Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Limits of Growth

(returning to my series on economics)

We finally come to one of the articles which triggered this whole thing...

His analysis is belaboring the obvious. Exponential growth, while exciting, is ultimately unsustainable. It's like the people who extend computing growth graphs to say that a hard drive can store the atomic state of a person for transporters in 2400 (Star Trek timeline), or show the temperature of CPU's reach that of the surface of the Sun.

At the same time, much of our economic wisdom is based on continual growth (see the previous post in this series).

Fifty years ago, it seemed certain that growth could be sustained through advanced technology (fission and fusion), and additional resources would come from expansion into space.

Today, that is far from certain.

The most important factor in the economy is people, and a growing economy requires a growing population.

Population has grown at about 2% (doubling every 35-40 years). This compares favorable with economic growth of 4-5%. Every forty years, you have twice as many people and four times the goods and services. There will not be equal distribution, but there is plenty to go around.

The most important good is food. The last hundred years have seen remarkable progress in this area. We produce more food with less people and land than ever before. Part of the cost of this is increased use of energy and fertilizer.

Similarly, modern conveniences require power (mostly electricity). Power production and distribution has not been spectacular, but has managed to provide what we need.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism - pt 3

(finishing my thoughts after reading McGrath's book)

My main concern is with McGrath's discernment (which is reflective of the kind of discernment we see in a lot of people).
"[in] the 2001 census of Great Britain... 72 percent of the population defined themselves as Christian. Relatively few of these attend church - a pastoral problem" (p 241)
I don't think that's a pastoral problem. It's a sign that most people have no idea what Christianity is. Most people are inoculated against the Gospel. This is not reassuring in any way.
"One of the most important elements in this new evaluation of the situation is the growing attention paid by sociologists to Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing worldwide form of Christianity." (p 192)
"One of the reasons that Pentecostalism has succeeded is that mainline Protestantism has failed to meet the needs and aspirations of the marginalized and disadvantaged." (p 196)
It appears McGrath laments the decline of mysticism and superstition which accompanied the rise of Protestantism, which Pentecostalism is bringing back (c.f. p 203, 216).

The second statement is particularly distressing. Mainline Protestants failed to protect the authority of the Bible, and sacrificed the true Gospel for a false gospel of "meeting felt needs" and helping social situations.

Pentecostalism is on the verge of losing the Gospel in the name of feelings and emotions (also through obsession with certain "gifts" of the Spirit). On the flip side, atheism is giving way to mysticism and New Age spiritualism (c.f. Sam Harris).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism - pt 2

(continuing my review of Alister McGrath's book)

I am always looking for the theology behind things. For McGrath, it is hard to find. The closest is probably pages 175-178, where he recounts his testimony of being an atheist before becoming a Christian:
"By 'atheist', I mean precisely what the word has always been understood to mean - a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God." (p 175, emphasis in original)
"I began to realize how little I knew about the history and philosophy of the natural sciences, or the nature of Christian belief... To cut a long story short, I discovered that I had rejected what I did not really understand... I began to discover a dimension to life that I had hitherto suppressed." (p178)
This is worrisome. Where is sin and repentance?

Also, McGrath seems to favor the atheist definition of faith (although it is conditional, he doesn't expand):
"If 'faith' is defined as 'belief lying beyond proof'" (p 180)

That said, McGrath does shed some light on why outward atheism had such a strong presence in Europe, but remained a minority in America. Atheism, as formulated in Europe, is a static attack on the Christianity of Europe - the mixture of Church and State. State Churches where leadership is a political appointment, and where Christianity is associated with nationalism and "the old way".

By rebelling against old, corrupt, and inadequate ways - and offering a new "global membership" (to eliminate nationalism) - atheism attracted many people who were oppressed under the old ways. Rebellion against kings and entrenched power became rebellion against the Church and, ultimately God. Where "Christendom" had been an instrument of oppression, atheism offered freedom.

In America, there was (and is) no tie between Church and State. Indeed, the local churches were often reactions against State Churches from Europe. When rebellion came, the churches were fully integrated into the spirit of rebellion.

This is why McGrath sees atheism in its twilight. The State Churches of Europe have been broken for more than a generation. The atheism of the last generation is no longer relevant for today. It cannot stand on its own, it is totally reactionary.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism

"The Twilight of Atheism" (Alister McGrath) - I had been told to read McGrath by some people at Biologos. Earlier, I read his "The Reenchantment of Nature". I was tired of the Biologos stuff, so this title seemed a good change.

McGrath connects the "empire of atheism" to modernity. He sets its rise at the fall of the Bastille, and its decline at the fall of the Berlin wall (p1, the same dates Oden uses for modernity, although McGrath does not cite Oden).

I'm finding myself annoyed with McGrath's style. He does not present things from a Biblical basis - there are no references to Scripture. His stand on key doctrines is often unclear, and sometimes hinted as being heterodox.

This is seen in his treatment of Hell:
"Darwin's rejection of God actually has little to do with the specifics of evolution, and much more to do with a general cultural dislike of some of the more noxious aspects of the hell-and-brimstone preaching of certain Victorian evangelicals " (p 104)
I can assume he means noxious to Darwin and the Victorians...
He sets this aside, until its sudden reappearance later:
"The most fundamental criticisms directed against Christianity have to do with the moral character of its God, and often focus specifically on the issue of eternal punishment. No theological issue posed greater difficulties for Victorian England." (p 274)
His advice?
"Christianity must provide answers - good answers - to such fair questions and never assume that it can recycle yesterday's answers to today's concerns." (p 274)
In charity, I can read that to say that we must always be careful to contextualize the Gospel message for our hearers. We must work to have the message make sense.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Growth, Debt, and Investment

(Continuing my series on economics)

The world economy has been growing steadily for hundreds of years. Usually at a rate of 1-4%, but any continual growth is exponential.

