Is one economic system inherently better than all others? What’s the responsibility of such a system? What about the consequences of it? And how ought Christians to interact with it all? We’re sitting down with a professor of economics and a professor of history to chat about capitalism, the free market, how we got here, and where we should go next.
Van Mobley is a professor of history at Concordia University Mequon. Prior to accepting a position at CUW, he worked in business and politics and was elected village president of Thiensville, Wisconsin in 2012.
Joseph Jacobsen is a professor of economics at Concordia University Wisconsin where he teaches microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. His latest book Sustainable Business & Industry is being adopted across the country as a textbook for graduate and undergraduate business and industry coursework.
- Is there a most ethical trajectory in an economic system? Listen in starting at 13:00.
- Should labor be taxed? Van makes the case as to why it shouldn’t be. Listen in, starting at 17:50.
- Both guests agreed that an economy should work for the people. But what does an economy like that look like? Listen in at 28:30.
- Is it possible to gain momentum in the economy and also be environmentally friendly? Listen in at 33:20.
- Climate change and economics—should the U.S. cash in on climate change and be the first to develop clean, sustainable technology or should we just charge ahead with the status quo? How should our faith influence our response to this? Listen in at 38:00.
- Economics is a function of culture, but culture is shifting as Millennials and Gen Z enter the cultural landscape with new ideas and differing sets of values/beliefs. Our guests share where and why this shift is occurring. Listen in at 40:35.
- What does it look like to be content? As we close up the economics conversation, we ask both Van and Joe to weigh in on their interpretation of contentment. Listen in at 50:15.
A Few Mentioned Items
- Adam Smith, the “Father of Economics”
- Henry Carey, chief economic advisor to Abraham Lincoln
- South Sea Bubble
- Village of Thiensville, Wisconsin, one of the most financially-sound small public institutions in the United States
- Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian realist
- The 400 richest families in the United States now pay less in tax than the middle class
- Gini coefficient
- Milankovitch theory and the Little Ice Age
- Deforestation in Brazil and China’s responsibility
- Distributism as an economic system
- Increased happiness correlation to income peaks at $75K
Joe Jacobsen: The free market system is obviously the greatest thing that’s probably ever happened, because it works wonderfully for refrigerators and stoves and shoes and cars and homes and all of these things that we buy. We wouldn’t have these things if it weren’t for a free market system. People do demand certain things, so supply, demand, quantity, price that alone has really stood the test of time and has brought people a great, high standard of living. But a lot of people have been left behind too so at the same time there’s always some room for improvement.
ANGELINA: That’s not really pointed at you.
DAN: I know I can’t get it.
ANGELINA: Can you move?
DAN: No. . . I can just, I guess, just get really close.
MICHAEl: Sounds like a noise band right now. That’s what I did in my 20s. That was my band.
DAN: We’re in. Welcome back to the Living Uncommon podcast. We got a real good one. As Michael likes to say, “We got a real doozy, a barnburner.”
MICHAEL: It’s a barnburner, slobberknocker.
DAN: How is barnburner a phrase that means something good is about to happen?
MICHAEL: I don’t know.
ANGELINA: Probably because people used to have parties in barns.
DAN: And then they would burn down. And if they burned down, you knew.
ANGELINA: It was a great party.
MICHAEL: Or people, if there’s an old barn, gathered around to watch it burn, like their entertainment. Let’s burn the barn!
DAN: In my hometown, we had a volunteer fire department and for their practices they would sometimes burn down an old building or two. And we had an old train depot in my town and one year they went out and burned it down and then put out the fire. So they did that several times, that was their practice.
ANGELINA: On the same building they did it several times?
DAN: It was a big building. It was an old train depot cuz the town that I lived in used to be a train junction for the passenger rail from the Chicago area to Lake Geneva, which is like a tourist town. So there was a nice little passenger rail line that ran through my hometown but no longer.
ANGELINA: But it wasn’t like a historical building or anything?
DAN: It probably was. I mean that’s just what we do here. You know, we burn it all down.
MICHAEL: Put up a Chipotle afterward.
DAN: That’d be a good economic investment.
ANGELINA: Anybody watch The Good Place? There’s that great joke when she’s talking about learning about Aristotle for the first time and she thinks that it’s pronounced like Chipotle.
DAN: I mispronounce it all the time. I call it Chipotle’s and I add an “s” to the end. My kids hate that. They’re real sticklers for language.
MICHAEL: We don’t really have Chipotle here in Wisconsin that I’ve known, at least not in this neck of the woods.
DAN: Oh, we totally do.
MICHAEL: We do?
DAN: Yeah there’s a couple in Milwaukee.
