Simplicity, Balance, Wisdom, Generosity: A New Economy

Bob Massie ’82 M.Div.

Editor’s note: The following essay is adapted from a new work by Bob Massie that was commissioned by Yale Divinity School entitled A Handbook on Faith & Money. The project was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The e-book can be read or downloaded at as an app for smartphone, Kindle, tablet, or computer.

In 1972, three Yale University professors published a groundbreaking book called The Ethical Investor, which examined the conditions under which people have moral obligations to strangers.

One condition is the principle of proximity: If a person is physically close to someone who is in desperate need, that person has a strong obligation to offer assistance.

This obligation diminishes with distance. When a homeowner discovers a starving baby on her doorstep, she may not slam the door and ignore it. The baby’s need creates an immediate moral duty and will prompt her to act. But if that baby is one of a million indistinguishable infants homeless in a distant land, the sense of obligation shrinks virtually to zero.

We all recognize and regret this ethical limitation, which we justify by saying that the suffering of the world unfolds daily at an unimaginable scale, and our limited minds and fragile souls can only absorb so much.

Retail Innocence

Global markets benefit from this dynamic of distance. If an object is made on one side of the planet, and sold on the other, awareness of the human and environmental costs steadily disappear. Each point of transfer and exchange adds a new layer of distance and anonymity, stripping the consumer of knowledge and diluting responsibility. The final purchaser may be completely ignorant of the production details. Our ignorance permits us to defend our innocence. For decades this has allowed us to buy jewelry, feed our pets, wear clothing, and talk on smartphones without any awareness of the often harsh and unjust circumstances that produced the items.

This phenomenon – in which distance defuses obligation – is a major reason for the “globalization of indifference,” as Pope Francis calls it in his 2015 Laudato Si’ encyclical. We gradually have permitted ourselves to classify billions of fellow human beings as undeserving of the same dignity and protections that we would demand for ourselves. Some even argue this is a necessary and desirable path for poor countries: Their low wages and horrendous working conditions, it is claimed, are an economic advantage, attracting investments by global corporations that provide at least some work and income to those who would otherwise have none.

The question for people of faith who believe in the equality of all human beings is how to bring light into the darkness of anonymous exchange and track the history of our everyday consumer products, exposing injustices that exist along the way. Some organizations like the Stockholm Environment Institute have deployed brilliant information technology to trace back specific shipments of certain commodities – cocoa, soy, seed, palm oil – to the exact place where farmers are deforesting vast amounts of virgin land.2 Religious activists whose institutional bonds often transcend national boundaries have played a crucial role, pressing corporations about the ethics of their supply chains and exposing the abusive conditions of farmers, migrants, and factory workers.

“People Care When They Know”

The organization Fashion Revolution, created in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the Rhana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,133 people and injured 2,500, decided to test consumers’ purchasing behavior before and after they were given much more detailed information about the production of a retail item. Fashion Revolution set up a vending machine in a public square in Berlin that offered one T-shirt for two Euros (about $2.25). When a potential buyer inserted her money and chose the size, a video appeared introducing Manisha, a young garment worker, and proceeded to show how she and millions of other workers, many of them children, worked up to 16 hours a day sewing T-shirts for 15 cents an hour.

At the end of the video, the machine asked whether they still wanted to buy the shirt or preferred to donate the money to Fashion Revolution to fight for decent working conditions. Most donated. “People care when they know,” the video concludes simply.3

Four Questions

How do we behave in a world where we face a blizzard of consumer choices that are hawked as necessary for our happiness, many of which have a troubled story of origin that is aggressively concealed? Urgently we need to assert four questions that advertising and marketing often labor to nullify:

  1. Do I really need this?
  2. Where did it come from?
  3. When I am done with it, where will it go?
  4. What is the true price of what I am buying?

The fourth question is particularly important when looking at a global economy. When we buy a car, we know we will be imposing costs on other people by pushing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for the entire life of the vehicle. But we do not pay for that expense, neither when we negotiate the sticker price nor when we buy gas. Those environmental expenses are simply sloughed off, and any damage that comes to our collective health – our water, land, and air – must be paid for by public means, through taxes. In buying a car we thus pay a much lower price than its actual cost, an arrangement that offers car manufacturers no incentive to change what they are doing.

Such market failures are actually common, and it is the responsibility of governments to correct the most serious ones. The traditional manner is to impose a surcharge on the price of the object so that the price contains all the costs of its production and use. Manufacturers don’t like this because it makes products more expensive – which in turn might reduce the number of buyers. Some argue that making products more expensive is particularly unjust to the poor, who should be allowed to buy cheap dangerous products even if they have to pay for the damage through their taxes later.

True Cost of Living

A higher, more realistic price would put pressure on companies to find ways to solve the failure and lower the cost, and it would save the public the money that it is otherwise forced to spend to fix problems later. One of the most pressing debates about pricing can be found over the issue of carbon fees. We know the burning of carbon is doing deep and irreparable damage to the planet – to the global flows of wind, water, air, and heat – and we must brace for much more to come, a brutal cost on humanity continuing for centuries.

The current system is so entrenched – benefiting so many powerful people, delivering so much evident bounty while concealing such lethal damage, favoring the present while sacrificing our future – that we are well on a road to environmental and thus economic collapse. People in Europe and Asia have steadily been forced to reckon with limits, but most citizens and everyone in power in the US have remained committed to the exhilarating conviction of the land’s first European settlers – that the continent was a source of endless natural wealth, and no matter what we did or how much we took, we could never exhaust or damage the abundance of the earth. If ever there were a time when human beings needed to adopt the biblical role of steward, caretaker, and guardian, it is now.

