Monday, December 7, 2009

Spiritual Economics Lesson

My undergraduate degree is in economics though my graduate degree is in theology. I imagine it's a rare combination. Economics has been called the 'dismal science' and is boring to most people. However, I have found that the kinds of analyses that economists use can be useful to gain a better understanding of issues that face Christians today.

I recall years ago reading some material regarding what is called "Liberation Theology". Now it sounds very good and has seduced some who care deeply for the poor, but it is basically Marxism in Christian garb. I immediately recognized the Marxist social and economic themes that dominate this false theology.

Now most of us are not going to fall for that sort of thing, but there are some more subtle things that Christians do fall for some times. One of them is confusing intrinsic worth of something (or someone) with its value in the marketplace. When someone is paid, say, $10.00 per hour to do some job, the employer is not saying that that is what this person is worth as a person. They are saying what the job they are performing is worth. No employer could possibly pay someone what they were worth as a person. (Only Jesus could do that.)

Let's look at some of the distinctions that economists make to help us understand this better. Aristotle (who might be considered the world's first economist) made the distinction between value-in-use and value-in-exchange. The classic example of these two things is diamonds and water. The value-in-exchange (price) of a diamond is much higher than that of water. I get water to the faucets of my house for about $25 per month and I use thousands of gallons a month. That is cheap. Can you imagine what the cost of that would be if it were diamonds? It would be astronomical because the value-in-exchange of diamonds is many times that of water.

But what about value-in-use? Which one is greater? Water is much more useful than diamonds. You can live without diamonds but you cannot live without water. This does not mean, however, that water ought to cost more than diamonds. Indeed, it is very good thing that water does not cost more than diamonds. We need more of the things that have a high value-in-use. The fact that diamonds cost more is irrelevant to the value we place on water.

Well, so what? Too dismal for you?

Have you ever heard someone say something like this: "We pay pro basketball players millions of dollars a year and we pay our school teachers only a fraction of that. Doesn't that show that our society places a much lower value on teachers than it does basketball players?" No, it does not! What we pay basketball players has no bearing on the value we place on school teachers.

Let's break this down. There are about 400 NBA players and millions of fans. But there are hundreds of thousands of school teachers with millions of students. We actually pay more in total to school teachers than we do to basketball players, but there are far fewer players so each player gets more.

Let's pose a hypothetical. Let's pay an NBA player $1 per fan per game at the arena. There are 82 games per year and let's say that attendance averages 15,000 per game. 82 times 15,000 equals $1.23 million per year. We have not included advertising and TV revenues here and we are only paying the player a dollar per person!

Now for our hypothetical school teacher. Let's pay the teacher $1 per student in a class. The teacher teaches 25 students per class and teaches 6 classes a day. There are 180 school days. 25 times 6 times 180 equals $27,000 per year.

It is easy to see that the teacher is paid much less than the basketball player, but can we really say that the basketball player is overpaid? Not really. His income, by this analysis, seems quite reasonable. Each fan is only paying a dollar to see him play. Is the teacher underpaid? Perhaps so, but it has nothing to do with the basketball player.

Also, and more importantly, I have no doubt that if you asked the most rabid basketball fan if he would rather have teachers or the NBA that he would choose the teachers. In other words, the teachers have a higher value-in-use. The price of a basketball player is much higher than that of a school teacher, but that is a good thing. If we paid teachers like basketball players it would bankrupt all of us. It is not possible. So why begrudge a basketball player his money? It has nothing to do with the 'value' we place on teachers. Teachers are like water - cheap, abundant and valuable. Basketball players are like diamonds - rare, expensive, entertaining and expendable.

Now back to our original subject.

The value of something in the marketplace is not how that society determines its intrinsic value. That is because prices and wages are determined by the laws of supply and demand and not by some sort of evaluation of its intrinsic worth. In fact, the things with the most intrinsic worth (water, for example) are cheaper because they are abundant. Where it is not abundant it becomes very expensive and that is a bad thing. We need things of high intrinsic value (water, food, clothing) to be abundant and cheap, that is, affordable to all.

You might be saying that this is all very interesting but what does it have to do with being a Christian. First of all, I have heard Christians talk about things like this in the pulpit and in Sunday Schools, etc. They make the same mistakes that the world does about these things. Except that they are worse. I have heard Christians condemn the supposedly higher value that we place on entertainers than we do on more necessary things. Now that may be true but the examples used are fallacious.

What a basketball player or movie star is paid has to do with the demand for their services and what price the market will bear. But this is not really the issue at all. The issue, if there is one, is the amount of attention we may pay to these things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. That is a real issue. What someone is paid is not really an issue at all. Too often we focus on the material side of something instead of the real, spiritual issues.

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