Is the stock market evil?

Issues of finance, ‘making money work’ for us and the like is very problematic to discuss. There is a minefield of facts, figures and conflicting ideologies. So this is simply a starter discussion.

A basic understanding of shares in public companies in theory makes them accountable to the shareholders. So far so good… however, in many cases the shareholders are simply looking for a return financially. The Oakland Institute published a report that hedge funds are buying up great parts of Africa – in 2009 alone they bought up as much land as would cover the nation of France – where they can increase their profits for shareholders. In the short term they might be employing people on the ground, but long-term investment into the future of Africa is not the agenda. They will give a good return to their shareholders. Accountable to the shareholders, but accountable for what? They are not being held accountable morally nor ethically, solely to make money and as much as possible. (And there are notable exceptions in the public arena, however the financial sector itself is very weak in such moral and ethical areas of accountability.)

So, can we invest in the stock market, or is there something intrinsically wrong with investments that are simply to make money? Or to put it more simply – can we make money work for us. If I invest money into a project in (say) Africa that brings work there, and it makes a return to me, is that counted as ‘work’, and I have the right of earning that money? I could get richer by so doing. And assume it was an amazing return and I never needed (money-wise) to get out of bed again, but could now retire, is that legitimate? The money is working for me, but I am no longer working.

So as this is just a starter discussion: how about

  • the possibility of money working for us, if the money is as a result of ‘work’, so it now symbolically represents work, and
  • it is invested into ethical / creational / new-creational settings
  • but at the same time I do get out of bed to make a contribution to this world (‘work’) whether that earns money or not.

In other words if we bring a separation between money and work can we both critique money making money, and yet make room for an element whereby money can work for us?

32 thoughts on “Is the stock market evil?

  1. I feel like this topic is a huge knot to unravel. It is a difficult one to tease out. So I have some random observations, thoughts and questions. These are in no particular order just what comes to my weary Sunday morning brain (the cat is like a toddler and kept me up last night).

    1. How do we define all of these terms: trade, economics, commerce, business?
    2. At what scale are we thinking about these terms? Commerce on ‘main street’ is different from commerce on ‘wall street’ or any of the other major banking and investment streets in the world. Is trade local or global? Does the commerce/trade involve the exploitation of peoples in other countries and parts of the globe? People we do not see or particularly care about.
    3. What is the role of government? How does government (and what type of government – an expression of collective will, a tyranny?) interact with business, commerce, and trade? Why? Based on what assumptions or relationships?
    4. How do we understand the difference between the public and private spheres? How does that influence our economics?
    5. What do we believe about profit and usury? The church had a lively discussion and theology about this in its early days.
    6. What do we believe and how do we act towards those that seemingly cannot participate in the economic system? In some countries women are denied a meaningful role, in other countries they are denied economic power. What about others we deny participation from in our particular system – immigrants sometimes, people of particular ethnic groups or religions, the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill and disabled?
    7. How do we understand and utilize the human propensity for social networks (I do not mean Facebook here), the ability to organize into larger coalitions and then to exercise greater power because of that?
    8. What is the relationship of a country/nation state to the larger economic system? Who influences or controls what? Here I think of the World Bank/IMF and its austerity programs for many developing countries that so destroyed their economic systems and impoverished so many people (and enriched a certain few).
    9. How do we understand society and equality? Countries with the greatest disparity in incomes suffer the most social problems and quality of life indicators decrease. Should incomes be regulated? Should measures be taken to mitigate for the disparity and even out society so that the whole is healthier and functions better?

    Economics is merely a measure for human to human, human to other species, and human to the planet relationships. It encompasses our beliefs about God, human beings and the rest of creation. Within that it is about resource sharing. Who gets the resources – the humans, particular humans (based on what criteria), other species (habitats etc), the planet? Who makes the decisions about resources and based on what thinking/ideology/criteria? What are the results? Does this work?

    I would suggest from my own PhD research that scale is critical to the discussion. One example. My research looks at the sharing and distribution of water to the people of a city (and around the city through irrigation to agriculture). The resource was not reliable. There were seasons when there was less water than others. Decisions had to be made about who got it and why. Generally the city, when it had control of the countryside, privileged urban industry over the agriculture of the countryside. Industries made money through export goods while I presume they figured they could buy food elsewhere during famines. Yes, they had famines, and one of the decisions of Italian city states was to provide a bread dole, and to keep bread prices down during times of need.

    So a couple of observations about this system. The conflicts came between similar scaled powers. That is, the major conflict was between the feudal family (like a private firm) who wanted to and did at times control the water supply to the city. This was countered by appeals by the city to higher authorities and ultimately by the duke who wanted to destroy the feudal powers anyway. So private/public partnerships do not work well when the scale of each is too similar. Thus if private business gets too large and too powerful and feels no accountability to any other governance it can became a problem as resource ‘sharing’ will take second place to profit making (which is merely a form of resource sharing to one’s own private interests first and foremost).

    At the same time this system was organized around private consortia who managed parts of the public system. These consortia could make money through their licensed water rights but also had to help maintain the system. This private/public partnership worked for almost 1000 years since the scales were different. The public collective authority of the city had full control over the many and varied private business consortia. In a system where the collective will through government is more powerful than business the system can be held accountable. That is not what we see in today’s democracies where businesses are huge and beyond any accountability by the collective will (I realize governments frequently do not express the collective will but I have to use some short-hand here).

    Sorry that took so long but this is a most critical gate – it determines the resources for many of the others. It determines the shape of our communities both morphologically (the literal, physical shape) and socially. So lots and lots of questions!

