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The Economics of Greed

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The Western nations have enjoyed unparalleled prosperity in recent years. High finance has become the engine of economic growth for hundreds of millions who live with luxuries once unheard of. Yet the Bible warns that such prosperity may come at a heavy price.

History and Scripture show that the Western nations are sowing the seeds of their own economic ruin!

In recent years, the United States has had the role of the world's lone superpower. Today, the U.S. not only ranks as a military colossus without peer, it also stands as the world's greatest economic superpower. This is a far cry from the way things were at the opening of the twentieth century—or for that matter, at the beginning of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

Why has the U.S. found itself in this role? To understand the present situation, we need to examine lessons from the past—both from recent history, and from ancient sources that gave warnings in advance through which we can make sense of what is really happening in the world around us.

When the eighteenth century opened, Louis XIV was on the throne of France. He was called the "Sun King," and other European monarchs were said to revolve around him like the planets around the sun. His nation was the strongest European power of the time, and for a while it seemed that the wealth of the French economy was destined to grow ever greater. In fact, the word "millionaire" was coined in Paris around the year 1720 to describe financier John Law and some of the newly wealthy investors in his Mississippi Company. But within a short time, the Mississippi Company became the "Mississippi Bubble," and paper fortunes disappeared even more quickly than they had arisen. At the close of the eighteenth century, France found itself convulsing amid the aftermath of the French Revolution. Napoleon rose to power—and was even crowned Emperor by the pope—but failed in his attempt to recreate under French dominance the empire of the Caesars and Charlemagne.

The nineteenth century opened with Britain and France locked in a struggle for supremacy. That struggle was resolved at Waterloo in 1815, and the nineteenth century became increasingly an Anglo-Saxon century. Britain expanded as the world's dominant economic and political power, while the fledgling U.S. expanded from a few million citizens clustered along the Atlantic seaboard to a bustling nation that spanned an entire continent. As the nineteenth century closed and the twentieth opened, Britain stood at the head of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen. The U.S. was emerging as the most prosperous of nations, with agricultural and industrial might that would bring it to world dominance during the twentieth century.

Beginning with World War I, an Anglo-American partnership developed that would dominate the world scene to the present day. Initially, Britain was the stronger partner, but by the close of World War II a clear power shift had taken place, leaving Britain increasingly in the role of junior partner in the alliance.

At crucial junctures during the twentieth century, Germany and the Soviet Union each sought to eclipse the Anglo-American colossus. However, neither succeeded. Germany was soundly defeated after each of the two World Wars. The Soviet Union engaged the U.S. and its allies in a half-century of "Cold War" after World War II, but its attempts at world dominance ended with the collapse of Soviet communism, leaving no rival on the scene to challenge U.S. supremacy directly.

Yes, there have been—and still are—jealousies and resentments, and there have been terrorist attacks at home and abroad. But there has not been a rival power with the economic, military and political muscle to directly challenge the U.S. History shows us, however, that no great military power retains its dominant position forever.

Not only did the world experience great geopolitical shifts from the time of World War II till the close of the twentieth century, but it also experienced great economic shifts as well. In particular, most have no idea how profoundly the economies in America, Britain, and Canada have changed since the end of World War II, and what has been behind those changes. While there has been growing unease with the stock market's downward slide in the opening years of the twenty-first century, most are unsure of where it will really end and, even more importantly, of the real causes behind the many changes.

Few realize that the economic stresses now being experienced by our nations were foreseen centuries ago. Not only did the Bible predict the dramatic rise to world power of the Anglo-Saxon countries, it also predicted their decline. And not only does it describe, in advance, the economic problems that will unfold in the years ahead, it also describes the moral problems underlying those economic problems.

What is the real interaction between morality, justice and economics? There is actually a correlation that is as old as the prophets of the Bible, yet as new as tomorrow's front page. Many business analysts have discussed some aspects of this connection, but none have seen the overall picture.

Foundation for Economic Greatness

Land provides the true basis for economic greatness. The greatest expansion of land ownership in the world's history began on a grand scale early in the nineteenth century. Spreading across the North American continent, settlers created the U.S. and Canada by building family farms and ranches, and establishing towns as centers of trade. The same growth took place in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa during this time. Unlike the earlier expansions of the Spanish and French colonial empires, land ownership was not concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy magnates; it was in the hands of many ordinary people.

By investing small amounts of money, and large amounts of work, ordinary people could become landowners—not just tenants or employees. This was the dream that fueled the settlement of the North American continent as well as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Immigrants from the British Isles and other portions of northwestern Europe poured into these areas, lured by the promise of, in the words of the biblical prophet Micah, being able to sit under "their own vine and their own fig tree." The family farms and small family businesses spread across the vast expanses from sea to sea and established a broad based prosperity in the English-speaking world.

