Monday, September 19, 2016

Using People or Using Money

What are some of your greatest fears, not things like spiders or thunderstorms, but things you worry about, things that cause anxiety?  If you are middle-aged, as I am, somewhere high on your list is losing your job.  In 2012, more than 3.5 million Americans ages of 45 to 64, an unprecedented 8.2%, were unemployed; 39% of them for a year or more.  Most struggle with the loss of income as well as a loss of dignity.  Their mental and physical health suffers.

Into this unhappy picture steps Jesus with a parable about a middle-aged account manager. His employer has uncovered intolerable wasteful behavior and the account manager is set to be fired.  He is told to present his records and then pack up and leave.  His inner worries ring true.  He knows his prospects are limited.  At his age physical labor is just too taxing.  He doesn’t want to beg or turn to government assistance,

What will the account manager do?  Well, it is Jesus’ story so Jesus will do with it what he often seems to do: he spins it in a startling, almost puzzling direction.  The account manager decides to approach the people who owe his employer money and cut their bills by as much as half.  This way, he reasons, they will welcome him into their homes once he is out of a job.  While there is little honest or noble about his actions, the employer praises it as a shrewd maneuver.  As I said, it is Jesus’ story so he can tell it any way he likes.

Through this parable Jesus reminds each of us we have a basic choice to make in life: either we can use people to make money or we can use money to bless people. 

Adam Smith laid out the foundational principles of a free market economy in his book, The Wealth of Nations.  In it he argues the individual person, motivated by self-interest and guided by moral behavior, is in the best position to make economic and financial decisions for himself or herself.  So, for example, the cost of milk moves based on supply and demand.  When the cost goes up, consumption goes down.  When consumption goes down supply increases, the cost drops, and people begin to buy more milk.  It is a beautiful system and one that is much more efficient than, say, a central agency such as a government setting the price of milk.

Today’s reading from the prophet Amos highlights the potential flaw in this system.  While we can count on people to be motivated by self-interest, can we depend on them to be moral?  Amos condemns the merchant class of his society accusing them of dishonest practices such as shorting the weight of what they sell (think of paying for a pound of grain, but only getting ¾ of a pound), cheating the money which also had to be weighed (today we have ‘hidden’ fees and charges), and selling substandard quality goods – wheat swept off the floor.

Like those people of old, we are still motivated by self-interest, but less and less regulated by moral behavior.  Our government cranks out more and more rules to police our economy, but can’t keep pace with what is happening and can’t find enough moral people to do the work of keeping things fair.  As a result, sometimes we get “gypped.”  A product or an exchange is not as good as advertised.  Sometimes we get the “shaft.”  Our car turns out to be a lemon.  And sometimes the entire economy collapses under the massive weight of widespread fraudulent behavior.

Jesus’ critique is as simple as this: we are using people to make money.  His solution: we should use our money to bless people.  But what exactly does this look like?

At its meeting last Monday, the Vestry needed to make several decisions about our kitchen renovation.  None has been discussed more than the purchase of a new stove.  If there is an option we have not considered I don’t know what it might be.  We got great advice by talking to a local distributer who helped us identify our needs and then connected us with a particular product.  The distributor will coordinate with the construction company to get the stove delivered and installed.  It will also be available should any issues arise.  An easy decision, right?  Well, no.  You see we can order the exact same stove on-line and save a couple thousand dollars.  We’ll have to find someone to get it into the building and hooked up to the gas line, but this should only cost a couple of hundred dollars.  The bottom line makes this an easy call, right?  Wait.

So much about our society has changed with the advent of big retailers and on-line shopping.  Hunting down the lowest price is at the click of a finger.  I can go to Wal-Mart and buy groceries and household goods at a savings of what it cost my parents years ago.  That is all well and good, except much of the money I spend there leaves our community.  Employees and suppliers earn a living, but the profit goes elsewhere.  Back in the day when local businesses where owned and operated by local people, the money we spent in their stores stayed in our community.  It benefited the owner in addition to his or her employees and suppliers.  Those business owners became civic leaders who generously supported institutions in our community – organizations like churches.  This layer of our society is shrinking and, while we can buy more products at a lower cost, we are impoverished by the process in ways we might not imagine.

The Vestry weighed all of this and decided to create a relationship with the local stove distributor.  We believe it is good for our community, beneficial to us in the long run, and in keeping with Jesus’ teaching to use our money to bless people. 

This decision has started me to think about the value of shopping locally.  The website Sustainable Connections has a top 10 list of reasons to buy from locally owned enterprises:

1.    You support yourself.  Local owners make purchases from other local businesses, thus strengthening the economic base of our community.

2.    Non-profit groups receive 250% more support from small businesses than large businesses.

3.    Local businesses make our community unique.  They make us some place, not just anyplace.

4.    Local businesses have a lower impact on the environment.

5.    The majority of people are employed by a small business.  Buying local creates jobs.

6.    You get better service. 

7.    You are making an investment in our community.  People who own or work in a local business are more invested in our community’s future and are less likely to move away.

8.    Local businesses require less infrastructure and are more efficient at using public services than big box stores.

9.    When you shop local you tend to buy what you want rather than what a national sales campaign wants you to buy.

10.    You encourage local prosperity by creating a climate favorable to resident entrepreneurs.

I don’t know if I will stop shopping at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s anytime soon, nor will I don a fake mustache and dark glasses when I do go there.  But I do want to be more mindful about the purchasing decisions I make.  Not only is a Baron burger superior to what is served at McDonalds, but so is the impact of the monetary exchange.  I don’t drink coffee, so I cannot comment of the quality of the product at a local shop verses Starbucks, but there is an economic impact to be sure.  And, at least as far as Jesus is concerned, there is a moral, ethical, and spiritual impact as well.  The bottom line of my Food Lion receipt might look better, but the quality of my community, which also has an impact on me, suffers. 

Jesus said, “Either you can use people to make money or you can use money to bless people.”