  2. Is the stock market evil? Where do we start in answering that?! Here is my attempt.
    In the Bible we are taught that God does not like:

    – The poor being charged interest (Exodus 22, Ezekiel 22, Nehemiah 5, Leviticus 25)
    – Hoarding wealth for oneself or trusting in wealth for security (Matt 5)
    – Wasting what we are given to invest/use wisely (Matt 25 Parable of the talents).
    – Laziness

    In contrast, God approves of and requires of us:
    – Honest work and employment that produces a livelihood and return for the workers
    – Giving to and providing for those in need (especially widows and orphans in distress!)
    – Sharing of wealth and fair remuneration of employees
    – Providing for one’s relatives financially (aged parents and children)
    – Wise investment with a focus on eternal consequences

    It also appears that Jesus did not have any particular problem with the banks of His time, in that in the parable of the talents (Matt 25) the servant who wasted his money was berated by his master for burying the money in the ground rather than putting it on deposit with the bank so it could have earned interest. I believe, however, that banks in those days did not operate fractional reserve banking, and thus they loaned out only money they actually had on deposit, making their profit from the difference between the interest rates charged on the loans and the interest paid on the deposits. This is very different from today’s fractional reserve banking system, where banks increase the money supply in the economy by loaning money that does not actually exist at the time of the loan, and which only becomes truly “real” once the loan has been paid off. One root of the current financial crisis is that the amount of money loaned by the banks far exceeded the amount of money the banks actually held in deposits and investments, which was fine until people started defaulting on the loans (mainly through the sub-prime mortgage sector). This effectively pulled out a card that led to the entire house of cards almost completely collapsing. Surely this is not what Father God would ever have intended to happen! But I digress, so back to what the Bible says.

    An interesting matter in the OT is that of asset ownership. The “Jubilee” principles stated in Leviticus 25-27 make it clear that initially the land assets were evenly distributed, and that any land sale was only a temporary lease with a maximum period of 50 years, after which the land was always returned to the original owner or their descendants. This served 2 functions: Firstly, it ensured the wealthy could rent land to farm or use, thus providing employment and wealth creation, and secondly it ensured everyone had an equal chance to use their own land to provide for themselves. Even if someone made a mess of things and become poor, after a maximum of 50 years the land (and presumably anything left on it) would be returned to them so they (or their descendants) would have another chance to prosper and not be stuck in slavery or poverty. The other beauty of this system was that the land price was tied to how many years of the lease remained, as this determined how many harvests could be reaped. This system presumably ensured that land values did not get out of control and also probably prevented the horrid phenomenon of speculative property bubbles that we see all too often these days. It does seem to me that as well as being the wise counsellor, healer, creator, etc, our Father God is also the wise economist!
    So, with all of these Biblical principles in hand, what are we to make of the stock market? Well, firstly, it is inaccessible to the poor. If you have no money you cannot invest in shares unless you want to take out a loan to invest, which is a risky practice that bought great hardship to many after the US stock market crash in October 1929, which in turn led to the Great Depression (a similar leveraged investment approach led to the recent house price bubble and was also a causal factor in the 2008 financial crisis, which is still ongoing).

    Secondly, taking the Sermon on the Mount principle (Matt 5) that “where your treasure is, your heart is there also” , investing money in stocks and shares inevitably leads to at least a part of one’s heart, mind and efforts being focussed on the price and performance of the stocks, shares (or related assets), and away from the Kingdom of God. Investing in a company in this way, via the stock market, is about personal wealth creation without responsibility and, unlike investing in a bank deposit account, requires the investor to expend a lot more time and effort on deciding what to invest in and then monitoring the investment. Investment in shares can also lead to destruction of hard-earned capital, and I am not sure Father God likes that. It seems a bit too close to gambling for my liking.

    Thirdly, unless one takes great care over which companies are invested in, how do you know that the money the Lord has assigned to you, for which you are responsible, is being used in a godly, righteous way by those companies? Even if one has a thorough knowledge of the company activities, as a minority shareholder (which is all most of us would ever be), one has little or no say over the companies’ future policies or activities. And if you have invested via a managed fund that invests in multiple companies, I would suggest you will have no idea if the money is being used well or righteously. Therefore I believe it is safe to say that investing in stocks and shares ultimately causes us to abdicate our moral accountability for our investment to others, all in the name of making money for personal gain. I cannot see how this can be described as anything other than wrong, and it could perhaps be described as evil. Note that having thought this through, I am now going to sell the shares I have in the company I used to work for!

    Fourthly, the stock market can permanently deprive a family or organisation of their financial assets, through no fault of their own, which contrasts starkly with the in-built protection of the Jubilee system that Father God told Israel to use. Despite more regulation than ever, the stock market (and other commodities markets) are still places that are led ultimately by greed and sentiment, with no “reset” system to stop things getting out of control, other than the “boom followed by bust” mechanism, which profits few people and makes life more expensive for most. Also, there is so much scope for mis-selling or mis-informed buying, and once an investment is made you have no real control over it.

    Finally, one has to ask why a company floats on the stock market. Usually it is to gain an investment for future growth of the business. But an unavoidable side-effect is that company owners and bosses usually use such a sale to make themselves very rich, while leaving the remainder of the company employees to suffer whatever consequences privatisation brings, good or bad. The top men take the financial benefits on the “upside”, but they will not suffer any “downside” risks. Only the employees and share investors will suffer if things go wrong. Surely this cannot be right!

    I once worked for an organisation that was government owned initially and was then sold and privatised; the men at the top who conducted the sale and subsequent privatisation (via a massively leveraged buyout) became obscenely rich, and the company has since failed to perform as expected (due to unrealistic expectations of future business opportunities in my view). As a result, people have lost their jobs, employment terms and conditions have been eroded, the government has lost expertise that was hard won over several decades, the share price has plummeted leaving many people holding a loss, and what remains is a company that, sadly, is in danger of becoming a poor shadow of its former self. Instead of the company bosses looking after the employees, they put making a large personal profit ahead of employee well-being and fair distribution of wealth to all workers, which I believe is wrong. All of the workers help to create the profit, so surely they should receive some of it, rather than the few at the top taking most of it? I cannot see Father God approving of such an approach.

    I visited New York a few months ago and was horrified to see the large bronze statue of a bull outside Wall Street. It symbolises the “Bull Market”, ie a stock market that is going up with rising share prices, making lots of money for investors. The trouble is, such rises are often due to little more than speculation and greed, and often result in financial devastation for many investors (eg the 1929 Wall Street crash, the dotcom bubble burst, etc). The Wall Street bull statue seemed to me eerily similar to the Golden Calf the nation of Israel built in disobedience to God. In my mind it is without doubt an idol, a monument to the love of money. It is perhaps, therefore, no coincidence that the CEOs and other executives of stock market listed companies get such obscenely large remuneration. They are paid according to their ability to generate profits, with profit and profitability being the only metrics they are ultimately assessed on by the market and investors. Even if these companies have ethical objectives or corporate responsibility, how much of that is truly heart-felt, and would they ever truly subordinate profit to ethical or moral concerns? How often these company leaders bow in submission to the bull.

