Economics as Housekeeping

Last week, Rowan Williams gave the keynote address at an economic conference in London.

In it, he makes some good strides toward a new vision for economics, one that would find itself quite at home within a Trinitarian universe.

To the modern economic analyst, a product that enhances human life is of equal value to a product that destroys human life, as long as they can be sold for the same price.  But a truly human economics is so much more than simply measuring and predicting the quantity of stuff we produce and sell.

The Triune Life is creative; it is PRODUCTIVE.  But what is it productive FOR?

This is the question modern economics fails to ask.  Why do we make stuff?  To make a home for ourselves and each other in the world, a home that incarnates the Great Dance.  Truly human economics is about the making, giving, and receiving of beauty and goodness.  Working with the materials of creation — wood and metal, flesh and blood, electricity and light — we cause earth to dance to the music of heaven.

Modern economics has forgotten the dance, cannot even hear the music anymore.  It’s too busy going through the motions and congratulating itself on how many motions it has made.

I cede the rest of my blog post to the wisdom of Brother Rowan:

‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. . . .  And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, ‘sustainable’ in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation. . . .

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home — a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings — people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.

Practically speaking, this means that both at the individual and the national level we have to question what we mean by ‘growth’. The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth. It sets up the vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term well-being. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things. . . . (Rowan Williams, “Human Well-Being and Economic Decision-Making,” TUC Economics Conference, London, 16 November 2009)

~ John Stonecypher





1 comment so far

  1. Ted Johnston on

    John, thanks for this insightful post.

    I’m reminded of Peter’s statement: “Each one of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1Pet 4:10).

    Peter’s immediate concern here is the stewardship of the Spirit’s gifts extended within the assembly of believers. However, I think the principle extends to the stewardship of all of God’s good gifts of grace, in its many forms, including our national and personal wealth and other resources.

    In a related verse that is often misunderstood and mis-applied, God tells Adam and Eve to, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Exercising this dominion is a stewardship of God’s good creation. Such stewardship is fundamental aspect of the imaging of God’s triune nature in our humanity. This stewardship is an expression of and is grounded in God’s triune loving that embraces and thoughtfully stewards all that he creates.

    In imaging God in this way there is no place for the exploitative, short-sighted, materialistic, profit-above-all-else thinking that is so common in our world with its various economic systems.

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