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Economics

Thinking in terms of tradeoffs rather than solutions...

In a June 2 Facebook live discussion with fellow Conservative MP Garnett Genius, Arnold Viersen outlined two very different ways that politicians tend to approach problems.

“One of my friends points out that the progressive vote thinks in terms of solutions, and the conservative thinks in terms of tradeoffs. And you can see that even in the COVID response. The progressives: ‘We have got to stop the spread of COVID!’ The conservative will much more think: ‘We have to trade off one health concern for another health concern.’ For example, in Alberta we’ve had, I think, just about 150 deaths from COVID. But in the same time period we’ve had 37 deaths from a lack of heart surgeries. And that’s a tradeoff that we’ve made. It’s not necessarily talked about. But that is the tradeoff.”

That’s a fantastic point. And while Viersen framed it as a conservative vs. a progressive way of thinking, it might better be framed as a Christian vs. secular way of thinking. It is the Christian, after all, who knows why we should be acknowledging that our best efforts will always be trade-offs, rather than solutions for all. It comes down to our more accurate understanding of the world and of our own capabilities. For the secularist, G.K. Chesterton noted, “Once abolish God, and the government becomes God.” Refusing to turn upwards, the secularist is forced to look sideways for a savior, landing on the government because there is no more powerful human institution. But fallible, fallen, limited Man isn’t savior material, no matter what level of power he attains. So the secularist can only continue placing their hope in government by disregarding the limited nature of Man’s capabilities and character. Then they look for solutions rather than trade-offs because it has become their habit to overestimate what Man can do. The Christian, on the other hand, has no need to gloss over Man’s limitations. We also understand that time, money, and every other resource, are limited too, such that we need to count the cost before setting out on an endeavor (Luke 14:25-34). And, finally, we know that in this sin-stained world perfection is impossible. That’s why anything we do will always be a tradeoff, with one of the most common being that resources used for one purpose, can’t then be used to some other end. As Viersen pointed out, when most governments first proposed the lockdowns, we didn’t hear about the other health costs that would come along with doing so. Overall the situation was presented as being lives vs. money, and given that sort of tradeoff, then the choice was clear. And even as an economic tradeoff was noted, the government had their “solution” to that too – they were going to hand out money and lots of it, and we didn’t hear of any downside to doing that. However, it wasn’t just lives vs. money. The reality was that it was lives vs. other lives. There was a predictable, but overlooked cost that would come from heart surgeries, and other vital medical treatments, that were cancelled or delayed due to our COVID-19 response. There was also the physical and mental health concerns that come with unemployment on such a massive scale. Those weren’t widely acknowledged tradeoffs. Going forward, one hard-earned lesson we can take from this strange spring is to question whatever “solutions” we are offered (Prov. 18:17). As Christians, we can apply our God-given insights about the nature of Man, and our world, and help those around us by posing the important questions that spring from our better understanding. We can gently yet firmly ask: “What is the trade-off?” and “What are the costs you haven’t yet mentioned?” Because there will be such costs. In this finite, fallen world every proposal will always involve tradeoffs.

Economics, Movie Reviews

Wait till it's free

Documentary 2014 / 82 minutes Rating: 9/10 Why would Canadians be interested in watching a Scotsman take a look at the American healthcare system? Because this examination, of how capitalism and socialism impact healthcare costs, is very relevant for us too. The film’s director and producer, Colin Gunn, is Presbyterian and consequently a capitalist. If that seems an abrupt connection, then consider that we Reformed folks know that the heart of man is wicked. So we are well aware that if an economic system needs men to be angels, laboring for no personal benefit, then that is an unworkable economic system. So we know better than to be socialists. But for some reason, we don’t seem to think that holds true for healthcare. This comes out most strongly when Canadians, even the Reformed ones, start talking about healthcare with their American cousins. Then we seem to be quite proud of the socialistic nature of our healthcare system, which “costs us nothing, and is free for everyone.” But, of course, that isn’t really so. It certainly isn’t free – the costs are simply not seen, paid out in taxes, so that Canadians have very little idea of how much their healthcare really does cost. And that everyone is covered doesn’t distinguish it all that much from American healthcare, where everyone can get emergency care, and where more and more of the population is covered by the government-run Medicare. As Gunn points out, the American system is almost as socialistic as the Canadian. Gunn’s main argument is that a good dose of capitalism would be good for what ails the American system. His most telling observation was that in the American system no one knows what the costs will be beforehand. There is no public pricing chart, and so no way of comparing what one hospital might charge versus another. And without an awareness of how much things might costs, there is only a pretense of competition. You won't have innovation if you don't have competition so if we want to reform healthcare, this might be the first place we need to start: make all the prices public! I highly recommend this documentary – it is a brilliant argument by a Christian filmmaker who has perfected his craft. The content is superb: Gunn has assembled an impressive cast of experts from around the world to make his case. And the presentation is even better: there are fun little animated bits, and great narration, and a wonderful story arc – this is packaged up nicely, and tied up at the end with a bow. Who should see this? Anyone who thinks socialism is the answer to our healthcare needs. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the rent the full film by clicking on the "$4.95" link in the trailer below. The Wait Till It's Free YouTube site has a lot of extras that are also worth checking out. ...