    Having really thought about all this, I am shocked. As someone attempting to follow Jesus, should I invest in shares? Should I even have a pension plan that is based on the stock market? I am starting to think not. I cannot get away from the fact that global business, hedge funds, the stock market, the commodities markets and all that is associated with them, tend ultimately to lead to unjust outcomes for many and slowly but surely channel money and assets away from the poor and into the hands of the rich. Whole nations are now enslaved to the will of big global businesses. I believe that ultimately, public listing of companies and the trading of shares on the stock market almost inevitably lead to a focus on profit with much less regard for anything else. Therefore I do not think that, through share ownership, I can support that system whilst maintaining a clear conscience before God. To buy, sell or own shares is to participate in a system that too frequently operates in ways contrary to the heart desires of Father God. There must be a better way, but that is the subject of another debate! What should followers of Jesus do with the money that they are entrusted with by Father God?

    • I found your comment about the ‘bull’ of wall street interesting. My first thought is the Mithros religion – an ancient Roman religion that was heavily utilized by the military and promoted the empire. Ummmm. . . .c.

  3. I am also at the stage where I am beginning to think that planning for the future through a pension plan is immoral where it concerns stocks and shares. I too am looking where to invest my money and I am looking to things that grow but literally, alpacas, horses and sheep. Investing in companies where I personally know the people and what they are trying to do, where their heart is in the community and not in the profit they can make. Will I get a good enough return on my investments to see me through my later years? Who knows, but hopefully like the bad steward who was complimented by his employer for writing down debts when he knew his job was on the line, I will have made a few friends who may help me in my old age.

  4. A provocative title here Martin
    I’d say that the stock market exists :
    1) to allow people with “good” ideas access to capital to fund their development
    2) to allow those who own title to a corporate entity to pass on their ownership to another who is willing to pay them for their ownership rights.

    Perhaps it is possible for either of these two purposes to be carried out with evil intent or with acceptable motives.

    Perhaps the market place itself is not evil, but is merely a place where owners gather to exchange title. The market participants themselves can act in a way that could be described as evil of course. Does the nature of the system ensure that all participants are acting with evil intent? I doubt it.

    Changing tack a bit, what you are really arguing about here is the idea of “private ownership” in its entirety.

    It would be difficult to argue from a reading of the OT that the authors were against all forms of private ownership, although they strongly warned against the improper use of excess wealth and the temptations to do evil that comes with such wealth.

    However, it could be argued though that Jesus’ “way” had no need for ownership of anything which is a much more challenging position.
    “give to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s”
    “do not worry what you wear”
    “do not worry what you will eat, where you will sleep”
    “do not store up for yourself…..”
    “blessed are the poor, woe to you who are rich now…”
    is this “way” completely incompatible with private ownership then? the rich young ruler who came to Jesus for advice was certainly encouraged to sell all he had but was that suggestion meant to be universal?

    I have struggled for twenty years with that question and struggle still today. I do know that whatever my convictions on this subject, I do not currently have the courage to follow the suggestion given to that young man.

    • I think part of the answer to your question goes back to Cheryl’s comment on scale. Investing in a small company with contact with the employees and employers and holding all accountable to your investment is one thing, but where you do not know what is happening to your money and only seeking to get a good return and with no accountability it becomes entirely different in nature. The question then becomes who is controlling who and for whose benefit?

  5. A comment on ‘money’ – just so we are not confused when we talk about it. Money is a symbol of something else with value – presumably a real commodity. Having money, whether it is physically shells, clay tablets, gold, silver or anything else, allows many of us to be freed to do things other than raise chickens or sew clothes for a living. We can trade our professional skills rather than material goods that we produce because we, as a society, have agreed upon the value of the work and of a currency.

    Thus, money, the currency, used to be tied to the gold standard. The value of a country’s money was based on how much gold it had to back it up. The abstract symbol was directly connected to something material. Then the gold standard was discarded and the symbol was connected, in currency trading, to the perception of a country’s value or economics by those who traded in the currency.

    When we invest our money (a symbol of our real material assets) into a company viz the stock market we are laying our material assets on the line to aid the growth of presumably another material asset. If the company goes broke then stockholders are given something in exchange for their original investment – generally a small percentage on the dollar of their investment.

    When, however, the derivatives market came into being it essentially treated an abstract symbol (money) as if it was its own material reality and accorded it value. Note though when it all fell apart, the banks awarded themselves real material assets often in the form of foreclosed homes. Interesting.

    The issue for me is not to confuse money (an abstract symbol of something too big to carry around) with real material goods. Not all work produces a material good. I teach. You could say my teaching is an investment into the production of material goods by the students but I, myself, do not produce a material good unless you count the garden I plant or the clothes that I sew for myself (and of course, perfectly tradable in other economies). However, society has agreed that my professional skills are worth material goods – so I get paid, at least a little bit.

    I could get paid in chickens, or embroidered cloths, or heavy gold coins but instead there is an electronic transfer between the institution where I teach and the institution where I bank. The symbol itself has lost its own materiality.

    So is there a difference between money and work? Yes, of course. In our culture money is an agreed upon symbol of something we have done that we all consider a tradable commodity (even if it is my time). What we produce with our work is something different altogether. The issues of our economic system and who is involved, who gains, who loses are different questions from how we symbolize the value of our work/investment and what we do with that symbol in order to enhance trade. Since few of us want to be totally self sustainable (even if it were possible) we need a symbol of material value to trade with. I don’t always want to have to cart around my chicken or basket of onions in order to get new shoes. I think the issue arises when we as a society confuse a symbol with real material things and behave as if it were so. Then we are in trouble.
    Have I added to the confusion?

    • No confusion. I think this is so helpful. The shift as you point out that took place with the treatment of money as containing its own material value is (my opinion) vital to grasp. Thanks.

    • I had one of those revelation moments when it finally struck me that I was treating money as tangible asset and not just something connected with making trade easier – a bit like adding oil to a mechanism, it makes it work smoother. So your comment Cheryl makes perfect sense to me.

  6. So many concepts and issues being threaded together here my head is spinning! I’m drawn to Cheryl’s emphasis on scale and the way this provides access to certain ethical and possibly spiritual aspects. Tim rightly brings out, in part, the concept of property at least insofar as Jubilee (and Sabbath incidentally) has import for it.

