With 2016 an election year, a range of political issues are front and center in public debate, issues such as national defense, immigration policy, and of course, economic policy. As followers of Jesus, we Christians ought to ponder these issues carefully as we make our decisions about whom we will support for public office. Not surprisingly, economic policy is almost always tied to the success of a political campaign. Anyone over 30 likely remembers James Carville’s claim, “It’s the economy, stupid” — a way to remind his team which issue mattered most. What’s interesting, however, is the extent to which every candidate offers the same solution: “I will grow the economy!” In short, each candidate’s solution to our economic woes is to make the economy bigger. As followers of Jesus, can we so easily align ourselves with the “more is better” way of seeing economic challenges? I don’t think so, for at least three reasons.
Before naming those, though, we need to draw out some implications of the “growing the economy” strategy. In short, to pursue such a strategy means engaging in policies and activities that cause GDP to grow in a nontrivial way, which in turn requires the production and corresponding purchase of more goods and services. The goal is to create more aggregate demand, which encourages producers to manufacture more goods and services for consumers to purchase, thereby satisfying the increased aggregate demand. But, demand for what? Well, new and bigger houses, newer cars, more and flashier electronic goodies, more restaurants to feed our appetites, etc. Correspondingly, of course, all that growth means growth in the amount of trash that we toss into the environment. In fact, the correlation between economic growth and growth in the amount of disposable trash has long been tightly correlated. This hints at some problems related to solving our economic challenges through “growing the economy.” Let’s make that more explicit.
First, as pesky as it may be, we who claim to be followers of Jesus have to take seriously the call to “mortify the deeds of the flesh.” To affirm mortification of the flesh is not to insist that physical goods are intrinsically evil, but it is to recognize that human wants and desires quickly spiral out of control when not carefully checked. So, while not requiring a vow of poverty, we are called to resist the siren song of desire that impels us on ever to more — more to eat, more to drink, and newer and better homes and cars and clothes. History has more than adequately demonstrated that, without intentionality, our desires know no upper limit. A look at even the monastic movement within Christianity shows the ease with which comfort and desire take control of us.
Second, we have to be more specific about the economic problem to be solved through the promised economic growth. Most frequently, economic growth is supposed to create jobs, thereby reducing unemployment and, by creating demand for more jobs, also creating upwards pressure on wages. In other words, the growth in the economic pie will solve the problem of lagging middleclass wages. However, middleclass wages have been decoupled from GDP growth to a large extent for about 40 years now. By that I mean that the overwhelming increase in wealth has gone to the richest among us. In other words, the economic playing field has been slanted ever increasingly in the direction of the already-wealthy. Without structural changes, a mere focus on GDP growth will do little, if anything, to solve the problem for which it is proposed as a solution. Rather, there is little reason to see that overall economic growth would have any other outcome than to further fuel wealth concentration.
Third, given the correlation between GDP growth and the impact on the global environment (both in terms of the amount of trash it creates as well as the extent to which it consumes limited, global resources), one can easily see that “growing the economy” cannot be seen as so simple and without serious downsides. Energy and raw materials are consumed to create the goods that will cause the economy to grow. Higher aggregate demand and more rapid turnover, either in consumer goods or largely items like houses or cars, leads to increased pressure for locations to rid ourselves of our trash. In short, there is no avoiding the fact that “growing the economy” will also multiply stressors on an already stressed global environment. Dead zones and enormous floating fields of plastic are just a couple of the consequences of our current levels of consumption.
Can we as Christians readily affirm this pathway to resolving our economic woes? No, I really don’t think so. How they ought we as Christians to respond to these challenges? That’s the focus of a future blog.