Economics

On Union Membership: voices from the past

On March 9, 2017 the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church held a forum on "Christians and Union Membership" and I was tasked with presenting a historic perspective on the topic. Why look to the past? There are at least a couple of reasons to look to the past when figuring out an issue. First, it is a matter of appreciating the wisdom of our elders – honoring our father and mother. In times past union membership was a much-discussed and debated issue, so if we think our parents wise, why wouldn't we want to hear from them? Second, as C.S. Lewis has noted, every generation has its own particular blind spots. Just like a fish doesn't know it's wet, we have biases we aren't aware of because they are such a part of our culture and time. Thus the benefit in studying history is that we'll be able to see through the biases in times past – we can spot their blindspots because we don't share them. And, more importantly, our ancestors may be able to highlight and help us see our blindspots because they don't share them. In doing my digging I came across a half dozen articles, from the years 1975-1993 that made important points. While these articles, by 5 different authors, could all be characterized as "anti-union"  it is important to note that no one here is objecting to collective bargaining. If workers want to come together to negotiate with their employers, we all agree that they should be free to do so. What these authors are saying is that there are demands that some unions make of their membership that Christians should object to. UNIONISM by Rev. W. Huizinga (1975) SUMMARY: Rev. Huizinga shares quotes from a number of union constitutions, bylaws, and oaths, noting some unions would require of Christians oaths of allegiance. What sort of oaths are these? Well, as Rev. Huizinga's examples were dated, here is a more current example, from the Laborers' International Union of North America (active in the US and Canada): I do hereby solemnly pledge that, as a member of the Laborers' International Union of North America and of this Local Union, I will be active in its affairs, loyal to its cause and interests, and obedient to my constitutional obligations and responsibilities. In the fulfillment of this commitment I will regularly attend Union meetings and volunteer my time as a VOICE organizer, on picket lines, in get-out-the-vote efforts and in local charities or community activities on the Union's behalf. I will be true to my responsibilities as a citizen of the United States or Canada. So help me God. We are to be loyal to the union and it's "cause and interests"? What about when those interests include supporting political parties I oppose, or charities I disagree with? If we look at unions as contract negotiators, the idea of such a loyalty oath is very strange. After all, any other time we hire a negotiator – say a lawyer, or a realtor– we don't have to make a loyalty pledge to him. When a union requires this sort of oath they are looking for a bigger role than just as a negotiator – they want us to join in their movement. And that brings us to the second objection Rev. Huizinga raises. He also showed there is a Marxist "class struggle" idea – workers versus owners – that seems to underly unionism. In some union constitutions it is even stated explicitly. But whether explicit or not, many unions will pit employees against employers, or seek to pit customers against the company (by asking for a boycott). This adversarial approach is completely foreign to the Bible. Huizinga points to Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 111, where, in explaining the 8th Commandment, it reads: I must promote my neighbor's good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me... Or as Jesus puts it, "Love your neighbor as yourself," which most certainly includes our employer (Luke 10:25-37). Pastor Huizinga also sees strikes as a revolt against the 5th Commandment, which tells us to honor our father and mother and by extension, all those God has placed in authority over us. While this seems to be a common view, particularly historically, Rev. W. Pouwelse argues in his article "Labour Relations" (included below) that the 5th Commandment is not all that applicable. A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF LABOR UNIONS by Gary North (1978) SUMMARY: Gary North argues that strikes are based on "the wholly immoral premise that the worker owns his job (can exclude others from the position) even though he refused to work for his employer." What North says here requires a little unpacking. That the worker owns his job is a Marxian notion too. Karl Marx argued that the value of a good was dependent only on the labor that went into it - the more labor, the greater the value of the good. When we view production this way – employees are the only source of value for a good – then owners would seem to bring nothing to the table, and yet they are profiting from other people's efforts. If this were true, we could understand why a worker would think he owns his job. But this is at odds with the truth. When I hire someone to mow my lawn, I as the employer, have created that job - it didn't exist until: 1) I decided the job needs doing. 2) I decided I was going to invest my own time elsewhere. 3) I decided it was worth my money to hire my neighbor's son to do it. So who owns the job? I do because this job is a product of my thought process; it did not exist until I decided it existed. Now imagine my neighbor's son wanted more money, and came to me and made his request. What would we think if, when I didn't agree, he not only refused to mow my lawn, but he told me I wasn't allowed to hire his sister (who's happy to do it for a buck per hour less) because this is his job. Just to complete the illustration, we can imagine that he somehow gets the government to legalize his scheme. It still would not change that he has taken from me what is mine. He has stolen a job that I, as the employer, created. So North is arguing that strikes – those that prevent replacement workers – whether they are legal or not, are a violation of the 8th commandment not to steal. North also argues that while unions may increase the wages for union members, they do so in precisely the same manner that monopolies increase prices – by preventing competition. Unions do this several ways, but one way is by excluding non-union members from competing for certain jobs (ie. in a strike, workers who would be willing to do the job for less aren't able to take the job). LABOUR RELATIONS by Rev. W. Pouwelse (1983) Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 Part 4, Part 5 SUMMARY: