Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who Loves Capitalism?

My previous posting was about income tax, and I am continuing to think about economic matters in this article. Just the evening before Tax Day, June and I watched Michael Moore’s 2009 movie “Capitalism: A Love Story.” We thought it was a good movie. But there are those who not only don’t like it, they hate it.
I was a bit surprised that the movie included brief comments by a retired Catholic bishop from Detroit and two other Catholic priests, who were all quite negative in their comments about capitalism. But through the years there has been a rather long line of prominent Christians, Protestants as well as Catholics, who have been critical of capitalism.
As you know, those who are conservative politically are strong opponents of President Obama, and there has been a steady stream of criticism calling him a socialist and decrying his leading the country into socialism (or even Communism). His pushing for the healthcare reform bill, of course, has been one of the main reasons for that attack. And, in fact, the President is probably just one of many prominent politicians who are somewhat critical of capitalism.
In the previous posting, I mentioned Ronald Dellums, the current mayor of Oakland (CA). He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1998, and he was the first openly socialist congressperson since World War II. Although I have known of him since the early 1970s because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, I did not know until recently that he is a democratic socialist. But I was not surprised when I learned that.
Are you aware that BernardBernie” Sanders (1941), the junior U.S. Senator from Vermont serving in his third year, also describes himself as a democratic socialist? He is said to be the first open socialist to serve in the Senate. There are, of course, many others, mostly liberal Democrats, who are regularly charged with being socialists. And maybe a number of them are democratic socialist sympathizers. But is should that be considered a bad thing?
If even half of the things Michael Moore says about capitalism are true—and probably more than half are, in fact, true—then it seems to me that followers of Jesus Christ ought to be among the leaders of those seeking an alternative economic system, or at least modification of the present capitalistic system.
Thankfully, there have been some modifications through the years. Michael Harrington (1928-89) was one of the outstanding socialist scholars in the twentieth century. Perhaps his most influential book was The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), a work that had an impact on the Kennedy administration and on Johnson’s subsequent “war on poverty.”
So, who loves capitalism? Primarily, those who have capital. And it probably can be said that, in general, the more capital one has, the more that person loves capitalism. But there is little love for capitalism by most of those who live in “the other America,” and also by those who are most concerned for people living in poverty.


  1. I was happy to receive the following comments from a dear Canadian friend, whose e-mail signature is Rev. Dr. Glen Davis, Presbyterian Director of Denominational Formation, Vancouver School of Theology

    "Your thoughts on capitalism struck a chord with me. I recommend that you look at the Accra Confession (google it). You might be familiar with it. It was produced by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and makes a good case for the position that unrestrained capitalism and consumerism combined with the ideology of limitless growth are in direct opposition to the Bible and to the Gospel. All we have to do is look at the economic injustice around the world, not to mention here in North America, to realize there is something terribly amiss when the churches line up in support of the so-called free market capitalist system. Either we are for Christ and his good news to the poor or we are for a system that allows the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer and are denied their fair share of the abundant resources of God’s creation."

  2. I was also happy to have another e-mail from my teacher and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, who wrote,

    "The most serious fault of capitalism is the inequities it creates. When Clarence Jordan met with the faculty at Southern Seminary, I referred to the problem of poverty. He responded, 'Glenn, the problem is not poverty. It's wealth. Too few people have got too much money. Too many of us don't have enough.' Christianity would seem to me to put itself over against such great disparities."

  3. As a proponent of Biblical capitalism, I would note that the problems of "capitalism" stem from standards (ethics) which drive and promote vices, amusement and excess. Both corporate capitalism and government socialism rely too much on extravagant debt to drive them. Wealth and poverty are relative terms and, a poor means of measuring of success or failure. All need to be productive and learn contentment. The Church should assume its role of charitable assistance, rather being a do-nothing or a name slinger. As a people of God let's promote Biblical capitalism, and sacrificial social justice.

  4. It is interesting that capitalism developed in Europe as a curative to wars and conflicts generated by the mixing of church and state. I would rather go to the source of true capitalism (Adam Smith) than the person who has made a personal fortune attacking various businesses and individuals (Michael Moore). Mr. Moore attacks the regulated capitalism which exists in this country. Unfortunately we have not had unbridled capitalism here for at least 100 years. He is attacking a system that is closer to crony capitalism which has the politicians and the business leaders in bed together in such a way as to minimize and eliminate competition. The current system is ideal for maximizing profits at the expense of choice which pure capitalism would provide. In other words, any barriers to entry in providing products keeps the numbers of providers to a minimum so that costs escalate to the consumers. I do not see that many people would have an interest in pure capitalism, because it would resemble a market place in a third world country with many providers selling goods and services to many consumers. Marketing and advertising would be eliminated and it would be a buyers market. The current oligopolies in most fields maximize profit by eliminating competition which leads to a sellers market.

    I would be interested in any ideas about other economic systems which would be better than crony capitalism. I would put pure capitalism up against any other economic system devised for empowering and elevating greater percentages of people from poverty including but not limited to socialism which has had a number of permutations in the world generally leading to a few haves (e.g. Michael Moore) and a number of have-nots.

  5. I appreciate hearing from 1sojourner again, but I am not sure what he means by "Biblical capitalism." Neither capitalism nor socialism are mentioned in the Bible, and I question whether a case can be made for either Biblical capitalism or Biblical socialism. When I looked online for "Biblical capitalism," the first link was to an article by Christian Reconstructionist Gary North. Since that is the position he advocates, I am even more skeptical about it.