This is the incredible power of compound interest. 4% growth seems low. You have $100 now, and you'll have $104 next year - big deal. But, in 20 years, you'll have $219.11. In 40 years, $480.10.

These investments are needed to counteract inflation, and to provide for yourself after you are unable to work.

Investments also provide the funds involved in debt.

Some people have a knee jerk reaction against debt ("all debt is bad"). This is because a lot of people misuse debt, and are enslaved to it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with debt. It provides a way to access future earnings. A person with an idea for business takes out a loan, and starts that business. The gains from the business pay back the interest on the loan. The lender gains interest, which protects their savings against inflation.

Debt and investment are two sides of the same coin - as long as the economy is growing, and has win-win situations.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Last time we spelled out the fundamentals of the economy: specialized labor, trade, and currency (money).

1 Timothy 6:10
"For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."
This verse is often misquoted as "money is the root of all evil", but it clearly love of money (elsewhere greed is identified as a form of idolatry).

The Kingdom of Israel (as spelled out in the Old Testament) made use of currency (the shekel). Through most of history, money was in the form of precious metals (gold, silver, and copper or bronze).

Many people today bemoan the move off of the gold standard (where paper currency is tied to physical goods, usually blocks of gold) (Ron Paul, I'm looking at you).

However, it is important to realize currency is simply the "working fluid" of the engine of the economy. It's like only putting 1 quart of oil in your engine, because 1 is such a good number - being neither prime nor composite.

A growing economy needs more money to keep transactions going smoothly. This is also the source of inflation (increase in the cost of goods). As more money chases a limited number of goods, prices increase. As long as inflation is predictable, it can be handled. As long as it is low, it can be handled. Unpredictable inflation is a serious problem, unpredictable high inflation can be deadly.

The real problem is that money is also a proxy for power.

Money is related to time, but not exactly comparable. Wages are paid out per hour of labor, but everyone gets the same amount of time (168 hours per week).

If you imagine power and influence coming through the use of one's time (getting people to agree with you), then money allows you to achieve the same purpose in little or no time.

This allows some people more influence in proportion to their money.

Now, this is ratio thing. If I am a millionaire, and everyone else is only millionaires then we are all equal. But if I am a billionaire, and everyone else is millionaires - I have an edge. We see this in the rising cost of political campaigns. People will spend millions (I seem to recall the last presidential election approached a billion from all sides) for these jobs. Callous people believe this is an investment which will be paid back, but not necessarily so. Once you have enough money, you can effectively view power as the end, and money as the means (power becomes a "good" which can be bought, rather than an investment with a return).

This is a problem outside of economics. It is a political, and ultimately, theological problem.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fun Econ

(In college 200 level courses where called Fundamentals of subject, so we called them Fun)

Fundamentally, economics is about the management of scarcity. You only have so much goods, and time, and you need some plan for utilizing them. That's it.

The basic input to the economy is work, human labor. Now, God created work in the beginning, before the Fall. So work is good. However, the Fall has cursed it. For now, work is unpleasant and people need some motivation to work.

The measure of effective work per person is called "productivity". When economists talk about "productivity increase" they mean the same amount of people are doing more work, or fewer people are doing the same amount of work.

The bare minimum is "sustenance farming". This is where everyone produces everything they need. There is little or no trade, and no opportunity for specialization. With low population density, life can actually be pretty relaxed (I recall hunter gatherers had the shortest work day). Productivity is very low, since everyone must each learn every possible task. Also, individual talent is not utilized to the fullest (if I am good at growing plants, but poor at managing animals - I still spend time doing both).

Specialization requires trade (I produce only goats, and I need wheat). And trade works much better with currency (money). I have a cow and want shoes. I can't use 100 shoes, and I don't want to give up the cow for less. I can sell the cow to a third party for money, and use some to buy shoes.

Capital is the means of production (it can also refer to large investments of money). This might refer to land or animals, factories, etc.

Production can be of durable goods (things that last, perhaps further means of production - a factory that produces factory parts), or consumables (things used up; food, paper towels). There is also service - things like waiters and cooks, accountants, etc. And energy (gasoline, electricity).

A "good" is anything produced for the economy. It is usually reserved for physical items, but might be used for anything. There are no "bads", but any production has waste outputs and often "externalities" (negative side effects which fall on third parties).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Christian Economics

Because it deals with people, economics is a "soft science". The science is in the formulas and mathematical principles which can analyze trends and give some predictions for the future based on policies.

However, it cannot be separated from theology.

This comes into play with ideas like morality (what activities are right and good and should be encouraged), teleology (purpose), and anthropology (theory of man).

One of the big assumptions is that people are rational when it comes to economic decisions.

This ignores the fact that sin is irrational.

I recall after one of the recent bubbles, Alan Greenspan reported that he was surprised that greed could cause people to make bad decisions.

On the opposite side, there are those who believe that any notion of property, or that some might have more than others is inherently evil.

I am not so much interested in the ideal, as what Christianity has to say about economics in the presence of sinful actors.