This is one longer article broken up into 5 parts, and for our purposes, parts 3, 4 and 5 are the relevant ones. Rev. W. Pouwelse argues (in contrast to Rev. W. Huizinga above) that it isn't the 5th Commandment (at least not primarily) that governs employees' relationship with their employers but the 9th. The 5th commandment, to honor our father and mother, can be extended to those in authority over us, like the government or our church consistory, but doesn't extend in the same way to employers. Why? Because the authority employers hold over us is an "agreed upon authority." We agree to do this, and in exchange they agree to pay us that – it is a contractual arrangement between two parties. The difference can be seen in how we are free to quit our jobs at any time, but we are not free to stop listening to our parents, or our government, or our consistory. That's why, when we leave our job, no one accuses us of violating the 5th Commandment. The 9th Commandment – do not bear false witness – would apply to our contractual relationship with our employer. If we sign a contract we would need to live up to the terms; we do need to do as we have promised. LABOUR MOVEMENTS by Rev. Pouwelse (1984) Part 1, Part 2,  Part 3 SUMMARY: This longer article is broken up into three parts, and in part 3 Rev. Pouwelse speaks out against strikes for several practical reasons: 1) In strikes in the past "workers threatened and even violence is used" 2) Also "workers who had nothing to do with unions were prevented from doing their work" These are very good objections – clearly Christians should not join a union that threatens and commits violence, and shuts down non-union workplaces – but these objections seem to have been more of a concern at the time this article was written. Strikes in the 1980s were more often marked by violence than they are today (at least in North America). But Pouwelse also notes that: 3) Strikes "puts a burden on innocent people....this burden has to be carried not only by the workers and their employers, but many other people suffer as well. During a bus strike the general public suffers in the first place." This would seem to be contrary to God's command to show love for our neighbor. 4) Strikes are a "denial of our God-given mandate to labour faithfully" – when we strike, we are, as a part of our negotiation strategy, no longer doing productive work. That might seem a minor thing, but when we realize that God calls us to be productive then a negotiation strategy that prevents productivity is one we have reason to question. Like Huizinga above, Pouwelse also points to the oaths or pledges required by some unions as conflicting with our call not to serve two masters. But not all unions require such oaths or pledges. UNION MEMBERSHIP...AN HISTORICAL STUDY by Rev. J. L. van Popta (1992) SUMMARY: This is a 21-page paper so we can only touch on a few highlights here. In the paper Rev. J.L. van Popta compares and contrasts the way union membership has been viewed, historically, in the Christian Reformed Churches (CRC) with how it has been viewed in the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). In the late 1800s in the CRC, while unions were deemed "usually un-Christian," it wasn't until 1904 that they really tackled the issue of union membership in detail. Seven objections were raised, including the matter of oaths: ...many unions would cause their members to live contrary to the first and the fifth commandment by “exact an oath or promise of unconditional obedience to the majority or the board with disregard of one’s duty toward God, the State, the Church, and the family.” In the Synod of 1928 there was a new development. 1928...changed the understanding of corporate responsibility. In 1904 members of unions were guilty of union practices. In 1928 members were absolved of guilt if they protested. In other words, if a union engaged in violence, in 1904 a CRC member would be required to get out of that union. But in 1928 the Synod said they could remain in the union, though they would have to publicly protest the violence. This issue of corporate responsibility – how responsible we are for the actions of a group in which we are a member – is an issue that future synods will continue to debate, with the 1945  Synod then turning back to the clock to adopt a stance very similar to that of 1904. The first CanRC position on unions came about in 1951, and was made by the consistory of New Westminster. They raised two objections to union membership. The first objection was to unions that required "unconditional obedience to laws and bylaws in force or yet to be enacted." The second objection was against “closed-shop” policies of unions. This was judged to be in violation of the 8th and 6th Commandments. Calling on Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 42 and 40 the consistory showed that the self serving motive of the “closed-shop” policy was at bottom theft and murder, and members of unions were then guilty of these sins. This precluded any membership at all. Closed shops are companies where the union has so negotiated things that union membership is a condition for being hired. Or, in other words, if someone wasn't willing to join the union then they were barred from working there. In this stance the New Westminster consistory came out against all unions, but as Rev. van Popta notes, their decision came out 1 year before the formation of the Christian Labor Association of Canada (CLAC), and 12 years before it was recognized as a union. So while the consistory was objecting to all the unions at that time, they had not anticipated the birth of a Christian Labor movement, and their decision should not be understood as addressing a group like the CLAC. UNIONS by Rev. G. P. van Popta (1993) SUMMARY: Rev. G.P. Popta notes that "blanket statements that all unions are evil and we may not join any" are not useful since situations can be so different. Van Popta states that the first step in deciding whether or not you can join a specific union would involve reading through the union's constitution, and the collective agreement between the union and employer, to find out what promises or obligations come with membership in that union. And if they demand unconditional obedience, that is a promise we can not make. He also raised the issue of the "adversarial model" in which strikes are a key tool. "The Bible teaches a harmony model." He ends by sharing how, in some cases, it is possible to seek an exemption from union membership, with dues going, instead of to the union, to a charity agreed upon by the union and the person seeking the exemption. This is an option he urges Christians to investigate....

