fareed Zakaria put it aptly,

In the long run, health-care costs will destroy the federal budget and with it the American economy. Interest rates will surely rise, which will force up the cost of servicing debt. New competitors emerge every year in every industry from other countries that are working hard to make themselves attractive to business.

Events have conspired to give America some breathing room. Leaders in Washington should take the current climate as a godsend and use it to start retooling the American economy. Everyone knows what needs to be done — restructure entitlements (including state pensions, which are the next catastrophe); force down health costs; reform immigration, taxes and regulation — and thus restore the country’s competitiveness. Or our leaders could sit around and put off all the hard decisions until America finally does look like Greece.

Sharpton Scary on Social Justice

http://serenitythruhaiku.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/alsharpton.jpg

Interesting clip from the Rev. with the hair.  He insists that “the struggle [for social justice] is not over until we achieve equality…the dream [of Dr. King] was to make everything equal in everyone’s house.”

I’m no Glenn Beck, but I do think that the concept of social justice is nebulous at best and socially and economically harmful at worst.  I don’t know nearly enough about King to say if his ‘dream’ was absolute equality, not merely of opportunity – or even outcome – but of property.  (Or am I reading too much into Sharpton’s comments?)

If, however, Rev. Sharpton is right, we won’t see anything approaching social justice until Jesus comes back.  I’ve been saying this for a while now.  I don’t think ‘social justice’ as a concept is very useful for setting any real political agendas.  It has nowhere near the utility – or the Christian content – of something like a “preferential option for the poor.”  But hey, it does sound good.  Besides, as long as middle-class whites learn to despise their privilege at our institutions of higher learning, they will continue to shout the tropes of ‘social justice’ as a way of justifying their own existence.  Others will preach it and legislate it as a way of courting the masses to allow them to remain in power.

Rev. Al is right.  “We’re not there yet.”  We won’t be, either, not this side of the eschaton.  Social justice is here to stay…at least until Jesus comes back.

I can’t stand Glenn Beck because…

….sometimes I have to hate myself a little bit for agreeing with him in even the smallest way. Case in point: I have to agree with him in disliking the terms “economic justice” and “social justice.”  But in his equation of this idea with Nazism and Communism, and his advising people to leave churches that teach and preach this, I cannot find words strong enough to condemn his virulent comments.

I’ve covered this territory before, but I’m guessing all the Beck-hate will garner a lot of new traffic thanks to a provocative title (yes, this means you).  Face the facts: no one can define what “social justice” or “economic justice” means.  This doesn’t mean they are super-secret “code words” for totalitarianism, though they are generally associated with people of a leftist persuasion.  Both terms describe various schemes for distributive justice.  Some conservative commentators have pointed out that anyone government powerful enough to establish a perfect state of “social” justice would be unjust by the sheer fact of its magnitude, coercion, and requisite violation of the private sphere of life.  In other words, if advocates of social justice had their way, the policies the would require to fulfill their vision would likely run roughshod over the rights of many others – particularly property rights – in pursuit of their ends.

This does not mean mean advocates of distributive justice are all totalitarians in our midst.  It is simply an undefined bit of language that some on the left use to denote a whole host of attitudes with no single definition.  On the right, an equivalently problematic and undefined phrase might be “family values.”  In my experience, most people who advocate social justice are good-hearted souls who want to help people, particularly the poor and oppressed (however defined).  If they are guilty of not thinking through all the presuppositions of their language, well, that makes them anything but special.

But Glenn, you’re a carbuncle on the face of American conservatism.  I wish you were in a less unsavory place, like the buttocks or armpit where no one would see you, but the fact is your brand of populist nonsense is front and center on the airwaves.  The sad part is, this is coming from someone who has watched his share of Fox News – so don’t go calling me a Commie.  You desperately need a lobotomy or a kick in the pants, maybe both.

We have enough people leaving churches.  Our modern suspicion of all institutions, traditions, and authorities, is taking care of that.  There are good reasons to leave churches – we all know this.  But social justice? Really?  Was it that slow of a news day?

Do us all a favor: crawl into a hole, shut your mouth, read the Bible until you have enough humility to realize it should stay shut permanently, and find something useful to do with your time that does not involve infecting American politics with your bleating lunacy.