MICHAEL: I’m used to Qdoba.
DAN: Yeah, the poor man’s Chipotle.
MICHAEL: Ladles of liquid cheese on top of meat. When I go there, it’s so gross, you see people, and I’m sorry if anyone does this—it’s great, a great choice—but they go get a bowl and then the first thing they do is they ask for a couple ladles of cheese sauce in the bowl. So it’s like a soup. It’s disgusting.
ANGELINA: Like, before their rice or anything?
MICHAEL: Yes, before anything they let you have a layer of cheese and they pile it high with meat and all that.
ANGELINA: That’s Wisconsin.
DAN: We were just talking about Angelina’s entrepreneurial spirit,
MICHAEL: But she’s very suspicious that one of you are going to steal the idea. So, why don’t you talk about this in as roundabout of a way as possible so people kind of have an idea about what you’re doing but they can’t really figure it out?
ANGELINA: Yeah, so there are these things that you can see all around you. And I am preserving them, and then I’m going to make something out of them. Then someday, maybe, I will put them somewhere
MICHAEL: Is there a franchising opportunity available?
DAN: Has anyone done a business?
MICHAEL: When I was in college, I used to buy white white bread, tomato paste, and mozzarella cheese, and some spices and stuff. We weren’t allowed to have George Foreman grills or toaster ovens or anything, just microwaves. I had this thing that you put in the microwave—it was like a George Foreman grill—but you superheat it in the microwave and take it out and then it would be hot and then you could make a sandwich press. So I would charge like $.25 for these sandwiches, and I would make these pizza sandwiches. Oh, and sometimes I put a bit of pepperoni in them to for an upcharge. I made like $10, it was great.
My wife has a vintage clothing store on Etsy. I think you can still theoretically get stuff on it although it’s not updated very frequently. But buy our clothes. My whole basement is full of clothes, so buy Marigold Vintage on Etsy.
DAN: It’s funny, whenever whatever I do training here at the university to train people on how to use our content management system and also the blog, I say you can blog about anything you want but please do not sell your products through us. If you have an Etsy store, I don’t want you to be blogging about that. Don’t link to it. Keep your hyperlinks to yourself.
MICHAEL: Speaking of limiting free trade, we do have a great talk with Joe Jacobson and Van Mobley who are both in the School of Business here at Concordia University Wisconsin. Van’s been on a lot of television. He’s been frequently on local news, some national news as well. Joe Jacobson has a really extensive background in best practices for the environment and of business and development. They have a lot in common, and they’re also on the opposite end of the spectrum in some ways, politically, so it was a treat to hear them talk.
At one point I realized I don’t even need to guide this conversation they’re just going. I think you’ll enjoy it, so let’s take a listen.
A JAUNTY TUNE
MICHAEL: Welcome back to the Living Uncommon podcast. We’re joined here by two faculty from the School of Business here at Concordia University Wisconsin. Van Mobley and Joe Jacobson thank you very much for being with us.
VAN: Thank you for having us
JOE: Yes, thank you very much, don’t get an opportunity like this very often in a formal sense. We’re usually just yelling at each other down the hall.
MICHAEL: Take a little bit of that and put in here right.
We like to we’d like to get a little idea of your background not only professionally but also your faith background and where you’re coming from. So maybe we could start with you, Joe, tell us a little bit what have you been up to in your career, what led you to Concordia, and tell us about your faith as well.
JOE: I’m a developmental economist, and I’ve been working in that space for 20 some years, maybe a little longer. I work a lot in ecological economics, industrial ecology, and so I look at the economy from that vantage point as social and environmental kind of interaction that takes place within this thing called the economy.
I’ve been teaching for, I’m gonna say, 30 years. My first teaching assignment was in power engineering. I was an engineer a while ago, and so I gravitate toward math and science parts of economics—data.
I went to Marquette. That’s where I got my PhD, and it’s nonlinear dynamics but applied to social biological and physical kinds kinds of topics, modeling basically. And I worked for the city for ten years. I ran DPW, so I did a lot of economic development there; that was my primary job
DAN: And that’s in the city of Milwaukee?
JOE: Yes, city of Milwaukee, and there I had a million dollar budget, about 350 people, and just as many in service contracts for buildings, fleet, those kinds of physical things. That’s where I got involved with sustainability because of all the materials, the water, the energy.