Perhaps none of the American founding fathers saw this dream and its value more clearly than did Thomas Jefferson, America's third President. He anticipated a nation of yeoman farmers, and saw the Louisiana Purchase as a great milestone in making this possible. Acquired from Napoleon's France at about a nickel an acre, this vast tract of land practically doubled the size of the fledgling U.S. It opened to American settlement some of the richest agricultural land in the world.

Jefferson's vision of a nation of small farmers and tradesmen, however, was not the only one. Alexander Hamilton and others held to a competing vision, which saw the growth of the financial class as the key to future prosperity. Throughout the nineteenth century, East Coast financiers found their economic and political interests clashing with those of their rural and small town neighbors. As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began, this rivalry was characterized as "Wall Street versus Main Street." For a while, "Main Street" held its own, but certainly in the aftermath of World War II and beyond, "Wall Street" has held the advantage—and has never looked back.

Though the twentieth century opened with efforts to break up the great corporate monopolies and to curb the power of Wall Street interests, it closed with mergers and mega-mergers bringing these interests together on a scale never before seen. Small family farms were increasingly absorbed into vast agribusiness conglomerates, and family-owned small businesses were increasingly absorbed by large corporations—or simply forced to close their doors, overwhelmed by the competition. "Mom and Pop" cannot readily compete with Wal-Mart!

The Role of Financial Interests

This growth of large corporations at the expense of small, independent operators is only part of the picture. Another key change in our world's economy is that these large corporations—and indeed governments themselves—have become overwhelmingly, if not entirely, credit-driven. As wise King Solomon observed three millennia ago: "The borrower is servant to the lender" (Proverbs 22:7). Noted financial analyst Michael Barone made a similar observation a decade ago, that still rings true today: "In one political capital after another, lenders are calling the shots. Politicians may sit in government offices, but decisions are being made to satisfy creditors with money to lend and investors with capital to invest" (US News & World Report, Aug. 15, 1994, p. 38).

Though these lenders may have their offices on New York's Wall Street or in the financial districts of London or Toronto, it is a serious mistake to think that they are deeply tied to their host countries' national interests. Today, money moves across national borders with the greatest of ease. Big companies and big banks are multi-national in their scope, and are transforming economies not only in the English-speaking world, but also around the globe. What is happening in America as well as in Britain, Australia and Canada is illustrated by the observations of nationally syndicated columnist Richard Reeves in a column dated October 27, 1995: "There is no more corporate America anymore, at least not corporate citizens, just a shifting mass of merger and money managers, lawyers and investment bankers and other international thugs… corporations have become shells, figuratively a shell game, manicured hands moving faster than workers' eyes in a ceaseless quest for 'shareholder value.' That phrase is a euphemism for executive compensation and the transfer of workers' wages to big investors, with a nice percentage for investment bankers and other facilitators of 'downsizing.' And 'downsizing' is a euphemism for firing people with decent salaries and benefits and replacing them with temps and other benefitless Americans or with nimble-fingered villagers somewhere east of Krakatoa. It's a crime. But you can't call the police because the government is in on it, too."

As noted author and political analyst Kevin Phillips observed in his 2002 book, Wealth and Democracy: "Corruption, like larceny, comes in many forms, some blatant, others more subtle" (p. 317). Financial scandals—such as those involving Enron and Arthur Andersen—have made headlines in recent years, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. The financial repercussions of such scandals are merely symptoms of deep underlying moral failings. Covetousness and greed are sins just as much as lying or theft. Though the Ten Commandments directly forbid covetousness and greed, these attitudes permeate our culture, and actually undermine the very foundations of national prosperity and power.

A Lesson from Ancient Israel

The words of the ancient Hebrew prophets include very plain warnings for us. Though they wrote many millennia ago, the world in which they wrote was not nearly so unlike our own as many might think. Prophets such as Hosea, Amos and Micah wrote their warnings and rebukes against a backdrop of national prosperity and power, not unlike what the Western nations are experiencing today.

Note the way the Jewish Soncino commentary introduces the book of Micah. "The eighth century [bc] witnessed the emergence in Israel and Judah of a commercial civilization of great material prosperity. Its foundations were laid in the peace and security which Jeroboam II (783–743) won for Israel and Uzziah (778–740) for Judah during their long reigns, and in the extensions of the borders of their kingdoms from Damascus to the Red Sea and from the Desert to the Mediterranean, giving the Hebrew States command of all the main trade routes of ancient days. But it was a civilization which displayed all the evils of a society making haste to be rich—greed and covetousness, reckless and unscrupulous competition, and a pitiless disregard of the claims of sympathy, charity and brotherly consideration" (The Twelve Prophets, p. 153). Similarly, in its introduction to Micah, The Expositor's Bible Commentary describes "a time when Israel and Judah had risen to heights of economic affluence but had fallen to depths of spiritual decadence" (p. 395).

