There are two different stories people tell about capitalism. Those who describe capitalism favorably say that it is the story of how the innovation and creativity of entrepreneurs are unleashed through a spontaneity of resources provided in a free market. Capitalism’s critics tell the story of how money-changers are constantly hunting for ways to make money without sweating a drop by leveraging workers and markets against each other and finding loopholes to be exploited. Both of these stories are true, though not always equally. At this particular juncture in our nation’s history, the money-changers are winning the day by masquerading as entrepreneurs. If it’s true that corporate profits are at record highs while unemployment remains high, then the money-changers have found a way to create wealth for themselves without creating jobs. I am not qualified to explain how this works, since I’m a pastor, not an economist, but Jesus had plenty to say about entrepreneurs and money-changers that is relevant to thinking through a Christian response to the competing economic visions that are being set before us this election year.
The capitalist’s favorite Bible story, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, is the story of a master who gave each of his three servants a different amount of money to invest and bear fruit for him. The first two servants use the money they receive (the equivalent of about $2M and $800K respectively) to make the master a 100% profit. The third servant buries the $400K he receives in the ground so that he can return to his master exactly what he received. The master rewards the first two servants and punishes the third one. Capitalist Christians often use this story as a proof-text in economic debate to say simply, “See, Jesus endorses capitalism.” But there’s way more going on here than Jesus’ endorsement.
This story illustrates the difference between the two kinds of fear that we find in the Bible. People who bury their gold in the ground exhibit the kind of fear the third servant articulates when he says to his master, “I know you are a hard man, harvesting where you do not sow… so I was afraid” (Matthew 25:24-25). We need to understand the metaphor correctly: this is more than a question of whether someone invests in Treasury bonds or venture capitalism. It concerns our attitude about the gifts and calling we have received from God. Christians who believe that God is a “hard man” instead of an extravagantly generous Father will tend to choose the safest, most practical, or most “normal” option in any given decision whether it’s career, neighborhood, children’s activities, or even which restaurants to patronize. Their spiritual goal is to find out exactly what it takes to put themselves and their families right with the mean, scary God they believe in and not add a penny to that. Far too many American Christians live in this state of fearful conformity as evidenced by their increasing migration to homogenized cultural gated communities, which are sometimes physical neighborhoods but more often involve large churches which provide exhaustive social resources so that members need not ever interact with anybody outside of that community except for recruiting purposes.
What God desires are disciples like the first two servants who live in a different kind of fear: “the fear of the Lord and the confidence of the Holy Spirit” that caused the early church to “increase in numbers” (Acts 9:31). This fear is the ecstatic awe that arises from an encounter with a living infinite God which makes believers paradoxically fearless before all of the obstacles, naysayers, and red tape that stand between them and the dreams God has given them. They are confident that God’s breath can blow down every intransigent wall in “the system,” which makes them willing to be “heretics” to the logic of the world, to use one of Seth Godin’s memes. These entrepreneurs are liberated enough from obsessing over their security that they pursue God’s calling with the same confidence exuded by the 72 apostles whom Jesus sent out as “lambs among wolves” without taking “a purse or bag or sandals” (Luke 10:4).
The entrepreneurs who represent the best of capitalism are very different from the money-changers who represent its worst. Money-changers are people who insert themselves in the nooks and crannies of the economic order where money can be siphoned out, the most prominent example in Jesus’ day being the Jerusalem temple vendors. Jews would pilgrimage to the temple from all over the Roman Empire to offer animal sacrifices. If a pilgrim came all that way and had to buy a sacrificial animal at the gate for the trip to be worth anything, how much price-gouging do you think those money-changers could get away with? Markups of 500%? 1000%? The other way they gouged pilgrims was through the exchange of Roman money into Tyrian money since Caesar’s coins were unclean for use in sacrifice. All of this swindling was taking place at Judaism’s most sacred site. That’s why Jesus smashed their tables.
So who are the entrepreneurs and who are the money-changers in our economy? It’s easy to think of celebrity names to throw out (Bill Gates, entrepreneur; Bernie Madoff, money-changer), but I imagine that many roles, at least in our financial industry, involve a varying mix of entrepreneurship and money-changing. It’s hard for a novice like me to parse out the difference between creating a more efficient flow of capital and creating loopholes where profit can accumulate. Depending on who’s telling the story, a company like Bain Capital is either the catalyst for entrepreneurial dreams or a profit-sucking vulture.
What is more relevant to ask is whether our current tax and regulatory system incentivizes entrepreneurship or money-changing. Billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks the latter. This is what he wrote in a recent blog post:
The only people who know what business Wall Street is in are the high frequency and automated traders… To traders, whether day traders or high frequency or somewhere in between, Wall Street has nothing to do with creating capital for businesses, its original goal. Wall Street is a platform… to be exploited by every technological and intellectual means possible… Its primary business is no longer creating capital for business. Creating capital for business has to be less than 1pct of the volume on Wall Street in any given period.
According to Cuban’s analysis, our economy has become an environment in which the money-changers are choking our entrepreneurial potential. Layer upon layer of superstructure is being added onto the high stakes poker game of Wall Street, which increasingly has little to do with creating products that actually exist in material space. Cuban’s proposal is not something that either Obama or Romney would have the courage to support:
My 2 cents is that it is important for this country to push Wall Street back to the business of creating capital for business. Whether its through a use of taxes on trades(hit every trade on a stock held less than 1 hour with a 10c tax and all these problems go away), or changing the capital gains tax structure so that there is no capital gains tax on any shares of stock (private or public company) held for 1 year or more, and no tax on dividends paid to shareholders who have held stock in the company for more than 5 years.
I know many financiers think Cuban is a wingnut, but it seems like the predominant attitude about how capitalism is supposed to work has been marked by the same kind of white-knuckled fearful clutch of ideology that the third servant in Jesus’ parable had around his master’s gold. The legitimate beauty behind the wide-eyed utopianism of capitalism’s cheerleaders is entrepreneurship, but entrepreneurship is not money-changing and anyone who tries to conflate the two is either cynical or ignorant. There is obviously a legitimate economic role for commodity trading, private equity, venture capital, and so forth, but it’s naive to assume that these processes will take care of themselves unsupervised without becoming giant tumors that emaciate the economy.
Of course, there would be no parasitic money changers if everyone in our country feared the Lord in the proper Biblical sense because we would be “lilies of the field” untainted by the poisonous anxiety that no profit margin is safe enough to guarantee that we will never be poor. This strange anxiety is the carcinogenic DNA that has made our society what it currently is. Jesus told a story about it in Luke 12:13-21. A rich man gathered too many crops in his harvest to fit in his barn, but instead of giving the remainder to the poor, he decided to build a bigger barn. The next day he died, like everyone eventually does. Better to live as an entrepreneur who trusts in the plenitude of a generous God than a money-changer who frets over the scarcity of a hard market.