June 13, 2008


Recently El Cabrero gave a talk on economic matters at a religious gathering. Whilst preparing for the occasion, I was struck by something that may or may not be a coincidence, depending on your viewpoint.

It occurred to me that biblical traditions relating to the economy which emphasize justice for poor people and laborers dovetail nicely with the recent evidence on the impact of the economy on human happiness or thriving (see yesterday's post).

There seem to be two main strands of the tradition that run through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The first, as mentioned before, is the demand for justice for the economically oppressed, which runs all the way through it.

If you want to put your Bible on a crash weight loss plan, just cut out all those passages. I'm a big fan of several ancient wisdom traditions, ranging from the Greek to the Chinese, but the strong emphasis on economic justice for the poor is unique to the biblical tradition.

The other strand, which is less emphasized but still pretty clear, is that wealth alone does not make a person happy. As Jesus was quoted in Luke 12:15,

Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

This makes pretty good sense from the viewpoint of the social sciences (see Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by British economist Richard Layard). Short version: for people who are poor by the standards of the society in which they live, an increase in economic well being translates to a real increase in happiness.

Consider someone with bad dental problems who is in constant pain and is self-conscious when in public. Having the resources to get those teeth fixed really makes a difference in the quality of life. The same is true for people who live in bad housing, or who lack access to clear water, or who simply can't get by at a basic level on their income.

Once people reach a certain standard of living, the two birds More and Better don't necessarily live on the same branch (see Wednesday's post for a discussion of this analogy made by Bill McKibben in Deep Economy).

I won't draw any theological conclusions from this confluence here, other than to once again say that Jesus and them there Hebrew prophets knew a thing or two about a thing or two.

FOXES HAVE HOLES, BIRDS HAVE NESTS, but Latinos and African Americans are by far the hardest hit by sub-prime mortages.

SOME STATES, like Vermont, are taking action to deal with the high costs of food and home heating. The (old style) Republican governor of that state is also planning to expand farmers markets and urging people to eat locally grown food.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN WEST VIRGINIA, advocates are urging the state to suspend its redesigned Medicaid program.

FEELING SYMBOLIC, MONKEY STYLE. The latest research indicates that capuchin monkeys can recognize and reason about symbols.

RANDOM THOUGHTS, you'd think people would start getting serious about climate change. On the plus side, it's nice to hear that the Supreme Court seems to think the Constitution matters.


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