Economics

A sad tale of a wealthy millennial’s moral confusion

A few years back my wife heard a young woman share that she had felt guilty for being able to go out to dinner with friends in Chicago. She knew her mother, still living in South Africa, wasn’t able to dine out like this. When she later told her mother about her feelings during a phone call, her mother was having none of it. She told her daughter that gratitude, not guilt was the appropriate response to God’s blessings. The young woman was told that she should thank God for how she’d been able to immigrate to America, and she could also pray and work for a time when South Africans, and others around the world, would enjoy blessings similar to those she was experiencing now in America. Is wealth immoral? I remembered that story the moment I began reading about Adam Roberts, a Millennial who in his Vox article “Is wealth immoral?” expressed his sense of guilt and injustice at having inherited over a million dollars as a child of wealthy parents. “As I got politicized around things like wealth inequality, climate change, war, and the forces connecting them, I didn’t connect it too much with my own family or history,” he wrote. But then he came to understand things differently. He confessed, as if they were sins, that his family had gained wealth through the oil industry, banking, and stock in companies that built things for the military. His parents had given him stock in ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron – another reason for guilt. As he became active as a “community organizer” in Boston, “no longer surrounded by wealthy peers,” it “felt absurd … to have access to so much when so many others didn’t.” “As a result,” he wrote, “I got real weird about money. I’d barely spend any of it.” He’d walk instead of taking Uber. Spending of $300 a month for prescription drugs for his mother-in-law was okay, but he was conflicted about putting down $30,000 on a house or spending $6.99 for a bag of popcorn at a theater. So he offset those two by contributing $30,000 to a land trust and declining to get a soda refill. But such things, he believes “are imperfect, individual actions.” The whole system that allows people to amass such wealth while others struggle is “immoral.” Everyone, he thinks, should have a modest first home, but nobody should have a “$20M mansion in Newport, RI,” a second home if anyone else is homeless, or a third (or fourth or fifth). Nobody should buy a new $799 sofa when he could buy a used one, and nobody should have a yacht – at all. “Is it moral to hold any excess  private wealth under capitalism?” he asks – and later reveals that it’s not. “Does it matter how that wealth was accumulated?” He offers four examples: fossil fuels, medical doctor, useful invention, or stocks. He draws toward his conclusion by writing: “In a system that produces a handful of people with billions of dollars while hundreds of millions of people still lack access to basic human needs like health care and affordable housing … the question isn’t what billionaires should do with ‘their’ money. It’s how to enact policies that prevent any one person from concentrating that much wealth and power in the first place.” He recommends “taxing wealthy families like mine a whole lot more” because it’s “totally happened in the past,” it’s “part of the Green New Deal,” and it’s “widely supported.” At the level of individual choices, he reports that he’s donated roughly a third of what he inherited to charitable causes and intends to donate another third. “For me, it feels like part of becoming more connected and alive on this planet,” he says. Good motives; bad conclusions How should we respond to such thinking? Certainly not by condemning Roberts’s motives. It’s refreshing to see someone born rich who cares about those who weren’t. His charitable giving is to be commended, as is his self-restraint. And, frankly, as I read his article (accompanied by brilliant illustrations that drive home his points), my heart went out to him. Nonetheless, there are serious problems with his thinking. Is “wealth inequality” unjust by definition? Why, then, hasn’t he already divested himself of everything he owns except what would equal the average net worth of people around the world? How can anyone buy a used sofa – or any sofa at all – if nobody buys a new one? What constitutes a modest first home – something typical of Corinth, Mississippi, where median home value is $105,900? Or of Boston, where Roberts lives and the median home value is five-and-a-half times as much, or Manhattan at eleven times as much, or San Francisco (tack on another hundred grand)? Or – let’s get real now, and care about the whole world, not just wealthy America – is $1,000 a square foot, common in Boston, “modest,” or $99 (7,000 rupees) a square foot, common in Bengaluru (Bangalore), India’s “silicon valley”? Or next to nothing for the cardboard shacks in which millions of the poor of Africa, Asia, and Latin America live? And what’s the dividing line between a moral system and an “immoral” one that allows people to amass such wealth while others struggle? Is personal net worth of $10,000 okay, but not $11,000? Or $250,000 but not $300,000? What objective standard justifies where Roberts draws the line? And what is “excess” wealth? Consider millionaires and billionaires – the sort of persons Roberts thinks “the system” should disallow. What do millionaires and billionaires do with their “excess” wealth? Well, they might buy stocks or bonds – providing the capital to pay workers, equip them with expensive tools that enable them to produce the food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medical care, and other benefits still other people need. They might buy a second or third house (or a yacht, or a private jet), construction of which employed workers whose wages provided food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medical care, and other benefits to themselves and their families. Maybe they’ll just stick it in a bank account – from which the bank will make loans to companies that will employ people to make things that benefit others. About the only thing they can do with it that will be of use to nobody is hide it under the mattress. (Let me know if you run into a millionaire who does that. I’m curious to meet such an eccentric.) It’s pretty clear that Roberts thinks there’s something particularly immoral about accumulating wealth from fossil fuels. Yet using those fossil fuels has lifted billions of people out of the