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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, April 02, 2007

Holy Week: About the Whole Person

What could an economist have to say during Holy Week? Isn't all that worldly stuff irrelevant this week? Not really; as we move through this week, we are walking the way of the Cross with Jesus. The people of Trinity Church Wall Street, for example, will walk the way of the Cross around Lower Manhattan on Friday afternoon, praying for all the worldly institutions that surround it.

We ourselves are still thinking about John Chervokas, the former advertising manager whose Pinstripe Prayers we quoted last week. Among his intercessions is one for the office cleaning lady. As he prays, he notices an interesting thing about her: she is happy in her work. He, even with his status and high income, is clearly uptight and nervous over his own responsibilities, but she seems content, and he might be just a little envious of that.

Robert W. Fogel, an economic historian and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1993, suggests that such a disparity is no accident. Besides inequality of income and wealth, there is also inequality in spiritual values and resources, and these have distinct and uneven impacts. Fogel argues, "The agenda for egalitarian polices that has dominated reform movements for most of the past century – … the modernist egalitarian agenda – was based on material redistribution. The critical aspect of a postmodern egalitarian agenda is not the distribution of money income . . . or consumer durable goods. . . . [T]the most intractable maldistributions in rich countries such as the United States are in the realm of spiritual or immaterial assets." The struggle against chronic poverty needs to account for its principal component, spiritual estrangement from mainstream society. Fogel also notes that many who are materially rich are spiritually deprived, a feeling Mr. Chervokas may sense in himself.

This isn't just the case in rich countries either. A rapidly growing area of study for economists is "subjective well being", known more informally as "happiness". Researchers at Oxford University's Centre for the Study of African Economies analyzed a 1993 survey about this by the South African Labour and Development Research Unit of the University of Cape Town; the survey questions included one on people's sense of their own personal well-being: in general, are you very satisfied with your life, somewhat satisfied, neutral, not satisfied or very unsatisfied. The Oxford professors divided the responses by income category. While it was broadly the case that higher income was associated with higher life satisfaction, the correlation was very loose, with at most 39% of respondents in the same category for both income and life satisfaction. Some very poor people reported being in fact quite satisfied with their lives (17.5% of the lowest income group), and some relatively well-to-do are pretty dissatisfied. This study is very interesting, and we will look at it again, particularly because it is one of the few dealing with poor people in a poor land. Other of the survey's criteria for well-being include whether homes have iron roofs, whether roads are consistently passable, what race a household is and whether the household is a racial minority in its own neighborhood. These authors, Geeta Kingdon and John Knight, can thus distinguish between the terms "income poverty" and "well-being poverty", the same way Professor Fogel does.

Economists care about all this because part of what they try to do is assess social welfare and recommend policies to improve it. We see here that in contemporary efforts toward this end, they are broadening their own horizons beyond simple income/consumption considerations, and they have begun to take the whole person into account, encompassing emotional, social and spiritual dimensions. Holy Week is a time when we experience the same process in ourselves: worshipping together socially and praying alone emotionally through heart-wrenching scenarios which build toward the Perfect Spiritual Ending that raises welfare for the whole world.

+ + + +

Robert W. Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. 2, 3, 177.

Geeta Gandhi Kingdon and John Knight, "Subjective Well-Being Poverty versus Income Poverty and Capabilities Poverty?" Economic and Social Research Council: Global Poverty Research Group. December 2004.

Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger, "Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being". Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 20, Number 1, Winter 2006, Pp. 3-24.


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