An Open Letter to Bob – On Ethics and Economics

My Facebook friends have seen me carry on a long political discussion with my friend Bob about economics and healthcare and other things.  He puts up with me and I put up with him and we remain friends even while we drive each other nuts.  At the same time, we’re on the same page about many underlying issues. The other day, he sent me an e-mail about basic economics where he stated “money is a labor equivalent”.  Now we’re talking at my level. Here’s where I jump in.

The problem is that Bob and I are asking different questions.  His is about economics: “How does the economy work?” My question is “should it work this way?”.  So here’s my take on the ethics of our economic realities, starting with the “money is a labor equivalent” statement.

As I understand it, a long time ago, Achmed had goats and McKinna had sheep and they got sick of bringing them with them every time they wanted to trade, so they invented the concept of money – pieces of metal that represented the worth of the sheep, goats, etc.  So, sure enough, money is supposed to be a labor equivalent.  Every goat takes so much work to feed, and gives out so much milk. For his hard labor, Achmed gets so much value placed on the sheep and for his – if it’s more or less, McKinna gets proportionally more or less.  I’m following you so far.

Here’s the first problem, though.  If it ever did, it doesn’t work that way anymore.  Bill works forty hours a week and he works hard.  If he works in a factory (where they still exist), Bill makes, say, $20,000 plus benefits.  If he went to school and studied really hard, took on a lot of debt, and is in management, Bill makes, let’s say, $60,000 plus benefits.  One could make the case that Bill the manager invested time in his degree and therefore now deserves his $60,000 per year. But let’s say Bill plays basketball.  He works hard, too, and is the absolute best in the world at playing basketball. His job pays him $4,000,000 dollars per year plus benefits. Even if he deferred his dream by going to college, that was probably paid for by his school. So, how do we explain that the basketball player’s labor is worth 66 times the manager’s?  How do we explain that the basketball player’s salary is 200 times more than the factory worker?  How do we explain that the basketball player gets benefits while the worker doesn’t.  While I agree that money is supposed to be a labor equivalent, part of the unfairness of our system is that money isn’t a labor equivalent.  Hard work is hard work. Pay for hard work isn’t equal – and not just by a liitle bit — by some huge factor.  McKinna’s sheep is worth Achmed’s country if McKinna plays in the NBA and has an endorsement deal.

For Christians, each person has value to God – no one better, no one worse.  All are cherished. In a fair economic system, Bill, Bill and Bill all make the same amount of money for the same amount of hard work.  In a God-centered economic system, even if Bill can’t work, he is still of value and doesn’t get left behind. Granted, Bill, as long as he’s alive, should try to contribute to society in whatever ways he can.  But there’s no reason he has to die because he’s poor.  He probably shouldn’t be rich, but he should be able to live and participate in community with as little hassle as possible.  Any economic system which both promotes the wealth of nations for one individual and the death of another who “can’t afford to live” is, by nature sinful.  And our system is (at least right now) very sinful.  “Net Worth” is not a concept for God, at least if we equate money with worth, and it shouldn’t be for Christians.  Therefore, Christians should be actively against any system which says that people aren’t equal, no matter what they do to earn their money. (The fact that our gut instinct is to think “oooh, he’s picking a fight”, shows how bad off we are). So, Bill, Bill, and Bill should all make the same amount of money no matter what job they do. The closer to that reality we are, the closer to God’s plan we are.

Other examples of our present economy that I think are sinful are: exorbitant interest (maybe all interest), no limits on income, inflation of stock already on the shelves, fees for money, and the list goes on.

Let’s start with “interest”, a concept I don’t really get.  If I put ten dollars on the table at night, and I get up the next day and there’s eleven dollars there, what happened? Did I do something for my 10% raise?  What work did I do? Furthermore, if I have a dollar, did somebody else lose one?  OK, the “work” I did was anxiety about risk.  I gave my money to someone and they gave it back to me with more – or they didn’t give it back to me.  I had to worry about it coming back.  Is my anxiety really worth 10% of my income? And if I have a million dollars, do I even notice leaving ten thousand dollars around?  Jesus says, in Lk. 6:35-36, “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back”.  (Ancient Hebrews were allowed to charge interest on money to non-Jews, but not to each other, by law. Jesus is saying even that’s forbidden!)  What do we do with that?