poverty that breaks Roberts’s heart by providing not only energy but also plastics that prevent foods from spoiling; fertilizers that allow farmers to grow more food on less land to feed the growing human population while leaving land available for wildlife; pharmaceuticals that heal diseases; and literally thousands of other products derived from them. And when he bemoans fossil fuels’ contribution (however great or small) to climate change, does he weigh that against all those other benefits from them – plus the roughly $3.2 trillion in extra crop yields the CO2 emitted from them added to global crop yields (making food more available for the poor) from 1960 to 2012, with another $9.8 trillion expected by 2050? Medical doctors, whose method of accumulating wealth it seems Roberts favors over fossil fuels, would be severely handicapped without fossil fuel-derived medications (maybe including some his mother-in-law takes), not to mention the electricity that lights their operating rooms and powers their refrigerators to preserve their medications, their MRIs, and every other high-tech invention that enables them to restore people’s health and prolong their lives. How many of the things that raised human life expectancy at birth from about 27 or 28 years before the Industrial Revolution to about 70 today worldwide (and 80 in developed countries) would have been developed if no inventors, innovators, or entrepreneurs could have received any more rewards for their efforts than those who dug ditches (an honorable task but not highly rewarded) or just sat on their haunches? For some, wealth is a problem When a rich ruler asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to obey God’s commandments – something the man says he has done from his youth up. “One thing you still lack,” Jesus says. “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man leaves sad, prompting Jesus’ remark, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” – i.e., impossible. But, He explains, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:18–27). So does that justify Roberts’s feeling guilty about his inherited wealth, and demanding that “the system” be changed to prevent anyone’s amassing “excess wealth” while others struggle? Charity is good, and so is investment No, for in the very next chapter, when Jesus encounters a rich tax collector who says that he will give half his goods to the poor and restore fourfold anyone he has defrauded, Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:1–10). So which is it? Must one give everything away, or half? Or is there a different point entirely – wealth takes the place of God for some people, and must be given away entirely, but not for others. After that encounter, Jesus tells a parable about a nobleman (who represents God) who entrusts money to each of ten servants and instructs them to engage in business until he returns. On his return, the servants report their performance. The first has multiplied the investment ten times, the second five times. He rewards them proportionately. The third servant says, “Lord, here is your mina , which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” The nobleman, ignoring the obvious lie that he was reaping where had not sown, responds, “I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?” Then he instructs others to take the money from him and give it to the first servant. “Lord,” they protest, “he has ten minas!” And the master responds, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:11–27). God condemns injustice, not wealth The Bible has much to say about the need to protect the poor from oppression and to give charitably to help those who cannot help themselves. But nowhere does it condemn wealth. Indeed, some of the most important of God’s people were wealthy – Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea, and wealthy women who provided for Jesus and His disciples. The Bible condemns greed, selfishness, and injustice – but it never equates injustice with inequality. Adam Roberts’s confusion is sad, for it means he encourages not only envy and resentment toward many whom God has blessed but also false guilt on the part of many, including himself, who are blessed. By all means, whether you consider yourself rich or middle class or poor, give to the poor, and work to protect the poor from injustice. But don’t condemn all inequality as injustice, and don’t feel guilty for the gifts God has given you.  Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a former professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, is author of Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel. Questions to consider How does God's "equality" as found in James 2:1-4, and Lev. 19:15 differ with the sort of equality that Adam Roberts wants the government to bring in? How does equal treatment under the law differ from being made equal by the law? (See the comic below). Roberts feels guilty for two different reasons: 1) for being wealthy, and 2) for how that wealth was garnered. As Christians, which of those two could be a legitimate concern, and which is not? Why? Each time money is exchanged for merchandise both parties become "wealthier." When I pay $5 for a book it's because that book is worth more than $5 to me and the merchant gives me the book because the $5 is worth more than the book to him (or else neither of us would make the trade). Amazingly both of us came off the better for the trade. Thus, money gained via legitimate means (piracy and money laundering are both out) represents good that has been done and wealth that has been increased. How should that understanding color our impressions of billionaires and millionaires? How much "good already accomplished" does their wealth represent? The 10th Commandment (Ex. 20:17) says we're not to covet our neighbor's stuff. Is it still coveting if we support a political party that has plans for our uber-rich neighbor's wealth? Explain. Lord Acton's most memorable quote "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is based on a biblical understanding of Man's fallen nature. Is this adage a good reason to want to diminish the wealth – and thus the power – of the very wealthy? Or does the 10th Commandment apply even to their power? In Luke 12:48 we read, "...from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Is this passage a good justification for higher taxes on the rich? Is this God speaking to government about what the wealthy need to do, or God speaking to the wealthy about what the wealthy need to do? ...