  6. I don't know how to respond to the thoughtful comments by DHJ, but I would suggest listening to Michael Moore's response to Wolf Blitzer when the latter interviewed him on 9/25/09. The link is

  7. Biblical capitalism is closely linked to the concepts of risk, faith and productivity to which God calls his followers. This is found from Genesis to Revelation, but best highlighted by Jesus Christ in his parables about expectations - sower, talents, etc. However capitalism is no replacement for social justice.

  8. Many interesting ideas here, and capitalism is way too complicated for my normal concise response. I think capitalism was in the Bible, since there were moneychangers in the temple. There is discussion of debt and slavery, both of which are signs of capitalism rather than socialism. While the indicators I see are not positive signs of capitalism, they do show capitalism was an economic system during Bible times, if not the primary system. Unless I am mistaken, Israel counted on 11 tribes producing more than they needed, so the Levites could share in the bounty in exchange for their services.

    Two other concepts raised were fair share of resources and a democratic economy based on moral principles. Socialism’s biggest failure is driven by an increasing number of participants that realize they are guaranteed their fair share regardless of how much effort they exert, so they cut back their effort. Better moral principles would solve that. But it is that same lack of morality that undermines capitalism.

    Why are CEOs’ incomes hundreds of times more than each of their workers’? Why do professional sports stars and other entertainers make millions? The first is hard to solve, but we do have a democratic economy for the second. Why do people complain about players making millions and then go watch them play? The only conclusion I can reach is the players must not be making too much --- yet. Part of the issue is government subsidization, which is an example of government intruding on capitalism where it should not.

    No one has talked about managing resources through supply and demand versus rationing, and government’s involvement. I will leave that to someone else.

  9. After I read Dr. Seat's entry I thought about it throughout the day yesterday. Even without the opportunity to see the Michael Moore film (I don't think it has come to Japan yet...or at least to my town in Japan), this is a subject that I have been thinking about for several years. I've had the opportunity to speak to East Germans, Cubans and Russians on the pros and cons of their forms of communism. I've also spoken with far right conservatives in Louisiana about the virtues of capitalism. Talking about money and resources can be as risky a conversation as talking about religion, because for many people in the world, the manner in which money and resources should be used and distributed IS their religion. But at the end of the day, I think the problem is human greed, not capitalism or socialism. Communist systems could not eradicate greed, only punish it when found. But in the end, those systems collapsed because of greed and the feeling of injustice about giving one's labor and resources to help strangers. The particularly destructive form of American capitalism will also collapse because the type of greed manifested in this system stimulates pride, envy and violence.

    If the virtues of sharing and using one's resources to help others were highlighted more in American society, a capitalist system would truly set people free to do good (and of course many people are doing that). The same spirit would empower a communist system to put the focus on life together in community rather than getting more things.

    My wife tells me that I have the ability to take a very complex subject and give a blindingly simple explanation (NOT a complement on her part), but at the end of the day, I think the problem is less about economic systems, and more about greed.

  10. My good Thinking Friend Craig Dempsey, who lives just up Canterbury Lane from June and me, asked me to post his comments:

    Capitalism is like fire, with three relevant states. There is wild fire, controlled fire, and no fire. The cold dead ashes of socialism are clearly the “no fire” state. However, many, including many prominent economists, totally fail to see the critical difference between the other two. Work is done by a “controlled fire.” In some situations a wild fire may do some good, but those are way out in the wilderness, far from human habitations and properties. The discovery of the control of fire was one of the defining moments in human history. The Greeks honor it in the myth of Prometheus. On the other hand, run away wild fires regularly put California on the evening news. A wild fire can destroy your property, burn down your house, and even take your life.

    Wild capitalism can do the same thing. The current “Great Recession” was born in a financial wild fire. It is just as dangerous for fire, or capitalism, to get out of control as it is for it to go out. In recent days the news has featured an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico shining “as bright as the sun,” before finally sinking beneath the waves on Earth Day. When a controlled fire goes wild, the result is frequently a disaster. We all know the song that begins, “One dark night, when we were all in bed, . . .” A cow kicks the lantern over and Chicago burns down.

    In the April 2008 issue of Scientific American, Robert Nadeau explains much of the problem with modern economics in an article titled, “The Economist Has No Clothes.” The theoretical foundations of classical economics, still in wide use today, were lifted from mid-nineteenth century physics, with simple substitutions of economic variables for physical variables. However, physics abandoned those equations as inadequate, shortly after economics borrowed them. Indeed, scientists at the time tried to warn the economists that there was no guarantee their substitutions would work, even at the time that classical physics formulas were assumed to be correct. Then James Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and Albert Einstein happened. Most economists have been totally unprepared to deal with the environmental challenges of recent decades, in no small part because their formulas are based on a totally obsolete model. And Nadeau did not even get into what mathematics has done to such formulas in the last century, unleashing chaos theory, complexity theory, fractal geometry and Mandelbrot sets. Even the physicists have been struggling to keep up. Life is non-linear. Knowledge is limited by the uncertainty principle. Where is the General Relativity Theory of Economics?

    The Bible not only recognizes economic activity, it also attempts to regulate it. From Sabbath to Jubilee, the economic implications are clear. I would not look to the Bible for some magic formula to replace classical economics, but there is a basic common sense that calls us to be wise stewards of our time and resources. Neither would I recommend getting too hung up on the apparent communism of some parts of the New Testament. We see examples throughout history where special groups on special projects have been similarly organized. Indeed, one of the most obvious examples is almost the exact opposite of the New Testament, namely an army on the march. The Bible teaches us through various religious and social models, so it should not surprise that it has various economic models as well. I suspect the authors of the Bible would be not at all surprised that our recent neglect of the poor has brought down our entire economy around us. We have frequently not wanted to render unto either Caesar or God. Jesus tells us to render unto both. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20b