    I’d like to frame some questions in a different mode, to see if this provokes ideas.

    1 Jubilee is beautiful inasmuch as it demonstrates how God speaks into economics and property. I have had disagreements in other forums about this, but I remain unconvinced that Jubilee as a whole was ever actually practiced in Israel. But its values torment me. Jubilee has to start with an authoritative allotment of property that is not contested, because this is the baseline to which everything returns. What possibility is there for that now? But does this mean that an economy founded on worship and trade as leasehold disappear as well?
    2 Does the abstraction of property as pursued by commodities and futures trading change the spiritual nature of trade itself? In other words, money is a promisary note, but when currency becomes a commodity, traded under other types of promise, what are we dealing with? And when the value attached to the commodity of money is based upon a sort of thermometer of emotional confidence, are we not dealing in the value of a faith, or even a faith in a faith? What exactly is being traded?
    3 A company only receives value for its shares (for investment or growth) at the point of flotation. Secondary trades following that benefit only the traders until, at a point in time and the price at that point in time another share issue is made. So are traders simply buying and selling amounts of confidence or hope?
    4 Does this mean that currency exchange rates are simply statements of faith rather like comparative religion, this one is generating more confidence than that one, but that will change. If you look at traders like HiFX, their exchange rate screen changes so fast it constantly flickers, with many rates changing faster than the screen can refresh.
    5 Currency and commodity trading offer profit only to those who are wealthy. The poor have no access to wealth without work, the poor have no access to food without work and the amount of work required for food increases in inverse proportion to the power of individual. What does this do to the received wisdom among traders that you should only trade what you can afford, or are prepared, to lose. Does this mean that the wealthy are gambling with the food of the poor? (As I read Roger, he would say yes, in order to say, as he has, that money is theft)
    6 I am deeply unconvinced that abstractions, especially poorly understood economic abstractions help us. But concrete abstractions might. For example, should it be illegal for registered charities to earn more than they give? Most charities in the UK are indistinguishable from trading companies in their appetite for financial growth, and this includes the established churches.
    7 Another concrete one… adversarial competition (based on the belief in unrestricted growth) requires that every gain is balanced by an equivalent loss because unrestricted growth is impossible in a finite system. No matter how well monetarism (the idea that economics should be governed through money supply, which is a very difficult idea to grasp) tries to disguise the possibility, what would really happen if profit as a concept were globally limited to a ceiling of a fixed percentage rate. (And from this, that any industry that couldn’t survive like this, say pharmaceutical research, should be nationalised.)

    I’ll ponder some more. Next time I might manage to be a bit more provocative.

    • Good stuff Chris. Great questions. Just to throw something else into the mix, I found this article on the Guardian yesterday. It discusses the neurophysiology of the trading floor and money management. Seems much of what we see has to do with testoserone and the make up of young men. Women, overall are better money managers. Many people think shifting how economics and finances are managed in terms of gender would change much and for the better. Something more to ponder – the gender dynamics of the situation and of our discussion. c.

      • Slowing the whole system down with some wisdom gained from real life experience infused into the mix may also be helpful (as mentioned in some of the comments on the article). Why do we allow young men to manage our money transactions? It does seem crazy. Some young men will see the value of what they are doing and put into context, but how many of those are employed in these institutions? It is almost gladiatorial, watching the gladiators fight it out and see who wins the most, as much of a high for the spectators as the gladiators.
        I just want to say though in defence of young men that sometimes we need the risky behaviour to break out of old mindsets.

      • I glanced at that one too, Cheryl. There is, in every popular image of the trading floor, something of a sport going on, or a war. Naked greed is aggressive, of course, although I’m not sure that mother lion guarding her investment cubs would necessarily be gentler.
        I’m sure there is an interesting project to be done by a suitable academic or two into the dynamics of the aesthetic that governs markets. And gender would be part of that. Just as we might posit that significant shifts in the language of business might. Or ask if the culture of policing might change if the uniforms were pink.

        Part of the aesthetic approach would acknowledge that the chosen vocabulary of any aspect of society guides its behaviours. So the language of the market defines the sphere of influence of, say, a significant corporation largely in terms of others who work in the same sector. They call it market share. But until the language changes to include all the sectors that are influenced then change is difficult to conceive. For example, we have, what, four major supermarket chains in the UK. They dominate the supply of all domestic needs except housing and utility. But they also dominate and affect the nature of farming and food production. Their methods of processing and storing food affect its shelf life, usually by shortening it once the plastic bag that contains your carrots is opened. They dictate prices to suppliers. They make special offers that are paid for not by the supermarket but by the supplier.

        These four companies effectively control food supply in the UK. But they have absolutely no political responsibility. They have no obligation to feed people if the economy collapses, they have no obligation to teach people how to grow potatoes if the imports dry up. Our dependence on their system is absolute. You and I are possibly the last generation that could fend for itself, milk a cow, skin a rabbit (or catch one) or grow our beans. We have a deeply de-skilled population utterly dependent on the success of just four companies, who have no obligation to us that does not provide them with profit. Now that is a very strange aesthetic idea indeed!

  7. A question for everyone taking part here.
    Have you noticed how difficult it is to keep this thread anywhere near Martin’s original question?
    I wonder why it is that a specific question about the stock markets expands so readily and is so applicable to just about anything that bothers us or fascinates us. The moment we begin to talk about money and wealth, we end up talking about everything, as if that shift made sense.

    But whole blogs, like this one and Roger Mitchel’s and hundreds of others reach fairly tentatively towards a dialogue about the spheres of kingdom endeavour and how they might expand beyond the congregation.

    To be sure, the world has chosen its master! Mammon is sytemically in control. Where now our choice?

    • I think this particular blog has expanded because the question of morality in the stock market (of the stock market) is too narrow. The stock market is one aspect of how we distribute and manage resources in our world. It reflects, triggers, enforces, amplifies and negates other means of managing resources. So it is important but perhaps in ways other than just a narrow reading of what happens on the trading floor. For me, if we are going to engage in a discussion of the kingdom then the discussion of economics has to be very broad and very deep – because it is about how we humans acquire, process, and share the resources of this earth with one another and with other species (ie. we make decisions about habitat consumption, destruction, preservation, and restoration that affect other species). Yes, in blogs like this there is lots to think about together. I’m glad we are doing it.