Economics

A multi-level warning about multi-level marketing

Multi-level marketing’s end is nowhere in sight. Years ago, my personal ministry was. Yours truly accepted the invitation of another minister to jump into the multi-level pool. I stayed just long enough to nearly drown. During that time (and the drying off period which followed), I’ve done much thinking about the nature of multi-level marketing (“MLM”), with particular concern as to whether it is compatible with a lifestyle of devout obedience to the Christ of the Scriptures. My conclusion? There is a way that MLM is commonly done that conflicts at many points with Biblical values. So in what follows I submit several cautions – several lessons I’ve learned – for you to consider if you are involved in or thinking about joining one of these organizations. These points could be summed up as how we don’t want to do multi-level marketing. 1. Competing with the Church The first and deepest caution concerns multi-level marketing’s competition with the Church. From this one grand problem flow many others. This competition is undeclared but it is quite real. Consider, for example, how MLM literature is often liturgical in form. It contains praises for the company and/or its leaders, thanksgiving for its products, testimonies to the greatness of both, confessions of doubts, and even songs of adoration (no kidding). “Church” can meet in small groups (devotionals?) or large auditoriums. In the latter, the atmosphere is truly reminiscent of tent revivals in both program and intensity. Of course, you are urged to bring anyone you can. Every day is “Friend Day” in MLM. Furthermore, their agenda includes fantastic goals which, if truly representative of the organizations’ objectives, are frightening. They are out to “change the world.” Having made a “covenant with life” they are seeking to “infuse…lives with some measure of grace and beauty and purpose and joy.” MLMers are told that they are the “comfort and hope, promise and dream” of the world. Despite attacks or setbacks, these organizations will “survive and prevail(!)” Their enthusiasm is positively postmillennial in intensity. MLMers will often call each other “family.” They are urged to make a 100% commitment to the organization (something God alone can demand). They are encouraged to believe that the more they devote themselves to the plan, the closer they will be to tapping into “a life force of unlimited power.” People claim to have been “born-again,” either through the use of the company’s products or through participation in the multi-level program. They have been “set-free,” made “brand new,” delivered from fears, and are no longer able to hide their joy. Small wonder they can’t resist “sharing the good news”! The list could go on, but this tiny sampling of MLM rhetoric is sufficient to show the Messianic self-consciousness of many of these organizations. They are out to save the world. The problem, though, is that in their view salvation is primarily economic. People are unfulfilled or repressed or depressed because they haven’t got enough money. And this MLM organization will show you how to get it! Their method is (allegedly) guaranteed…but if you don’t get saved, it’s your fault. The impression is certainly given that the method is faultless. When I confronted one MLMer with the fact that he seemed to be saying that his organization was perfect, he quickly retorted, “Oh, no.” But in hours of talking, he yielded no ground. He could not (would not?) see any drawback or downside to his company. The Church should only fare as well when scrutinized by even her most loving critics! To review our first point, Christians need to be wary of MLM organizations that set themselves in competition with the Church by claiming the same mission (they are out to change the world – cf. Mark 16:15), by borrowing heavily from Biblical evangelical terminology (grace, born again, set free, covenant, joy, hope, comfort, sharing the good news, etc.), by pushing an economically-based soteriology (another gospel, my friends – Galatians 1:9), and by presumptuously arrogating to themselves invincibility (“we will prevail” – cf. Matthew 16:18) and possession of the keys to omnipotence (“a life force of unlimited power” – cf. Ephesians 1:18-23). It might be said that the organizations don’t really mean these things, that this is just the kind of hyperbole required to be competitive. But if they don’t mean these things, they should not say them (and they say them over and over and over again). If they do mean what they say, it necessarily makes it exceedingly difficult for Christians involved with the organizations to distinguish between things that differ. Sharing so much vocabulary necessarily cheapens the meaning of the words. When we remember that it is by means of some of these words that we are saved and sanctified, the precarious position of the Christian in such an MLM group becomes clearer. 2. Using friends and family A second concern for Christians involves how MLM can impact the way we view our social relationships. There would be little or no problem with the simple retailing of the products offered by these companies. They are usually as good, or better (though more expensive) than comparable items available in ordinary retail outlets. But, as you’re quick to find out, retail ain’t where the money is. No, the pyramid is climbed primarily through recruiting. You see, in MLM you get a cut of the sales of those recruited by you, and potentially of those recruited by them, and so on, ad pyramidium. Needless to say, you are at least as concerned to bring in the salesmen, as you are to bring in the sales. One Christian MLMer told me it was “just like making disciples” (there we go again). So the danger, then, is, that we start viewing everyone as potential timber with which we can build our little empire. Family members and close friends become the prime targets for you to “bring in under you.” Friends you have not called for 10 years, and casual acquaintances, who have to be reminded how they know you, come next. In MLM, propinquity = profit. But, by grace, the Christian MLMer will know he is in real trouble when, upon making new acquaintances, he doesn’t know which gospel he should seek to share first. If the company’s “support system” has indoctrinated him properly, he will consistently choose to first tell them about his new life in MLM. He hopes that it might lead to an opportunity to share God’s good news sometime in the future. The rationalizations one offers one’s self for this infidelity to God are myriad: “I feel led to share MLM first” / “If this person is among the elect he’ll be saved anyway” / “I’m going to use the money I make for God’s glory” (that was my favorite) / “If we share a business interest I’ll have more opportunities to witness,” etc. A prostitute can be very creative when comforting her conscience (see Proverbs 30:20). To review: MLM is bad news when: 1) it seeks to usurp the role of the Church 2) relationships become exploitation-ships. 