Next up is having more income than you will ever use. In my simple world, there’s only so much money/assets/riches.  For every billion dollars that someone has, there is a thousand dollars one million other people don’t have. Aside from the general unfairness of that ratio, there comes a point where you simply don’t need any more money.  For instance, $29,200,000  is $1000 per day for 80 years.  So, if you live for 80 years, $29 million ought to be enough, by any stretch of the imagination.  If Jack Nicholson made $100 million dollars for the first Batman movie, he owes $71 million to the rest of the world it seems to me. There are a whole lot of people that could use that money. (Nothing personal Jack, it’s just a thought.)

Next irritation is when people say “there’s no price gouging” when gas (or any other substance) has already been bought and the next day they’re charging more money for it.  If Joe down the corner gets a shipment of gas on Monday and it’s worth $2.50 per gallon and the next shipment costs $2.75 per gallon, I’m OK with paying $2.75 for those gallons, but you can’t tell me he’s “just passing along costs” until the $2.50 gas is gone from his pumps. He’s not. It’s a lie to say he is and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.  Yet, senators who are “outraged” and set up commissions when gas goes up can’t seem to find it.  Now, Joe may not set the prices on his pumps, his dealer might or the oil company might, but whoever’s doing it, it is price gauging. (Just wanted to say I noticed.)

Last for now is charging fees for money. If I go to the bank and take out $20 from the ATM, with a dollar fee from my bank and another dollar fee from there bank (yes, that’s cheap in many places), I have paid 10% interest just to get my own money.  If I go into the bank, it costs nothing to get the money, but they’re paying someone to count it, hand it out, and so on.  If money is related to work and serves human beings, shouldn’t we pay money to the people who dispense the money and not the machine, if we’re going to pay anything?  And, as bizarre as we think people are for putting money in their mattresses, at least they don’t pay 10% for the privilege.  Maybe they’re not so crazy after all.

Then, of course, there are bounced check fees/overdraft charges.  If I write a check for $100.00 and only have $99.99 to cover it, my bank charges me $37.00 in penalty/fees for the “privilege”.  I am NOT saying I should have written the check in the first place, or that people should defraud others. (Stealing is, after all, still immoral.)  Further, I understand that there should be some consequence for my doing it, even by accident.  I’m OK with taking responsibility for my own behavior. In addition, I know that it costs the bank money to whatever it is they do (pay for the item, send back the check, move electrons around, etc.) I’m OK with paying them whatever it costs to do that.  But $37.00 for a $1.00 cup of coffee?!  What’s with that? There should be some sort of ratio of overdraft to punishment, but there is none. Even the comedian Gallagher knew something was wrong here when he said “Bank Fees? Why are they asking for more of something they already know you don’t have?”

When the rich start paying $38.00 for a cup of coffee, we can start talking about the fairness of the system.  When you have more than enough, so it’s “impossible” to overdraw your account, or when the bank doesn’t charge you fees because you have a minimum balance, is the system really fair?  No.  And the God of “fair” isn’t all that happy about it, I think.

So, to sum up (no pun intended!): I think people ought to make generally the same amount for their labor; that society should take care of people who can’t work;  that interest might be immoral, and exorbitant interest definitely is; that there should be a limit to how much money a person can make in their lifetime; that increasing the price of something you already have is wrong; that, beyond whatever it costs to print the money, your money shouldn’t actually be worth 90 cents on a dollar if you’re poor and, that, while intentionally spending more than you have at any one time is certainly wrong and punishable, unintentionally doing so is a mistake, so  the punishment should fit the crime.

Does this make me a Communist? I’m not sure what it makes me, except a practical Christian. Others may disagree.  Bob?

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2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Bob – On Ethics and Economics

  1. That Bob must be one crazy fellow. But in a nutshell:
    1) I’m glad your mind is whirring on this stuff.
    2) We have to get together and talk. To respond to each point in writing would be encyclopedic…
    3) Luke 19
    4) The verse you quote is about how to love other people, not about interest (but I’m sure you know that)
    5) GDP (which leads to standard of living), and GDP per capita
    6) The US has a very skewed definition of people who can’t work

    so… when we gonna get together?

    -Some other guy named Bob

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