The eighth century bc saw ancient Israel and Judah rise to their greatest heights since the days of Solomon. But before the century's end, these nations had toppled "from the glory of economic prosperity and international influence to virtual subjugation by a foreign power" (Expositor's, p. 269). The kingdoms prospered financially, but internal decay was eating away at them from within. The Soncino goes on to observe that in the eighth century, extremes of wealth and poverty began to divide the people into possessors and dispossessed, in a way that had not been possible during the kingdoms' earlier days as agricultural societies. Further, the pursuit of commerce encouraged the development of cities, "where wealth, luxury and vice dwelt side by side with poverty, misery and squalor. With the exchange of goods went the exchange of ideas. New religious cults, standards of luxury and splendour, and materialistic aims of living, which had hitherto been foreign to Israel, were introduced from Assyria and Egypt" (p. 154).

Thousands of years ago, God sent His prophets to cry out His warning message at a time when Israel seemed at the peak of prosperity and power. Men like Hosea, Micah and Amos were sent with a rebuke and a warning that seemed quite improbable to their contemporaries. However, a careful reading of their prophetic books shows that their warnings were not just for their contemporaries, but also for the end time. Just as the prosperity of eighth century bc Israel seems to strongly parallel that of the modern English speaking nations, so also does the description of national attitudes and sins. Those national sins will engender national punishments from the great God, who is the source of our nations' prosperity and abundance—just as He was of theirs.

Hosea, who began his prophetic career during the days of Jeroboam of Israel and Uzziah of Judah—as the nations reached a peak of prosperity—described why God was displeased, and where that displeasure would lead. "Harlotry, wine and new wine enslave the heart," he wrote in Hosea 4:11. Immorality and intoxication (a term encompassing both alcohol and drug abuse) have increasingly enslaved recent generations of Americans, Britons, Canadians and Australians. "The more they increased [prospered] the more they sinned against me," God declared through Hosea (v. 7).

The prophet Amos, a farmer from Judah who traveled to northern Israel, at God's command, to deliver the divine message, indicted the nation for practicing the economics of greed. "These are the words of the Lord: For crime after crime of Israel I will grant them no reprieve, because they sell the innocent for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes. They grind the heads of the poor into the earth and thrust the humble out of their way" (Amos 2:6–7, NEB). Amos went on to utter God's pronouncement against those who lived lives of luxury and ease by taking advantage of others. "Shame on you," Amos wrote in Amos 6:1, "You who loll on beds inlaid with ivory and sprawl over your couches, feasting on lambs from the flock and fatted calves, you pluck the strings of the lute… you who drink wine by the bowlful and lard yourselves with the richest of oils, but are not grieved at the ruin of Joseph" (vv. 4–6, NEB).

Micah, a contemporary of Hosea and Amos, described the sins both of ancient Israel and of us, today. "Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning's light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance" (Micah 2:1–2, NIV).

Attitudes that seek, covetously, to enrich the self to the detriment of neighbor and country are endemic in our society. Executives who pay themselves millions of dollars in bonuses and stock options, while bankrupting pension plans and laying off workers to enhance profit margins, are guilty at the least of breaking the tenth commandment: "Thou shalt not covet." Of course, covetousness is also equated with idolatry—having another god in place of the true God (Colossians 3:5).

For every corporate scandal that results in fines or jail time, many other schemes "fly beneath the radar." Many are involved in practices that, though legal under the laws of the land, target those in society who are least able to protect themselves from abuse. For example, in recent months a major U.S. telephone long distance carrier included a note on customers' bills that their long distance rate was to rise from ten cents a minute to fifteen cents. For those who called the company and threatened to change long distance carriers, the company quickly backtracked and offered a reduced rate of seven cents a minute. Who wound up paying the higher rate? Primarily the elderly and the uneducated! These are the people who most commonly lacked the knowledge and the skills to challenge the price hike. The company surely realized that, in the current competitive market, its more astute consumers would refuse to pay the higher rate, but it relied on the expectation that many others would simply pay their bill! What does God have to say of such an approach to business? "Shall I count pure those with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights… their tongue is deceitful in their mouth. Therefore I will also make you sick by striking you, and making you desolate because of your sins" (Micah 6:11–13).

What does God seek of us? Is He satisfied with merely an outward veneer of religiosity, while we continue to go about "business as usual"? Or does God want far more? Note Micah 6:8: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Those who truly love their Creator, and stand in awe of Him, will treat their neighbors as they would wish to be treated themselves. Such converted Christians would never, ever manipulate the system to the detriment of those least able to defend themselves.

While the Anglo-Saxon nations stand at a pinnacle of economic prosperity and military power, we must yet note God's warning. Our nations cannot remain powerful and prosperous while pursuing the economics of greed, and the injustices engendered by such attitudes. The prophets of old recorded a warning not only to their society, but also to our own! Will we heed it? Will you?

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