3. The god of Mammon Greed can be a temptation in any business venture, but in MLM the amount of money you could make is mentioned again and again. That means covetousness is a real danger (see Proverbs 21:6, 16:8, Mark 4:19, Luke 12:15, 1 John 2:15). It is rather remarkable how few MLMers will be frank about this (though some are). The money can be significant, though – even astronomical, (for a few) – and it is possible to build a profitable business rather quickly. This is because MLM, when the people “under you” make money, you make money. The more they make, the more you make. Everyone is constantly “encouraging” everyone else to go for it. Of course, the difference between greed and simple financial success is not in the amount of dollars amassed, but in what one has exchanged for those dollars. One MLM convention or large rally would reveal what some poor souls have lost to gain what they now, temporarily, have. Superstars in MLM are often unabashedly ostentatious self-aggrandizers. Many of them, sorrowfully, have given up, or reprioritized (which is, after all, the same thing – Ex. 20:3) their first love for baubles, trinkets and the way of death. It is very sad. 4. Competing with the communion of saints A fourth concern is that MLM devotees are drawn into an independent subculture. For Christians, MLM involvement is, in some respects, akin to membership in a lodge. MLM is intrinsically and increasingly esoteric. The fellowship of the saints is usually seen as inadequate. A new club is formed and the password is not the blood of Jesus but the name of your MLM organization. Man is ever finding new ways to put asunder that which God has joined together. Conclusion There is a solemn warning in 1 Timothy that tore at my conscience the whole time I was involved in MLM. I actually avoided looking at this passage because it got too close, penetrating my soul, judging the thoughts and attitudes of my heart. Rather than submit to this passage, I was considering leaving the ministry! Oh brothers, listen to the Word of God. Don’t give heed to the siren song, no matter how sweet, if its lyrics contain an invitation to disobey the tiniest commandment of God. The devil is seeking to devour us, but God has given us His Word for our good and for our protection. Obedience to God’s Word is life! “If we have food and clothing we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:8-11). Beware of giving heed to the voice of seducing spirits. God has called us to peace, which is found in the pursuit of Himself – not gold. By all means, work hard. By all means, bless Jehovah for the increase He grants the labor of your hands. But never make money your chief pursuit, or you’re dead. Abraham Kuyper was certainly correct when he said, “If you are truly subject to God, money will be subject to you and will not harm you.” But Kuyper demonstrated his balance and wisdom when he added, “If, on the other hand, you undertake to defend yourself against the fatal influence of…money and its seductive power, you are lost before you know it, and deeming that you are your own master, you have found your master in the money-power.” If you or someone you know is considering entering the world of MLM, wait. Before committing yourself to such a lifestyle (for that is what it is), take your time and pray. Consider the points made in this article. If they were made too strongly, modify them, but be sober and judge with right judgment. Look beyond surface claims; look for truth in the inwards parts. MLM organizations usually offer excellent products and most operate with a great degree of internal integrity. But product and corporate reliability, while important, are not the only factors which a child of the Living God should consider before biting at a ten-tiered carrot. If you’re not very careful, you may bite off more than you can chew. A version of this article first appeared in “Messiah’s Mandate: UPDATE, Volume 2, Number 2,” and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Rev. Steve M. Schlissel is the pastor of Messiah’s Covenant Community Church (MessiahNYC.org) in Brooklyn, New York. Questions to consider 1. This article presumes Christians want to talk about God with whomever we meet. But is that accurate – are we eager to talk about God? What stops us from talking about God? 2. How are the article’s four cautions applicable to other business ventures? 3. Pastor Schlissel says we should be wary of messianic, save-the-world language because it competes with the real Messiah, and the real Savior. So how should we respond when we hear it elsewhere? Like presidential debates? Or discussions about plastic straw usage? Where else do we hear this kind of language? 4. How would a Christian involved in MLM do it differently than non-Christians? What would that look like? 5. In a report posted to the US Federal Trade Commission website, Jon M. Taylor detailed how, in the 350 leading MLMs he’d looked at, 99% of sales consultants lost money. Taylor suggests that before you join any particular MLM you ask them for: “the average amount of money paid by the company in commissions and bonuses to participants at the various levels in the compensation plan.” If the organization won’t provide this information he suggests, “you should consider that a red flag.” While this isn’t a question, it is worth considering....