Here is our dilemma. We want the benefits that a modern economy can offer – the extraordinary range of products that can enhance our lives, the continuous flow of new technologies and information. But we also want to eliminate the destructive exploitation of people and planet that is taking place, largely invisibly, around the world.

Within Christianity and other major world religions, we have clear guidance about our obligations as stewards over our miraculous planet, unique in its beauty and fertility. To quote the title of the 2011 book by John de Graff and David Batker, we should ask, What’s the Economy For, Anyway? We may formulate a spiritual practice for our own lives and create communities that enhance gifts of simplicity, balance, wisdom, and generosity, but what about a huge global system that looks so invincible?

The good news is there are many things that people of faith can do – especially when they act together. We can identify four practical and powerful approaches to making structural change in our economy. All of them are currently in motion, advancing across the country and around the world:

  • Change the measurements of national progress.
  • Increase corporate transparency and accountability.
  • Use investor power to adjust the objectives of business.
  • Develop hybrid mechanisms of ownership and control.

Each of these approaches, by itself, can have a significant effect, but taken together they have the potential to move the economy in truly new directions. The goal before us is to fashion “a living economy that is designed to generate the conditions for life to thrive, an economy with a built-in tendency to be socially fair and ecologically sustainable,” Marjorie Kelly says in Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution (Berrett-Koehler, 2012). This she calls a generative economy.

Structure Creates Behavior

As more people recognize that our entrenched economy and paralyzed political system have failed to address our most pressing problems, frustration is pouring into new channels. Some of it is expressed as anger. Creative solutions are also emerging, as Americans rediscover their inventive instincts and generate new models. As Marjorie Kelly puts it: Intention creates structure, and structure creates behavior.

In the US we are witnessing an explosion of ideas about the purposes an economy should serve. Dozens of terms are being coined – sustainable economy, sharing economy, solidarity economy, a creative, social, generative, green, and circular economy. All of these are grouped loosely under the “new economy” heading, which provides just enough of an umbrella to allow different groups to learn from each other and find common cause. From such organizations a flood of recommendations has appeared about how to make the economy more environmentally balanced, including shifting money to credit unions, creating systems for participatory budgeting, strengthening community development corporations and land trusts, shifting government money to smaller banks, and diversifying retirement plans.4

Author Gar Alperovitz, in his extraordinary guide to new economy thinking, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (Chelsea Green, 2013), makes the case that major “anchor institutions” across the US – universities, hospitals, municipalities – are stimulating new networks of local prosperity. After cataloguing hundreds of examples, Alperovitz argues that a new system is already emerging in checkerboard fashion that has not yet been acknowledged by our political, economic, and media elites.

Institutional Redesign

What is the role of local faith communities in the transformation of our economy? They can be places where individuals find support as they move more deeply into a life of commitment. Practicing the gifts of simplicity, balance, wisdom, and generosity, people can be moved to create or redesign institutions at the scale of a larger community, with objectives that transcend the pressures and vocabulary of our modern economy. We know communities of faith can become crucial participants in the “checkerboard” that Alperovitz refers to – spaces where, in the consumer economy, an alternative set of values can be lived out. They can become forerunners of the just and sustainable society we long for.

The communities of faith that have engaged me are largely Christian from across the spectrum of practice – from Protestant to Catholic, from monastic to evangelical. Privately, we may have strong practices of prayer, meditation, or contemplation, but we still need to be in contact with other human beings in order to grow. Faith communities must not only be centers of inward retreat but also of outward engagement. They need a strong self-understanding of their role as economic actors in their local settings. With every dollar they spend, or person they hire, building they construct, investment they own, and  program they launch, they are participating in the economy. Sometimes their values have pushed outward and influenced the marketplace. Sometimes the values of the market overrun the values of faith, such as when a church overlooks the implications of its principles for its stock portfolio.

We spend so much time hiding from the world, hiding from its profligate beauty, hiding from the implications of our mortality, hiding from the obscene cruelty that humans inflict on each other. How do we live in a world that has both the delicacy to nurture 26,000 varieties of orchids and the brutality that enslaves, rapes, and trafficks in girls in cities or boys on fishing boats that are hauling up our cat food?5 How can we justify the destruction of the most beautiful and ancient parts of earth in order to satisfy the short-term whims of those who momentarily have more wealth?

Gardens of Imagination

Our intention, mission, purpose in life does not need to be complicated. We can replace the dead totem of money that constricts our hearts with a living commitment to each other and to our world.

Faith communities are, among their many qualities, gardens of the imagination, where participants are actively encouraged to dream about what a perfected life would be like. We cannot build what we cannot imagine. People have talked for thousands of years of the reconciled family of the human race, the place where the lion lies down with the lamb, the kingdom of God, which may exist primarily in the future, but is continuously attempting to break into present existence through the faithfulness of believers.

As I look around a church, I imagine we are all different musical instruments, capable of making the most exhilarating sounds. But to be able to do so, we need to be tuned from time to time. Our daily encounters with the world can push us off key. Communities of faith can create moments of peace, reconciliation, inner rest, and deep healing. Many maintain powerful connections across time and space, honoring ancestors and elders who did their best in the long-ago past, or sharing present- day messages and support with others around the world, many of them outside a particular denomination or faith. At its best, a community of faith can create a powerful sense that transcends differences or conflicts and moves into the harmonious domain of love.

Bob Massie ’82 M.Div. is an author and veteran social justice advocate who has led several organizations committed to the common good. They include Ceres, the Global Reporting Initiative, the New Economy Coalition, and the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass-Boston. Ordained in the Episcopal Church, he is the author of Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years (Doubleday, 1997) and A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience (Doubleday, 2012).