Vincent Miller teaches theology at the University of Dayton and is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.
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The Economics of Abundance
AS THE U.S. Congress and the president repeatedly battle over the debt ceiling and contemplate cuts to Social Security and Medicare, austerity has begun to sound like common sense: "Families tighten their belts during hard times, and so must government."
However, "common sense" in our media age is carefully manufactured, and its underlying analogy doesn't always hold up to scrutiny. "Living within our means," for most families, includes debt financing for housing, cars, and college. Families having a hard time paying their bills may indeed tighten their belts—but they seek more income first, and cut care for children and the sick last. In contrast, federal budget austerity arguments always focus on spending, ignoring the revenue crisis born of decades of tax cuts.
Christians have a more profound reason to question "austerity measures": They conflict with our faith in God's abundance. In parable after parable—the prodigal son, the unforgiving debtor, Lazarus and the rich man—Jesus challenges us to emulate God's generosity. It is the theme of that most eucharistic miracle, the loaves and fishes. How to live in the light of God's abundance is never an easy question, but we must be open to its logic in every area of human existence, including our personal lives, our economy, and our government.
There is, needless to say, a deep contrast between Christian notions of abundance, rooted in God's boundless creative gift, and the modern field of economics, which bases itself on the principle that commodities are scarce. Yet there are also resonances between abundance and modern macroeconomics (the study of whole economies) as it developed in the New Deal period and the first three decades after World War II—especially in the great postwar era of shared prosperity, which saw an explosive expansion of the middle class.
During that period, everyone gave to the national common good, and everyone received—not just through strongly redistributive taxation, but through shared, unprecedented economic growth. And it wasn't simply the "invisible hand" of the marketplace that guided growth: The market was fostered by government's investment in infrastructure and education.
Personhood for Profit
ARE CORPORATIONS “persons”? Legally, they are. They have the right to own property, to enter into contracts, to sue for defamation. Thanks to Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, they also have “free speech” rights. Voting is the only right corporations lack—and the tsunami of political money unleashed by that Supreme Court decision makes that limit irrelevant.
“Person” is an important word for Christianity. We speak of the three divine persons of the Trinity, and of the human person made in the image of God. What are we to make of “corporate personhood?” It’s tempting to invoke idolatry and the golden calf of Exodus. However, corporate persons are akin more to the “golem” of Jewish folklore—a human creation that fulfills our immediate goals, but brings about unforeseen destructive consequences.
Mitt Romney’s campaign gaffe “Corporations are people, my friend” points to the problem. He wasn’t arguing that corporations are literal people, but that they are made up of people working together. But what matters is the nature of these shared projects: The corporation insulates its anonymous stockholders from liability and works solely to maximize the value of their investments.
Indeed, the “corporate person” is the perfect homo economicus. A human owner of a firm, no matter how hard-eyed, will still have moral qualms and live in a community that judges his or her character. In contrast, the corporate person has no interior life. These abstract “persons” are served by trustees with the responsibility to do everything legally possible to maximize profits. They may regret abandoning devoted workers in order to seek cheap labor, but if they refuse, they fail in their fiduciary duty to the corporate person’s one-dimensional interests.