Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Economics and Idolatry

A few weeks ago my pastor at Trinity made a powerful exhortation. He called on academics in our church (of which there are several) to start thinking about our economic system in light of the gospel. He said, "We've given a lot of thought to how good our economic system is at producing wealth. We've thought very little about how much our economic system produces idolaters."

Part of the weakness of so much Protestant preaching is that it tends to be vague for the sake of not getting into too much trouble. I suppose this exhortation is meaningful enough, but it's not sufficiently directed. What kind of idolatry was he referring to? Does he even know? Or does he simply have some vague sense that we worship wealth in this country? The love of money is one of those standard sins that draws believers into a nice guilt trip, but it's difficult to say anything substantial about how to avoid this sin or what it means for our society to be corrupted by it.

Let me be a bit more specific about the kind of idolatry we've created through our economic system. It would be easy to point out the incredible greed that capitalism generates. It would be easy to point out how free markets tend to indulge our desire for things. We see it, we want it, we buy it. And these would appear to be sins of the prosperous. Those who have, want more. And we are never satisfied with the excess we enjoy.

But there is a slightly more pernicious form of idolatry that is evident in today's political climate. You can see it in the discussion about health care. In our day people will refer to medical treatment that didn't even exist 100 years ago as a "basic human right." Notice the word right. That means if society doesn't find a way to provide it to every human being, it is inherently unjust.

If you've been following economic news at all, you'll know that the number of foreclosures on homes these days is outrageous. How did that happen? Because our government, our banking industry, and our culture at large sent a clear message to Americans: you are entitled to a home. And so we have had large numbers of people living in houses but not paying for them, thus letting their debt get out of hand while they go off and buy more trivial goods. Of course, this also perhaps speaks to our obsession with things, but there is a more important issue going on. The fact is, many people in this country who are by no means wealthy are still encouraged to be idolaters. Our economic system has allowed them to live in a dream world of instant gratification and entitlement. Unfortunately, this fantasy will not last.

What makes all of this so evil, so morally corrupt, is that it by no means appeals to anyone's sense of community or sharing. An idealist might say, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had all things in common? It's not right for some people to be fabulously wealthy while others suffer, is it?" That's a fine ideal that I fully support. But we have not encouraged sharing. Rather, politicians have pitted socioeconomic classes against one another, playing on envy to achieve political gain. Meanwhile, we create fantasies to make those on the lower end of the economic spectrum feel as if they're living the American dream.

This attitude of entitlement does nothing to cure the idolatry of the rich. Rather, it simply extends that sin to the poor, so that we all go down together--one great nation of greedy idolaters, obsessed with our human right to possessions.

I've recently begun to read about the Fair Tax. The basic idea behind it is to eliminate all income tax and replace it with sales tax. It is designed to be revenue neutral (that is, the government gets the same amount of money in the end) but mildly progressive (everyone gets an automatic rebate check from the government--this benefits the poor). Its proponents are basically fiscal conservatives who want to see our country achieve more prosperity by freeing up the economy from the strain of our current tax system.

But I've thought of another great reason to move to such a tax. Perhaps if all of our taxes were sales taxes, there would be more incentive to think less about things and more about people. Since prices would go up, you would think a little harder before you went out and bought that new gadget you've been seeing on TV. But as the government would take absolutely none of your paycheck, you'd have a greater incentive to save money, as well as give it directly to people in need (there's no tax on charitable giving). This would be a fabulous way to incentivize healthy economic behavior.

We certainly can't go on forever under this current economic system. Our government has every incentive to try to cover up every economic failure with massive deficit spending, because this buys them votes. But this kind of behavior is exactly what gets us into so much trouble. As my pastor himself pointed out, debt is a philosophical principle. It is the idea that I don't have to deal with the consequences of my actions until an indefinite "later." It is a philosophical consequence of greed--I am entitled to what I want right now, so I should be allowed to pay for it later. Thus, it is all a consequence of idolatry, since greed is idolatry.

There is only one way out of the mess we're currently in. We need rehab. We need to detach ourselves from the entitlements we are so addicted to. There is no other way. Where your treasure lies, there will you find your heart.

I pray that America's heart will find its way to better things.

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