Does studying economics make you selfish?

A fascinating discussion took place on Morning Edition just a few moments ago. Shankar Vedantum shared the results of a recent study that tries to determine whether there is a connection between the classic economics ideal of “rational self-interest” and generosity. If you want to listed to it, go here.

It turns out that listening to a lesson on self-interest corresponds to a 50% reduction in generosity.

Some subjects were given $20; other subjects were not given any money. Both were told that those with cash could make a single deal with the others, and that it was not subject to negotiation–it would be final.

Under these circumstances the average deal was close to a 50/50 split. On average the person with the cash gave the other person $8.50.

After listening to a lecture on self-interest that average amount was reduced to $4.50–an approximately 50% reduction. 

What’s the lesson?

Surely part of it is that we respond positively to expectations of what normal behavior is. 

Would a church where the pastor regularly talks about generosity as a normal part of discipleship be a more generous church?

What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.

Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

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Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

Four things I love about international travel

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to join my wife who has spent the last week in Oxford, UK. She’s been participating in the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford program at Wycliffe Hall. I’ll spend the last three days of her program exploring book shops, pubs, and the town. Then, we’ll spend three days together touring C S Lewis’s home, The Kilns, punting the Cherwell, taking high tea, and having as much fun as we can handle.

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I love international travel. I was fortunate to have spent the most formative years of my life outside of the United States. I was born in Cyprus. Spent four years in Germany (Berlin) and then ten years in Great Britain. I’ve lived in the Western, Southern, and Northeastern United States. Additionally, I’ve visited several other countries like France, the Netherlands, Brazil, Greece, and Turkey. By globe-trotter standard, not particularly impressive. However, many people never have the chance to leave their state let alone their country. International travel is a privilege, something accompanies sufficient affluence to be able to afford it and sufficient education so as to value it.

There are five things that I especially love about international travel:

  • 1. The chance to leave my “home” culture behind.
  • 2. The chance to absorb another culture.
  • 3. The chance to observe Christianity in that other culture.
  • 4. The chance to observe views about the USA in that other culture.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I love taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of other cultures. More than that, I always find myself observing, studying, probing the culture I’m in looking for connection between things that I’m familiar with and things that I am experiencing for the first time. That’s why I love international travel.

    Where is God in the world?

    The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

    Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

    The overlooked issue this election

    Felix Salmon of the Reuters has an interesting blog post the real issue in this election: poverty and economic opportunity. After responding at length to Nina Easton’s cover story in Fortune, “Stop bashing the rich,” Salmon concludes:

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    It seems to me that the current election campaign comes down in large part to a simple question: “who do you care about”? Do you care about the 1%, on the grounds that they are “job creators”? Or do you care about the bottom 40% — the people who have been left behind by US economic policy and who desperately need help and support? The Republicans clearly are the party of the 1%, and the Democrats are trying to paint themselves as the party of the middle class — of the 59%, you might say. But no one is standing up for the bottom 40%, the invisible poor, partly because they have a distressing tendency not to vote.

    I think he’s right. The single largest difference between the two parties is that republicans have positioned themselves as the part of wealth creators and the democrats are attempting to position themselves as the party of the employee–middle class and otherwise.

    I suppose how you answer this question will largely effect how you vote.

    Fulfillment through forgoing

    One of the presuppositions of our culture is that more is, well, more–that with greater material affluence comes greater happiness or fulfillment, a better life. This runs counter to the principle of askesis (Gk, “exercise” or “training”). The word is the root of our word asceticism–the forgoing of material comfort for the purpose of focus or spiritual benefit.

    It turns out that in limiting ourselves (or in embracing our human limitations) we actually open ourselves up to the thing that ultimately make us happy–shared experience with people we love:

    We are familiar with the frequently beneficial consequences of involuntary askesis. How many times have we heard as we have visited a parishioner in the days following a heart attack, ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me–I’ll never be the same again. It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is important.’ Suddenly instead of of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction–success, or money, or happiness–the person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal–family, geography, body–and begins to live freshly in love and appreciation. The change is a direct consequence of a force realization of human limits. Pulled out of the fantasy of a god condition and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised to be living not a diminished life but a deepened life, not a crippled life but a zestful life. -Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

    Subversive gardening

    “A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important; He is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as a traffic impediment, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration.”

    Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural

    [Repost] Why Work?

    I am on vacation this week so I’m offering some previous posts from the blog that remain timely. I’ll be back online on Monday.


    In her essay entitled, “Why Work?” Dorothy L. Sayers writes a scathing critique of the West (specifically, England). Her words were written during the Second World War when all of England was experiencing what might be called drastic shortages of certain food stuffs. Sayers points out that all industrial capitalist economies are based on consumption. That is to say, there is no market for goods and services except that there are parties who wish to consume (i.e., use) these goods or services. I might attempt to go into business as a physic advertizing that I can achieve wonderful results for sufferers of the gout by treating it with leaches and blood-letting. Not have consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I am fairly willing to say that there is not a strong market for this sort of thing. There are no consumers.

    The central point of her critique is that consumer capitalism erodes the Christian doctrine of vocation. Why? Sayers claims that the advent of modern capitalism has produced jobs rather than vocations (“callings”). The industrial revolution provided massive increases in the efficiency of labor. By dividing labor tasks (i.e., conveyor-belt) the production of goods could be radically increased. The problem? Increased efficiency in production is negligible apart from a similar increase in demand for said goods. If there is no corresponding increase in demands then the price of the goods falls.

