Bridging the theology-economy gap

Susan Lee


Kai Ryssdal: The head of the Anglican Church is no fan of the global financial industry. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been stirring up controversy in England with some fairly strongly worded sermons and statements on that subject. A couple of weeks ago he brought those views to Wall Street.

Trinity Church, right on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, held a conference on how to build an ethical economy. On stage with him was frequent Marketplace commentator Susan Lee. So we asked her to share her thoughts on the ethics of economics from her perspective as both an economist and a theologian.

SUSAN LEE: Sharing the stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury forced me to wear both my hats at the same time. And, since ethics are the common ground for theology and economics, the result wasn't as loaded with conflict as you might think.

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth.

In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: "An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren't abandoned."

Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S. In capitalism, economic wherewithal comes from increasing rates of growth. Or, in the economist's favorite image -- a bigger pie. And the sharing of this pie with the most vulnerable is mandated through a social safety net.

Over the past six decades, our economy has enjoyed good economic growth, so we have a bigger pie. And, because of the moral consensus to protect the most vulnerable, we've given more of this pie through the social safety net.

But here's the hooker. Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts.

They assume there can be: work without incentives, enterprise without income inequality, investment without market-rates of return.

But picking and choosing isn't an option. Capitalism is an integrated system. And it's this integration that creates the wealth-making, which is the basis for wealth-sharing.

Well, the Archbishop listened to me politely. But I didn't convince him. I was, however, thrilled to take my views to the top -- so to speak.

RYSSDAL: Susan Lee is an economist and a theologian based in New York City.


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