      And I am left wondering if a stock trading floor with at least 50% women, all dressed in pink would be different. Perhaps that’s the answer.

    • As Chris says provocatively, “the world has chosen its master, mammon is systemically in control. Where now our choice?”

      What is missing in this “money is theft” polemic is a group of people modelling or at least describing an alternative system.

      Jesus as far as I know did not offer any service for which he was paid but rather chose to rely on charity for food and shelter. However, this model does rely on the “owned wealth” of others either in terms of excess food stored or spare rooms controlled to live in the good of.

      Paul the apostle did something with tents in lieu of monetary payment. Again relying on others ability to pay and thus to fund food and shelter

      If all money is theft, then all private ownership is theft, then all storing of resources over and above what is needed to live is theft, then charity is impossible as no private individual controls resources to give away.

      Marx wrote very powerfully suggesting a model of society where private ownership need not exist and if human nature were not what it is, may have provided a useful alternative model to the free market. However, it did not prove to be an effective way for a society to steward the resources within its common control.

      The bottom line is, someone has to control the resources. If not the private individual and if not the “state” then who? the church? God Forbid!!

      • Do I get it that you think that private ownership is essential in order to have ‘charity’ in our society? Or that private individuals are the best ones to control resources as opposed to the state or the church. Are there no other alternatives? Certainly, over time, human groups (humans are social critters so we tend to group together) have managed and shared resources through a whole variety of ways on a continuum from total collective ownership (small hunter/gatherer groups frequently share almost everything) to total private ownership (the pharoah in Egypt owned everything and everyone). When you review the models of human resource aquisition and management over human history then it becomes apparent that Marx is late to the game though that does not negate the value of his diagnosis of the problem.

        I think the economic model we use has to be contextual. It has to take into account the full reality of a finite planet of finite resources, a lack of equitable division of natural resources to begin with (different countries, if that is the boundary we want to use, have different natural resources), a difference in needs depending upon ecosystem context, increasing urbanity worldwide, and an increasing world population (oh boy we are galloping towards 9 billion).

        Perhaps the native american people’s had a good model – quite frequently collective control of shared resources and then a means for families or smaller groups to gain short term rights to the use of a particular resource in a particular space for a time – ie. water rights in a certain area, or the right to hunt a particular animal in a particular place. But there are other models out there. Frequently government, at the local level at least, is simply a means of shared and collective ownership. And certainly one could argue that particular resources such as water and clean air, non toxic land belong to the whole. Of course, then we are into the discussion of rights vs. responsibilities. Is housing a right? Then who owns it, with what terms, for how long?

        I also think there is a big difference between the statements Jesus makes that have economic implications, and even the one’s Paul makes versus the possibility that they also simply lived within a context and had to eat/drink/and find shelter within an existing system. So I would not take Paul’s tent making as proof of capitalism at work.

        I think we have to be careful in any economic discussion that we don’t limit ourselves in terms of economic models as that limits our understanding of human beings, society, and the planet. It is too easy to get into a defense of the current system, or some aspect or form of it, or to get into a reaction against it in one way or another. I think the Kingdom calls us to a much more radical vision.

        • A key phrase you use as an alternative to private ownership is “collective control”. A model you suggest was used by the Native Americans and I might suggest was also used by the early church.

          I hope I am not being too cynical if I suggest that the problem with “collective ownership” is that what it really means is that Pope, Chief or Pharaoh controls the lot.

          This leads too crude feudalism with patronage and protection for those who submit and excommunication for those who don’t.

          • I suspect the issue there is one of scale just as it is in democracy. There is a real difference between direct democracy (many tribal societies) and representative democracy and of course the illusion of representative democracy under an oligarchy. Scale makes a lot of difference in human relationships and economics is essentially about how we organize human relationships (and relations to the rest of the planet). Does collective ownership lead to feudalism and patronage? I’d have to see a bit more historical evidence for that one. I’m not convinced actually with your statement.

            One could argue that patronage is a logical outcome of human nature, that is, the tendency to follow a strong leader and then the kind of relationships that emerge from that especially if those relationships become entrenched and connected to significant power. Hence the patron/client model we see so often as societies begin to scale up in terms of population and resource management. So obviously, a desire to resist the corruption that can follow in those models means a political and economic model that puts in place regulations and checks on that kind of corruption developing, particularly generationally. And those checks have to be enforced and monitored to see if they still do the job.

            Anthropoligists used to talk about how governance changed with increased population and resource management as direct democracy (we all sit in a circle and sort things out) becomes less viable. At that point inequalities become evident and entrench and reinforced economically.

            I’m not sure individual, private ownership actually is effective against all of that. I know Jefferson envisioned the USA as a nation of small landowner/farmers as a way of maintaining direct democracy and Hamilton opposed that vision. But what we see today is something vastly different so perhaps Hamilton won. Corporations have co-opted much of the agriculture and land ownership. A small percentage of the wealthy own vast amounts of resources (the top 400 folks in the USA control the same amount of wealth as 150 million American citizens), and a corrupt court and political system (yup, I just finished listening to the whole issue of supreme court justice Clarence Thomas and his lots and lots of gifts from wealthy friends with right wing agendas – all deeply unethical) simply reinforce and support it until what you have is an oligarchy. Your example of the Pope and Catholic Church is essentially the same. But does individual ownership really resist that? In the US – definitely not.

            Which leads us all back to Roger Mitchell’s work on the marriage between church and empire (begun in the 4th century). Now that surely leads to all manner of corruption in the church and governance and to unjust economics.
            Lots to think about,

