Sunday, August 23, 2015

#146 Claiming economics

Dear all,
    Well, we're delighted to welcome a new grandchild, Sebastian, born on August 7, and glad to be in a position to hang out with his big brother as they all get adjusted to their family's new size--everyone is well.  And Chuck and I are about to set off on an adventure--three weeks in Northern Uganda doing counseling and trauma healing work with our dear friend Abitimo Odongkara.
    Part of me wishes for the kind of vacation that involves doing nothing for an extended period of time, but I think I'd prefer to have a life full of adventures, with deep rest tucked in here and there.
    I'm loving the early morning light--more about that another time.

Claiming economics

When I was nine or ten my father, who taught college economics, would get my help creating the multiple choice questions for his exams.  He would ask a question, I would come up with an answer that made sense to me in the absence of any text-book knowledge, and that became one of the choices.  As a teenager, I witnessed his growing disillusionment with classical economics theory and its dismissal of whole fields— including human generosity, community and the environment.  An accumulation of such childhood experiences left me feeling that I had a right to think about economics, and a right to expect it to make sense.

Leading an intensive week-long series of morning sessions on faith and economics at a conference this summer, I had one overall goal—for people to come out of it believing that they too had a right to bring their thinking and values to the realm of economic thought.

The barriers are significant.  Although the original economic philosophers saw the field as infused with moral implications, economists of later years were eager to transform it into a hard science, where accurate measurements and tested formulas could lead to unassailable conclusions.  (I’ve heard this impulse described as “physics envy”.)  Though not all economists fit this mold, many are satisfied to be masters of a complex field; it leaves one able to dismiss the general public as dense and incompetent, and relieved of responsibility to address the common good.  In the face of such unwelcome, it’s not surprising that many people just give up and cede the whole territory to the “experts”.

This is a problem.  Now more than ever, the field of economics needs the public to wade in with our values intact, yet it can be hard to notice how they relate to such a complex and abstract system.  It helped to start our workshop series with the reminder that the word economics comes from Greek roots meaning management of the home.  (Ecology is “knowledge of home”.)  Well, we all know something about the home.

So we made a list of principles involved in good home management.  These included promoting safety; knowing your capabilities and limitations; keeping the future in mind; creating a place of rest and spiritual refreshment; not taking more than your share, and giving back when you have extra; having a budget—knowing what’s coming in and going out; seeing that everybody has a role; taking care of the little and vulnerable ones; giving up on things that aren’t working; knowing where things belong; gathering together to do larger projects; looking beyond the strictly functional; cleaning and taking out the trash—and knowing where the trash ends up; being kind.

Such principals are intensely relevant to our larger home management process, but the economy has strayed far from them.  There was a time when we at least had language about promoting the common good.  From Roosevelt’s New Deal and the start of Social Security, through the social planning of World War II, the GI Bill and grants for higher education, Medicare and Johnson’s War against Poverty, there was an assumption that the government had a duty to mitigate the grossest inequities of a market-based system for the benefit of the citizenry at large.  (How many people know that the federal income tax rate in the 1950’s for income over $250,000 was 91%?)

Since the 1970’s, however, a significant shift has taken place, very much under the radar of general public awareness.  A “neo-liberal” economic ideology has gained ascendancy, grounded in the belief that an unrestricted market will best serve our overall economic interests.  Taxes have been adjusted to benefit those with more wealth, restrictions on the financial sector have been rolled back, corporate power and influence have grown.  In consequence, the public sector has been squeezed, inequality has ballooned, credit card and student debt have mushroomed, and economic insecurity has gripped more and more of the population.

Equally troubling, underlying both the socially-conscious economic policies of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the greed-based neo-liberalism of the last 40 years, lies an assumption that our well-being depends on continued economic growth—which is setting us on a collision course with our finite planet’s resources and ability to sustain life.

These are not times to tinker with formulas and rates.  These are times to step in boldly with our values intact and ask the big questions:  Who is the economy for?  What increases well-being?  What makes up our common wealth? When is more better than less?  What motivates people?  What is our responsibility to the future? Who should decide?

We are all needed here:  the innocents, like the child who saw that the emperor had no clothes; the people of conscience who can say that things are just not right; the farsighted ones who can offer the perspective of those who come after us; those who stand on their faith values; the people in my workshop—and everyone else—who claim their right to have a voice in the management of our home.


This vacant lot is vast
a gap once filled by two great houses
now hemmed in by poverty.
A lovely family tends it
for the children in their center
and the neighbors
who need beauty and good food.

Overflowing with abundance
our community garden’s flowers
spread and spread.
I long to share the bounty
with these new friends.

One great carload
and a morning’s work
fill the few raised beds,
the soil hauled in
from far away
by this good man,
each hard-earned shovelful
a kiss, a promise
of more nourishment
to come.

I would fill this lot with flowers
growing so abundantly
crying out to share.
Yet in this packed debris
a shovel cannot penetrate.
What’s needed first is soil.

My little compost pile
even if I gave it all away
would be a speck
in this vast lot—
and I have need of it.

My easy generosity
has foundered
on the hard slow work
of building up the soil.

Imagine--A new economy is possible!
The financial transaction tax
A financial transaction tax is a very small excise tax on trades of stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities. A tax of just one-hundredth of a percentage point would raise $185 billion over 10 years, according to new estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.  Such a tax would also reduce the amount of high-frequency automated trading that is used to make windfall profits by taking advantage of small differences in price in milliseconds.

Transaction taxes of one type or another have long been in place in countries with thriving financial markets, including Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, India and Switzerland.  Eleven countries of the European Union agreed to implement such a tax, in 2013, though pressure from opponents caused the introduction to be postponed until next year.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently

The recent presidential decree of the Costa Rican government—based on the research of a small non-profit—to protect workers in the agricultural industry from heat stress and dehydration, a major cause of kidney disease in that population.

The relative freedom that President Obama is feeling these days to say and do what he thinks is right.

All the urban farming and gardening initiatives all over the country, and the positive impact they have on everyone involved.

A doctor in Indonesia who created a system for rural people to trade in recyclable trash for health insurance.

More resources

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:

In, Pamela Haines locates her family's homey DIY celebrations on a class spectrum of different connections to upward mobility.


Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years.  NOTE THE NEW URL. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at