Economics

What is "Equal Pay for work of Equal Value"?

Canada's Liberal government has announced plans to bring in “equal pay for work of equal value” legislation by 2018. It would apply to almost 900,000 Canadian employees, including not only federal employees, but also anyone working in federally regulated sectors like banks and airlines. To be clear, we're not talking about "equal pay for equal work." That's the idea that if two people are doing the exact same work, and to the same quality, and for the same amount of hours – if it is exactly the same – then the federal government should pay them the same. That makes good sense. But what we have here is the government deciding they are going to intervene in situations where people are doing very different work from one another. And the government is going to figure out how much their work should be worth, and whether they are doing work "of equal value." None of the newspapers reporting on this can spot the huge glaring problem with this - they talk of it as if it is simply a matter of administrating it right. So what is the problem? Who decides how work should be valued? Consider this: how valuable is the work done by a second string back-up goaltender on an NHL team? He might still make several hundred thousand, even a million or two, and yet he's not doing all that much. Meanwhile a good teacher is helping form the next generation of minds – what could be more important? Yet this teacher isn’t likely to make even one hundred thousand. Whose job is more valuable? A bureaucrat might decide it is the teacher. But are we going to start paying our teachers millions to even it up? What we have here is an example of the "diamond water paradox." While water is more important for life than diamonds (we can't survive more than 3 days without water, but we can get by a lot longer without diamonds) water remains much, much cheaper than diamonds. Why is that? As we all know, it's because water is far more abundant than diamonds. Or to say it the other way around, diamonds are more expensive than water because they are rarer...even though they aren't more important or more useful. So something’s price is not always determined by how useful it is. There are other factors involved, and when it comes to jobs, that may also include how ready a supply there is for this position vs. that position. Teachers are in a far more abundant supply than NHL players of any type. That's why the NHL player gets more. If we start arbitrarily deciding this job is the equivalent of that one, and so both should get the same pay, only bad things can result. In our example it would either mean bumping all the teachers' salaries up substantially (which we can't afford) or lowering the goaltenders' salaries to just a hundred thousand. But if these goalies are any good they could make more than that overseas. And so, suddenly, we've created a situation in which there is a shortage of quality second-string goalies because the government restricts what they can be paid. Of course, the government isn't going to restrict goalies' pay – this is a goofy example. But the principles are just the same – the government is going to set up some sort of system of deciding what work is equal to which. And because it's going to ignore simple economic rules (like scarcity driving prices up) it's going to be a mess.  ...

Economics

Let's not be the squeaky wheel

Fewer people are using VIA Rail, more trains are behind schedule, and the Crown corporation continues to bleed money by the millions: that’s what Canada’s Auditor General found when he took a close look at the passenger service this spring. In 2014 VIA had revenues of $280 million, but spent $597 million in operating costs, plus another $82 million in capital projects (putting down tracks, etc.). That works out to a loss of $399 million, all of it covered by the government. So what did taxpayers get for their money? Well, an economy ticket for a four-day trip from Vancouver to Toronto is roughly $500, but the true cost is $1,100, with the government chipping in the difference of $600.  Even with government subsidies of $55 million for the Vancouver-Toronto route, VIA Rail can’t compete on speed or price. In comparison an economy ticket for a flight on WestJet for the same route can be had for $300 and will take five hours. A bus ticket for a three-day Vancouver-Toronto trip is as little as $250. Government intrusion into the marketplace has left us with a business that is slower, more expensive, and costs hundreds of millions of Canadian tax dollars each year. Why, then, does VIA Rail still exist? Because every time they cut service on unprofitable routes, ticket buyers – those who get the bulk of their ticket price paid for by taxpayers – protest. And these squeaky wheels continue to get greased. What’s the takeaway for us? Let’s not be that sort of squeaky wheel. We can make use of VIA’s service for as long as they exists – we don’t need to feel guilty about taking advantage of their subsidized ticket prices. Why? Because so long as their trains are going to keep running whether profitable or not, our ticket purchases will amount to a small decrease in VIA’s overall losses. However, if VIA proposes cutting a money-losing route – even our favorite route – then we must not squeak! It’s one thing to make use of wasteful government services, and quite another to demand the government continue providing these services. On what biblical basis can we argue that others should be required to subsidize our scenic train trips? SOURCES: VIA Rail Canada Annual Report 2014; 2016 Spring Reports of the Auditor General of Canada: Via Rail Canada Inc. – Special Examination Report - 2016...