          • an addendum:
            I think the issue of private vs public ownership again goes back to scale. And yes, there are problems with that. But think what large scale private ownership has wrought. I can immediately think of a few examples:
            1. privately owned ships have overfished the oceans until we are now down to 90% extinct on some species. The oceans are on the brink of collapse which means we are on the brink of collapse due to private fishing (the license is private property issued to the guy with the boat).
            2. private fishing has also fished out the shark population by 90%. If sharks go, then the seal population explodes, then the plankton population goes to feed the seals. Plankton produce 60% of the oxygen on this planet. If plankton go then we go. Sharks have survived for 450 million years on this planet. Way long than humans. They have survived multiple mass extinctions. They may not survive human beings. Private fishing on private boats has done this (often owned by crime conglomerates).
            3. Privately owned mountains are routinely leveled in the USA in Mountain Top Mining. There almost 500 mountains have been reduced to rubble. In the process the ecosystem is destroyed for countless species, waterways are filled with debris and toxic runoff, wells are poisoned, sludge overruns all and destroys villages and towns that have lasted centuries. People become extremely ill. This is private ownership in action by only a handful of companies.
            4. Or take the private ownership of mineral rights in places like Pennsylvania where gas companies who privately own the mineral rights are now injecting toxic chemicals into the earth to release natural gas. The process poisons the land, air and local watersheds. It makes the area uninhabitable and not just for people. And it releases lots of methane (a really bad greenhouse gas) into the air. This is because of private ownership.
            5. Or take a non-US example of private ownership in Canada where companies now strip away the Boreal forest (one of the major lungs of the planet) in order to gain access to the tarsands beneath them. In the process of extraction (there are two methods) they poison the land and the water. They leave behind sludge ponds that are a danger to all. And the First Nations people who really ‘own’ the land are suffering from chronic illnesses. This is private ownership too.

            So when we talk about private ownership we tend to focus on regulation versus non or less regulation (generally the conversation in the US congress). But we fail to again, differentiate between scales. If I, as a private land owner on my wee half acre put down un-ecological turf rather than allow for a diverse, complex ecosystem, little harm is done. If we all do it, then the scale changes and we have a problem. If a corporation gains control of many of those half acres and acts in such a way to poison the land, water and air then we have a disaster. So scale matters – and that may require regulation.

            But again, the idea of human private ownership must be a conversation kept in context – that is, the context of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom there is private ownership and one single owner (kind of like Pharoah was). God owns everything. And we, well, we own nothing really. We are stewards.

  8. I really like the last paragraph in Cheryl’s comment: “God owns everything… We are stewards.” But in the world of business and commerce how many people actually believe this or act in accordance with it? The prevailing view seems to be that if you own something you can make money out of it, to get more assets, to make more money, and so it goes on. The concept of stewardship, particularly of shared resources such as fishing stocks and other finite commodities, seems to be subordinate to profit almost every time.
    Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Maybe this is the root of the problem; big businesses break this commandment all the time in how they treat other businesses, individuals and the environment. The example given above of the supermarkets is a classic. They do to their suppliers things they would hate to be on the receiving end of themselves. Just one example I remember was a price war a few years ago over grapes. This price war (which was possible because supermarkets can sustain a loss on certain product lines if doing so boosts sales of other profitable products) nearly destroyed grape farmers in South Africa, who were given no choice but to sell their grapes at a loss to the supermarkets. I was horrified when I heard this – I didn’t want my grape consumption to destroy the livelihoods of other people, but people in the supermarket’s management chains obviously thought it was ok to do it.

    So what are we to do? Personally I think the global systems of finance and trade are far too broken for any individual, or even for a large, influential group, to influence to influence for the better on a global basis. The global church does not appear to have tried particularly, but I would be very surprised if any major denomination manages to make a significant change in how things currently operate. So perhaps the radical alternative is for followers of Jesus to live completely differently. Possibilities:

    – Form co-operatives: shared stewardship and shared benefits, perhaps a bit closer to what the early church did in Acts 2. A big enough co-operative can provide work for all sorts of skill-sets and efficiently link sellers with buyers and service providers with clients.
    – Form new local building societies, that exists not to make a massive profit for the owners but purely to provide a place for savings and loans/mortgages. I think the mutual model is a good one here.
    – Start growing our own food as much as possible, rediscover traditional farming techniques and related skills, and train others to do them. I have some friends who sense a real calling in this area.
    – Reduce our dependency on world trade and world systems of trade as much as possible. When the “beast” of Revelation comes we won’t be accepting his mark, so we need to be able to survive without world trade anyway. We will have to be able to provide for ourselves (as groups, not individuals).
    Funnily enough all this is similar to the approach recommended by the Transition movement (Google for Transition towns for more info)! It is interesting that people who may not know Jesus yet are actually trying to find practical ways out of the world’s systems of finance and trade.

    We live in interesting times. How much longer do we think world finance and trade can continue on its present path? How long do we have to transition to something sustainable in a controlled manner, before we are forced to do so by crisis? Sorry to digress further from the original stock market question, but to my mind the stock market is just one aspect of a set of much broader, more complex problems. I agree with Cheryl that we need to have a wide-ranging economic discussion.

  9. Ooh! I am enjoying this thread!
    Before I put some concrete into the question of private ownership (not that you were lacking in that material, Cheryl, and thank you for it) I’d like to respond to your earlier response to my question. Yes, absolutely, money does, as Jesus said that it did, focus ethics in a profound way. My point, though, it seems that Mammon already has the ubiquity that we seek for the kingdom of God.

    I’d like to pull to the fore, and question an ethical qualifier that nearly all Christians hold to but rarely use as more than a sort of caption to their picture of wealth creation. Martin alluded to it in his original post. The idea is that if there is an ethical or even spiritual difficulty in dealing with using money to make money, then it is ameliorated if the person doing it has a “”””””kingdom”””””” purpose. (I didn’t slip, all those quotes are needed because the idea is parenthetical at so many levels of remove that I don’t have enough quotes available!) In short if using money to make money is wrong it is less wrong if you intend to do good with the profit. This would be less fragile if churches had a better idea of what doing good might mean of course.

    It is interesting that the early churches held their goods in common and distribution was made from that reserve, but little indication is given as to how decisions were made about those gifts. There can be little doubt that the relief provided was to the poor and the weak, to the widow and orphan. I suspect, largely because the evidence suggests, that today the focus might be on building Preachers Palaces, Ministry Monuments, and luxury items for worship teams.

    Now, here’s my problem. First I want to thank God for the exceptions to this, like that little church in Hungary that gave to my wife last year the pastors salary and every bit of cash they didn’t need for food. This little gift enabled us to pay a medical bill for Doreen without which it is quite possible that something very bad could have happened. But they exemplify something we have found repeatedly true, the poor are often generous. The rich are not, not often. People who are newly rich, have just started to make money or come into a legacy, having previously struggled, are also sometimes very generous. The problem, of course, is empathy or lack of it. This is why patterns of giving are often delineated by class-based perceptions of what people deserve, rather than what they are worth, and this tends to restrict the opening of hands.