    The result of these advances was the removal of the worker from the creation of an item/product. In other words where once the same wheelwright was responsible for the creation of a wheel from start to finish, now one person treats the wood, another steams and shapes it, another makes the spokes, another forges the iron band, another markets and another delivers it. The division of labor here can drastically increase the number of wheel produced, but at what cost to the worker?

    Sayers critique is based upon a couple of presuppositions. The first is that each individual is called to a vocation and that this vocation must be morally good, creative, constructive, and provide fulfilment to that person. [By this logic, no one is called to the vocation of tele-marketer.] Second, this vocation is one of the chiefest purposes of this person’s life and therefore, in Sayers’ mind, “we live to work rather than work to live.” She has no time for, indeed she claims it is sub-Christian, to work simply for the purpose of getting a pay check.

    At the time of writing this essay, massive amounts of money were being spent on the war in Europe. Sayers poses the question, will the material sacrifices made during the war endure when the war ends? If anything, the war proved that “man does not live by bread alone.” Even with very little affluence, comfort, or luxury, the British people managed to live good lives. Of course, the war itself was serving as the chief consumer at the time, and the majority of businesses (public and private) were directed at providing products useable in that market.

    Of course, we know now that the Post-War Western hemisphere has plunged headlong into the type of consumption that Sayers decried in Pre-War Europe. Does capitalism then actually improve lives? Does technology actually make humanity more contented? This is, of course, difficult to gauge. However, I will concede the point to Sayers that the world would be a better place if there were more artists–those who work because they must, not simply to get paid. Of course, given that I am writing this in a coffee shop on a notebook computer with a wireless card shows that I enjoy consuming plenty of goods and services!

    There are many people who work simply to get a pay check. Perhaps they need not do this. Perhaps they grow accustomed to the comfort of a certain (or at least relatively certain) amount of money coming into their checking account each month. They could do otherwise, but over time they give up on their dreams. It is, perhaps, here that Entrepreneurs can teach us (and Sayers) something. At the start, the only reason to start a company is because you believe in it (unless you are a fraud). When you’re working 60 hours-a-week for next to nothing, you are building the character and discipline that will regulate you when the profits begin. Entrepreneurs are artists. We can quibble about whether the services they provide are truly necessary/good/worthwhile (or whatever justification you might require for the consumption of a good or service), but most entrepreneurs believe in what they’re doing. And they are the financial bedrock of their communities.

    It’s encouraging to know that from a Christian perspective, entrepreneur can be a virtuous vocation. Once upon a time I would have agreed with all that Sayers’ wrote. Now I see the wisdom and limitations of her words. It is, after all, the same moral compass that creates wealth both by fueling wealth-creating businesses and precluding mindless consumption of unnecessary or overly-wasteful goods and services.

    Can you create community?

    “Community will start again when people begin to do necessary things for each other again.” – Wendell Berry (Morris Allen Grubbs, ed. Conversations with Wendell Berry, 75).

    I’ve been reflecting on what seems like an innocuous little quote. Institutions like churches and universities spend a great deal of money in the name of “creating community.” Initiatives and programs are started and funded with the purpose of bringing into being that utopian idea of “community.” Berry’s simply (and profound) observation undermines what is often an overly consumerist approach to creating community.

    Some reflections:

      1. Community is not a thing to be created; it is shared activity. Community occurs when we give our shared attention and effort to something outside of ourselves.

      2. Community arises most deeply in shared “necessary things.” Healthy community implies that we rely upon our neighbors. It’s almost impossible to really rely on someone in the context of leisure or luxury. This isn’t to say that leisure or luxury are always bad only that they are limited and, of course, to some extent (especially luxury) they are optional.

      3. Community impllies reciprocity or mutuality. We need and are needed. Community cannot be uni-directional.

    These values bring to mind my recent trip to Quarryville, PA. At the 2000 census the population of Quarrville was 1,994 (it occupies 1.3 sq miles of land). That means that the borough of Quarryville is about the same size as InterVarsity as a national movement and less than half the size of the university where I do collegiate ministry.

    If you spend much time around the town, you’ll notice that agriculture is the primary means of sustaining a family. There are lots of farm-owners and other farmworkers around. There seem to be some dairy herds as well as land that’s producing crops.

    You get the sense that there is a great degree of community in that place. It’s not the sentimental sort of community that I often fall prey to. Rather, it’s a robust form of community that for a suburban person might even feel at times gossipy, exclusive, or even provincial. However, it is real community marked principally by what Berry notes above: doing necessary things for one another.

    We long to find community, but our modern consumer values mitigate against it. Consumerism makes community difficult because we come to believe that we ought to be able to buy our way out of needing other people (by purchasing a tool, hiring a handman, etc). It makes community feel burdensome. It also belittles necessary things. Who wants to spend their lives doing chores? I certainly do not, but it is entirely possible that our aversion to things mundane is detrmental to the development of our souls in a Godward direction. After all–spiritual formation is, as Eugene Peterson has written, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Mile 26 of a marathon might be a high, but most of the preceding 25 are fairly gruelling (or so I imagine).

    We desire nothing so much as “to be named and placed” (Craig Goodwin, Year of Plenty, 80). And there’s no better way to experience this than to get down and dirty and do some necessary things, together.

    Neither poverty nor riches

    Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
    Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
    lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the LORD?”
    or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.
    (Proverbs 30:7-9 ESV)