As we approach the season of gift giving and spending, it might be helpful to reflect on the purpose of our economy and what kind of community we actually are — “economy,” after all, derives from the Greek word “household.”
Whenever one moves into this territory, it seems inevitable that we have to address the capitalism vs. socialism debate. More than a few 2020 political campaigns energized their base by employing anti-socialist rhetoric, and, to be fair, the revolutionary ethos of the Bernie Sanders crowd feeds some of that caricaturing. Lately, the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism, otherwise, has mostly served to manufacture intellectual gridlock.
In reality, like many Western democracies, we live in a mixed-economy and have learned to appreciate certain aspects of both economic systems. How many politically sane conservatives would knock police unions, precisely the sort of institution that brings the needs and wants of “labor” into the financial equation? How many credit-card-carrying progressives shun banks, arguably the very institution at the heart of capitalism?
Moreover, just in case the caricatures of socialism are too difficult to set aside, let’s remember that socialism does not always equate to gulags, Venezuela or Cuba (when did we forget that “the slippery slope” argument was a logical fallacy?). Look at Britain: somehow, across the Atlantic, the U.K. manages to have a nationalized health care system and maintain their standing as a global center for international banking.
The more pressing issue is that our monetary system advantages those with capital while disadvantaging those without it. This point is somewhat obscured by the argument that the wealthy pay more taxes. However, this argument ignores just how much those with capital benefit from the prevailing system — which has become ostensible during the pandemic.
Take, for example, the Federal Reserve’s approach to the current economic plight. The Fed has wholeheartedly adopted a position of “quantitative easing.” That’s fancy jargon for printing more money and spending it on bonds and other financial assets.
These actions drive up the liquidity and demand of financial assets, like stocks and bonds.
In turn, this advantages people with financial assets, especially those involved in Wall Street. Hence, during the pandemic, we have witnessed historic gains, and ridiculously high price/earning valuations. Remember, the president’s recent remarks about the soaring Dow Jones?
On the other end of the spectrum, folks without assets, those living paycheck to paycheck, and most of America without savings, are left out of these phenomenal returns. Worse than being left out, the dollar is devalued by this same monetary policy. Even though the Fed’s reported numbers on inflation are low, when you consider that American financial institutions are beginning to hedge their portfolios with cryptocurrencies, (currencies that can’t be inflated by central banks) like Bitcoin, one starts to suspect that something is indeed awry. All that to say, the rich are indeed getting richer and the poor are getting poorer — and this is only one example.
Meanwhile, Congress can’t agree on stimulus checks. Notice, we call these economic payments “stimulus checks?” I think this betrays the heart of the matter. The government sends money so that ultimately people will spend it, aka stimulate the economy. That’s the issue. It isn’t simply that the wealthy are sitting around plotting to step on the poor. More fundamentally, the “economy” has become something too abstract, a thing in itself, too big to fail. And, those who make that economy run get the best ride.
But, what does any of this have to do with God or Christmas?
In the poem Choruses from “The Rock,” the famed poet T.S. Eliot imagines a mysterious stranger emerging from the wilderness. It has a definite Advent feel. The stranger then asks:
‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love one another?’ What will you answer “we all dwell together to make money from each other?’ or “This is a community’?
Capitalism and socialism and systems aside, this stranger poses a powerful question. But, do we really want to answer?
David W. Priddy, of Broadway, is a pastor and an adjunct professor at Campbell University in the Christian Studies Department.