    As Rowan Williams bravely declared recently. Britain is moving towards a system that seeks to define the deserving and the undeserving poor.

    My concrete question is this, can Christians form an understanding about wealth creation that does not frame its questions in terms of economic justice and the needs of the marginalised? Economic Kenosis, as Roger would have it.

    (oh, and Nigel, you hit the nail squarely in my view. But my problem with the Marxist experiment, like my problem with Jubilee, is that it didn’t really happen. The huge divide between the intention and the framework of implementation mean that the theory was killed at the outset.)

    Jesus’ ethic is, as I read it, rather more nuanced and subtle than most preachers would like it to be. His warning about Mammon is stark, you serve that or you serve God. There is no middle debating ground. This expresses Jubilee in a form of judgement because Jubilee is an economy founded upon worship and when the crunch comes (unfortunate pun) you demonstrate your worship by giving back the transacted assets to the original owner, a status quo is restored, there is no economic growth outside of God.

    We see the attitude of Jesus towards money primarily in the contempt in which he held it. I love the fact that the cash for the temple tax is found in the belly of a fish. Now this wasn’t even a matter of rendering to Caesar what was his. The Temple tax was not enforced and did not go to Rome. I love that contempt. You want to pay that? Go fish for it! It matters that little.

    I’ve seen this so often in the last few years that it has forced me to adopt a new shape of expectation. The poor understand giving in a way that is very difficult for the rich. Rich Christians have a very difficult time, especially if they espouse the little dogma that all that they have belongs to God. (Which in practice means something like “Yes, I know I am wealthy, but unless God actually tells me to give to the poor I’m afraid the money stays in my account. That’s how I am faithful.”)

    The shape of our expectation has changed in other ways too. My wife and I have been in a terrible/wonderful adventure for the last two years. And the people who have helped us the most are a) mostly poor, and b) mostly not Christians.

    That’s a bit blunt, but it is understandable. Christians have the unfortunate tendency of praying for you. Those without faith don’t. They just help. Of course we value prayer. Hugely. But does God value prayer that is an alternative to action and obedience. It is one thing to give God our problems, quite another to give him our opportunities. I fear that the middle class church in the West might be in a terribly dangerous position with regard to Mammon.

    Obviously this comes at the subject from the opposite direction and uses a personal example to do so. But it is the gap between the two extremes that interests me, and that I suspect is where the most valuable dialogue might happen.

  10. Now to treat your points, Cheryl, with the seriousness that they deserve.
    These are indeed terrible things and we could add to them the price paid by indigenous people when cola companies build factories in developing nations to exploit cheap labour and in the process lower the water table to the point where the people could drink cola if they could afford it but no longer have water because it all went into making the cola.

    But is this because of private ownership?

    One wonders about the ethos typified by Michael Lerner. After reading your post his ‘modest manifesto’ of ethical auditing seems hugely attractive. I seem to remember that you are familiar with this from another forum. But for those that don’t know it. Lerner proposes that all American corporations should only have a leasehold on corporate establishment. In other words, upon their existence. And this leasehold should be for fifty years and be maintained only if the corporation passes profound ethical audit which measures environmental impact, resource sustainability, community impact and even the degree to which the corporation has enabled employees to build good marriages and healthy families.

    One wonders what would happen to share prices in years forty to forty nine. This was my first question to him when he set out his ideas in symposium about twelve years ago. He seemed a bit surprised that anyone would recognise Jubilee in the manifesto, and had no answer on the question of whether any major corporation would survive in the global financial markets. But he did respond by asking “But how much better would things be if even some steps in this direction were adopted.” In other words, he suggested, more in his role as a rabbi, that Mammon might not be redeemable, but it might respond to erosion.

    • Chris: thanks for fabulous comments. I feel like we are getting somewhere in all of this. And yes, the Kingdom is so radical and so amazing when in practice. I too find non-Christians often better in terms of action. And I suffer from the guilt of ‘ownership’ and of wealth as a Christian. I have no doubts that God gave us this house and property. I try very hard to invest proper time into managing it and keeping it in good shape. And I also believe this house should be full of people. It should provide shelter to all sorts of folks in need. We own cooperatively so it is at least an attempt at shared resources. It doesn’t always work well but I am learning more about how to make such situations work better. Your stories encourage me.

      So as I see it the root questions we have come down to here include (there may be more):
      1. Who has the real ownership of the resources available to us? And what does that mean for us as individuals and as a human community?
      2. Who makes the decisions about the aquisition of those resources, and by what mechanism (government, private corporation, individual, consensus)? What tools are used in that aquisition and how much destruction is allowed and remediated or not?
      3. How do we make decisions, shared or otherwise, about the distribution of those resources?
      4. How do we monitor and regulate those resources that are beyond current scales of governance? A report out yesterday asserts that the oceans are on the brink of mass extinction due to overfishing (mostly unregulated under current governance models) and acidification due to CO2 (also mostly unregulated globally). In other words a small number of people, for their own profit, have made decisions that endanger not just the ongoing viability of the planet’s oceans but also the very existence of our own species (this kind of ocean environment was last seen 60 million years ago during the last great extinction when almost everything on earth died – no kidding). So there is still the issue of scale – scale of usage and scale of regulation.
      5. Who’s ethics prevail in this situation? Who gets first dibs at resources? What people group(s) are important to us collectively? Who decides? How? (this may be a repeat but I’ll leave it in)
      6. How do we care for the earth, the source of our material resources? How do we exercise stewardship? What happens when we have to say ‘no’ to the development of a particular resource in the short-term for long-term reasons? Who enforces that? How? With what authority?

      Due to the collapse of the planet’s ecology we are on the edge of having to think a whole new way about economics. Traditional economics took no account for the finite aspect of the planet and all the good things it does to support so much life. A rather insane approach if you think about it. Its like planning to raid a pantry on a daily basis with no account of how things get into the pantry.