The State of the Change We Believe In

https://i2.wp.com/rlv.zcache.com/keep_the_change_obama_tshirt-p235312459259428591t59f_400.jpg

“Change has not come fast enough,” President Obama just said.

Of course, it is assumed that this necessitates more action, not less – more spending, not less – more legislation, not less.  And of course the President is now calling for getting past our partisanship, now that his party can’t railroad things through the Senate.  And it seems no government official, liberal or “conservative,” never asks if our needs – the change we are so desperate for – can or should come from government power.

A fee for the big banks?  Ah, there’s the rub.  If the government is nice enough to rescue you, it is nice enough to impose extra penalties on you for success.  Who says we have a free market?

“We cut taxes…we cut taxes…”  Where will those tax cuts go when nationalized health care goes through?

Well, the Commander-in-Chief of hopey-change – or changey-hope, has his work cut out for him.  Just like the House chamber tonight, only about half of us are applauding…and that number is shrinking.

P.S. Did Uncle Joe and Nancy Pelosi coordinate their purple attire? Perhaps they feel they are in the presence of royalty.  But with court jesters like that, who needs good ideas?

P.P.S. Job growth will occur when the government steps back, not when it decides to legislate it.  Small business owners, like my parents, are by and large too smart to fall for strategies from leftists who truly do not appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit.  The entrepreneurs are the ones bearing the tax burden to create the “change” for which these people yearn.

P.P.S. “They need our help.” Yes.  But you will help the most by stepping away.

P.P.P.S.  Nuclear power plants?  I like it!  Did Al Gore just die inside?

Fail of the day: theologians and the economy

https://i0.wp.com/media.ebaumsworld.com/picture/majickturtle/00bs7te7.jpg

My generation coined a great phrase: the “epic fail.” Though it is not intellectual enough, I can think of no better way to put a theological affirmation by NC Triangle-area theologians relating to recent economic trends; link to statement here – link to Christian Century story here.

This won’t be an exhaustive examination of the statement, but just a run down of what annoys me the most.  There is a particular focus on what they see as “unbiblical” usury practices.  Is America now Israel?  I can see how the norms of Mosaic law *may* be important for contemporary Christians and Jews, but do they really think Bank of America is going to care about the year of Jubilee?

Most interestingly, the statement wastes a lot of ink telling us that usury is condemned left, right, and sideways in the Bible, and then go on to say it should only be limited to 10 percent! If usury is an affront to God, why allow it at all?  Of course, the same logic says “abortion is horrible, but a million a year is acceptable.”  (To be precise, it is 45 million legal abortions since 1973)

I had classes with several of the signatories.  I only bring this up because the writing in this statement is so basic, so insufferably banal that I shutter to think what grade it would have garnered in one of their seminars.  Here’s an example:

To get out of the current mess, we will need an economic reform which acknowledges our mutual dependence and obligations and turns aside from the way of selfish individualism and competition for status and conspicuous wealth. What kind of an economic recovery leaves giant banks standing while the average worker’s life gets harder and harder? It is not an economic recovery when billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out the rest of the jobs. There is not justice when everyone’s tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are left on their own to drown in their debts. Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in.

Ugh.  This is the result of dozens of of PHDs working together? Not encouraging.  Bad writing; bad economics; bad theology.

Further questions: What do professional theologians know about the “average worker” (if there is such a thing)?  How much debt are the students at their respective seminaries going to incur getting their education??

Oh, and economic justice?  Whose justice?

As economist Thomas Sowell writes,


One of the few subjects on which we all seem to agree is the need for justice.  But our agreement is only seeming because we mean such different things by the same word.  Whatever moral principle each of us believes in, we call justice.  This is especially so today, when so many advocate what they call “social justice” [or “economic justice”]  – often with great passion, but with no definition. (The Quest for Cosmic Justice, p. 3)

Jesus also told us that the poor will always be with us.  Some no doubt due to systemic injustices; some to misfortune; some to prodigality and/or laziness.  Yes, some interest rates are remarkably high.  But no one forces you to take out a loan.  I’ve torn up many credit cards over the years, especially during college.  Yes, Christians should be concerned for the poor.  Is the best way to do this picketing huge multinational banks? Doubtful.  Should theologians be writing our economic policies?

Perhaps – but not until Christ returns in glory.