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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:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

An Ethical Economy Is Based in Us

This past Wednesday through Friday, January 27-29, Trinity Church Wall Street conducted its 40th Annual "Trinity Institute", this edition titled "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology & the Marketplace". Speakers were the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Kathryn Tanner, theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Sir Partha Dasgupta, economics professor at Cambridge University.

Each session consisted of a lecture by one of the speakers, then a panel where all the speakers and an additional "discussant" discussed the lecture, along with questions from the audience. The "audience" was seated in the nave at Trinity and in 80 networked partner sites located in all 50 States, Panama and several other countries. Each session was followed by an hour-long meeting of small Theological Reflection groups, where eight or nine people from all over this country who had mostly never met each other before, got to hash out the lessons together and try to figure out how they could fit those lessons into their lives and work. At an opening Eucharist Wednesday night, the preacher was Bernard Ntahoturi, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Burundi, one of the world's poorer countries, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as the Celebrant. The Blessing at the conclusion of that service was offered – in unison – by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop of New York. Heady stuff.

This article and at least one more to follow will give you my take on the presentations. The quickest way for you to get a sense of it for yourself is to visit Trinity's website, where videos of the plenary sessions are now available: . Also, a blog by Scott Gunn, a priest, and Catherine Mann, an economist, contains some great commentary. Here:

I had presumed that the conference would consist mainly in a lashing out at the capitalist system and free enterprise. This was not at all the case. These institutions were perhaps critiqued, but I think there's a growing recognition that the obvious alternative, government, may not necessarily do any better job; the recent financial crisis, after all, came about in part because regulators and government sponsored lending programs were themselves also irresponsible. And corrupt governments can contribute to poverty and pollution. More significantly, there are even more foundational considerations ["fundamental" could appear here, but it's overworked, and "foundational" gets more to the heart of the matter – or to the "base" of it, if you will]: how any of it works depends on the character of the people participating, that is, all of us.

Rowan Williams, who is an extraordinarily insightful and impressive speaker, began by pointing out that "economics" is, at root, "housekeeping". He described that in a house, or a home, the inhabitants all work together in common for the good of the household: "life is lived in common". So he wants us to consider the home we build together. This is a long-term activity in which we want to nurture the well-being of all the members of the household. In this setting, "every person is both needy and needed . . . we are helpless alone and gifted in community." Theology participates in this by providing a basis and a mandate for the examination of our character and our integrity. Our well-being depends, Williams says, on our capacity for bearing self-scrutiny and maintaining a discerning self-awareness. How do we do our best? What are we invested in – in a broad sense, not just financially.

Later, Dasgupta described "an economy" as whatever the relevant "unit of account" might be: household, yes, or community or nation or, increasingly, the whole globe. Wherever our exchanges take place. Dasgupta's main discourse, on the earth as the sum and substance of our "wealth", is a fascinating notion and will absorb a whole Ways of the World essay.

As you see through these brief references, the conversation never focused on business or profit. It never centered on income inequality or greed. It mentioned these topics, but it was our role and our relationships to them that were important, not the concepts themselves. The discussion emphasized community, but spoke so often of us as individuals that I hesitate to call it "communitarian". Nonetheless, as Kathryn Tanner, the theologian, explained, even as God desires our flourishing, we require relationships with others in order for us flourish. She believes religion can help market behavior and in particular, she believes Christianity can help market participants – that's us – look out beyond the short-term to something greater.

The Archbishop's closing summary explored four over-arching themes that he observed across the conference's various sessions: (1) a sense of "language", as he put it, or perhaps "terminology" that can have more than one kind of implication: for instance, "capitalism" enables you to do good when you don't intend to. And "competition" does not necessarily portray a "war of all against all". Indeed "self-competition" is quite a desirable property that fosters our own growth. He wants us to consider "what sort of persons we need to make the system work effectively". This refers to everyone, not just to financial specialists.

(2) Education. All the speakers at some point discussed the significance of education, especially early childhood. Williams asks "What does education initiate young people into?" That is, what values and culture do we pass on to them? He wants us to teach "enterprise" to children, presumably introducing ethical ways of conducting enterprise at a very young age. We must teach – and take for ourselves – a broader humanist approach that overrides strict "rationalism". [Interestingly, recent Nobel-Prize-winning economic research has dealt with exactly these kinds of issues: what is the value of early childhood education?]

(3) How do we define "self"? As in "self-interest". There was no debate about "self-interest" per se. But instead, we realize that our "self" is a bigger being than just us individually. Our self must also encompass our neighbors and any we have exchange with, a kind of "social self". In the context of our work here, the self is automatically invested in our neighbor now and also in the future. "The self of the future already exists in the present." What "we" do today will impact our children in later years – or even, as I think about it, our neighbors and our colleagues tomorrow.

(4) Finally, every speaker and every session came to "trust". This doesn't mean just "mutual belief", but a stronger "I believe that you share in my interest." The other person understands and participates in my interest. And, notably, vice versa. In this regard, part of the problem of today is that "there are great tracts of the world who believe that the wealthy have no interest in them." In reply to a follow-up question, Williams suggested that this is part of the schismatic problem that the Anglican Communion faces presently. He asks us to consider "Whose interests do I recognize?" and "Why should I be trusted?" In the end, he reminds us "We can trust God because God made us when God didn't need to."

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