      All that is now changed. Aside from supernatural events we cannot go back to that. The pantry has been raided, denuded, and physically changed so that it cannot contain as much as it did before. Meanwhile the demands on the pantry and its contents have increased and continue to increase. I suggest that radically challenges everything we have understood in terms of modern economics. Capitalism which evolved with an understanding that the pantry magically filled itself in-between our raids on it, and that the filling was never ending has no mechanism for coping with the changed situation (or the situation as it always was in reality anyway). So we have to come up with something else and implement it as quickly as possible if any of you have hopes of a good life for your kids and grandchildren (I’m single and only have a cat who I expect/hope to outlive). Hopefully, along the way, as we seek the new thing that deals with the reality of the planet and population growth, we can also create/find an approach that also promotes the healing of creation, care for the vulnerable, and increased well-being for all.
      I can’t wait to see it come,

  11. Just a quickie this time, and for once I want to go back to general rather than specifics.
    As an aside and on recent disclosures. Licenses for mega trawlers in the north sea (Faroes?) are being bid for mackerel and herring to fish whole shoals… not for food, for fertilizer production. And the land grab in Africa that Martin mentioned seems to be with the aim of agricultural development for biofuel production, not food.

    The general point I am pondering is this. There is much said, and it has come up here, about money as a neutral thing, with no essential morality, merely as a medium of exchange. But the treatment of wealth in scripture is not neutral. So I want to posit, for a moment, that Mammon is notable for its cruelty, for its disdain for human worth and the value of life. The fundamental connection between wealth and power is part of this. We seem a little clearer perhaps about the power side of this equation.

    But the history of economics over the last three hundred years tells us a compelling story about Mammon. The industrial revolution rapidly produced a system where wealth was created by treating people like machines. The consumer revolution, so aptly described by people like Andrew Walker, has given humans the role of individualised consumers with the task of maintaining money supply as our purpose. Mammon only has slaves, it seems.

    Perhaps it’s time in this conversation to drop in another little bon mot that I have tried to float, with little success, in other forums. So I will pose it as a question about how Christians might approach the conflict of financial need and our attitude to poverty.

    Is it possible that the answer to the spirit of poverty is not, as many would have it, the spirit of plenty, but is in fact the vow of poverty?

    By this I mean that there is no freedom in poverty, neither is there freedom in plenty, the freedom is in being able to let plenty go.

    • “By this I mean that there is no freedom in poverty, neither is there freedom in plenty, the freedom is in being able to let plenty go”

      That is currently my challenge as I have no wish to see the proceeds of a house sale to sit in a bank account. My husband and I are living in Latvia and tonight we sat down to a meal that contained many elements that many people have no idea where to start, from the home made goats cheese that I made from a gift of goats milk from a friend, beaver sausage given by a hunting friend and a salad straight out of the garden (by the way Chris, Home Farmer is a magazine aimed at urban folks just starting to learn some basic life skills that have been forgotten). But then again living in Latvia I am living amongst a folk who can be incredibly resourceful and many in the rural area where I live grow their own food. In fact when the crisis arrived the Latvians around us did not do much protesting, they just got out their spades and started digging. Our focus has been on trying to find out how to save seed, looking for ways to invest in things that grow or aid growing vegetables or feed for animals, and helping small local businesses and not some high tech wonder firm. We shop as locally as we can, even if that means reducing what is available to us but as you can see from the goats cheese and beaver sausage it does not mean the variety of food is poor. At least by reading what you all have written helps me to see the context of what we are doing and is encouraging me to not be afraid as we look for more and more ways to invest locally. I look forward to letting go of more.

      • That’s a sweet sound you are making Joanna.
        Of course my comments were directed to the flabby convenience-stored west. I do like the sound of that magazine, though.

        I was trying to work out, last night, the cost of a new development. Barclays bank have developed (at what price) a widget that allows shoppers to pay for their goods without actually having to put their card into a machine, they can just wave it in front of a machine. This radical new, life saving technology is going to shave miliseconds off the time it takes to pay for things. The tv advertising itself has cost millions, and the cost of installing the new type of reader at outlets must be enormous.

        For me this has become the new definition of decadence.

      • Ah, the problem with a species that is supreme at making tools and whose brains delight in novelty. . . we never know when to stop. And that indeed is one of our major difficulties. Our lives, the well-being of the species and the rest of the planet now depend upon our discipline and willingness to say ‘no’ to the very things our brains enjoy. Interesting.
        And of course, you can add to that the need to show off and win place and position by competing with and outdoing the others around us. That leads to all sorts of nonsense and overconsumption.

      • Oh you can find convenience stored places here in Latvia too, fortunately though many children spend their long summers at the grandparents in the country where they learn about the countryside and what happens there, not that all appreciate that fact, but many do. Also many Latvians have summer homes in the country as property was handed back to individuals but jobs were still in the cities so they kept the homes and visit them when they can and so many know about collecting mushrooms and berries in the forest and enjoy doing so. That doesn’t mean Latvians are rich if they have a home in the country though, they can be cheap to keep and many are land rich but cash poor.

  12. It seems I rather missed this conversation.

    Reading through what everybody has written it is fascinating to see how the conversation has twisted and turned and covered so many different areas – of course the very first line of the very first response to Martin’s question (by Cheryl) was “I feel like this topic is a huge knot to unravel”. The ratio of questions generated to answers reached must be around 10 to 1 (I doubt we’d want it to ever get down to 1 to 1 though).

    I think one of the reasons this question is so expansionary for a conversation is that it asks a simple question of a very complicated idea. There is so much diversity (and also uncertainty) in understanding our terms of reference for talking about the many areas it touches. One of thes issues at stake I believe is that the assumptions implicit in our current (economic? political? global?) system are embedded in the language we use to talk about it – we need to be aware of what these assumptions are and their consequences are in the way (we are able to) talk.

    I have got some background in working with some of these concepts and would like to make a few contributions to explore ways of understanding them. The first would be something like ‘What is money?’ and the second ‘What is capitalism?’, then maybe one or two others. They would proably be fairly lengthy and I would start them as new topics in this forum.

    • John welcome! Love to read what you will write on the two above questions. I think you are right on your analysis of a simple question of a very complicated idea. But glad it has kicked off a few open ended discussions. I think what you suggest will be a great way to move things forward another step.

      PS: John will be posting some articles in the next set of 10 discussion articles. Watch this space!!

    • John said:
      I have got some background in working with some of these concepts and would like to make a few contributions to explore ways of understanding them. The first would be something like ‘What is money?’ and the second ‘What is capitalism?’, then maybe one or two others. They would proably be fairly lengthy and I would start them as new topics in this forum.

      I am also interested to see where you go with this. These are questions that came up in my course Development Management that I took with the Open University, so looking forward to your take on it.

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