In terms of my faith, I’m a Christian obviously, but I am a strong believer in adjusting the economy to work on behalf of the people. My faith helps me I think, to direct me in ways that a lot of other academics and economists may teach just the material, but I tried to get some fruit out of it from the students so that they’re considering much more than just the financial aspects of what we’re doing: that we’re actually all brothers and sisters on this planet, that we need to preserve this planet for future generations. And also our social systems—that they’re equitable, and that we’re not leaving masses of people behind. If an economy is not working for the people, why have an economy? What’s the point? My faith helps me be steadfast to those ends, to help people, and I act on that too. I find it easy, I guess, to keep that focus on something that’s humane to people. So yeah, that’s a little bit about me
Van: I’m a Lutheran, so that’s how I got here. I would say I’m sort of an Orthodox Christian and that shapes my work as well. In my academic work, I have a BA in economics from Vanderbilt University and a PhD in intellectual history actually from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but the intellectual history that I studied was the early origins of economic thought. So I’ve written on Adam Smith. I’ve written on Henry Carey who was Abraham Lincoln’s advisor. I wrote my dissertation on the South Sea Bubble.
In addition to being an academic, I always like to say that in some ways I’m a man for all seasons. I’ve done many other things. I’m an elected public official. I’ve been the president of the Village of Thiensville for nearly nine years now. I’ve won three elections so three terms. Thiensville is one of the most financially sound little public institutions in the United States. It has been, I think, one of the best well managed. That doesn’t have to do with me, it has to do with the culture of the place I think, and I’m a participant in that culture.
I believe that really economics is oftentimes a cultural thing, certainly more so than maybe a bunch of graphs and charts. I’m interested in that cultural thing which is also why I participated in politics.
I’m also what used to be called a public intellectual. One of my heroes is not really an economist, but Reinhold Niebuhr which is a wonderful Christian realist. If I had to come up with the term to describe myself and my approach not only to politics but economics I’d say it’s one of Christian realism.
Like Joe, I think that the economy should work for the people. And then one of the things I know that we’d like to talk about is what’s the relationship between the economy and Christianity and capitalism. Historically speaking, I don’t think that Christianity determines what type of economic system a culture or civilization is going to have, and I also don’t believe that the economic system is of primary importance in people’s lives. I believe that salvation is a primary importance in people’s lives, and I know that the Christian gospel has been spread and has permeated cultures that are very diverse economically. But nonetheless I do believe that capitalism, as it’s come to be practiced in the West, what we often have determined the West, does have some things going for it. It can always be reformed and tweaked better.
MICHAEL: So that’s that’s an interesting point you just made about how Christianity can kind of thrive in multiple economic contexts. I’ve read previously literature about how Protestantism in particular lends itself very well to capitalism and could even have been a motor behind the development of capitalism today. Do you guys feel like there is a most ethical trajectory in an economic system?
JOE: Yeah there are certain things that I think could be tweaked as Van was suggesting. We can make the economy a little more ethical. For example, just in 2018, for the first time in the history of the economy, the middle class are paying more in tax than the top 400 families in the entire country. So we’ve got this imbalance that needs to be taken care of.
There’s a formal calculation, the Gini coefficient. And the Gini coefficient is where if you have one person holding all the wealth for the entire country, just one person, that would be a Gini coefficient of one. If you have a Gini coefficient of zero, then everybody makes exactly the same amount of money regardless of what they do. So these are obviously two extremes right, but as that gauge moves back and forth from country to country or within one country, it changes the dynamics for the average person out there. And you don’t want it to move drastically in this direction or drastically in that direction, you want to keep it reasonably focused in the center so that everyone does have the opportunity to move up and down the spectrum, and I mean everybody, right, that there is opportunity for everyone to participate in the economy. So that, I think, would be a more ethical.
The free market system is obviously the greatest thing that’s probably ever happened, because it works wonderfully for refrigerators and stoves and shoes and cars and homes and all of these things that we buy. We wouldn’t have these things if it weren’t for a free market system. People do demand certain things, so supply, demand, quantity, price that alone has really stood the test of time and has brought people a great, high standard of living.
But a lot of people have been left behind too so at the same time there’s always some room for improvement. But again, I’m not at all saying that capitalism is a bad thing. It’s not because even in the most communist countries, and I’ve been to Asia 24 times now and every year it becomes more and more and more and more of an open market system, and you could easily argue, in many respects, that it’s more open than here at times.
In fact what’s going on in Hong Kong is just that—they want to stay the way they are. The adoption of free market systems is obviously good for people, especially with China as the glaring example; they’ve lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the history of the world. Why? Free market system.
VAN: Well you know, Joe said a mouthful there, and there’s a number of ways that you could get at it. And I sort of agree with much of what he said but not entirely everything. I’d have some specific points where we could make some differentiation about our views, but one of the things is I’m not an anarchist and I’m not a communist, so I don’t believe that the government should control the entire economy like a real full-throated communist might say nor do I believe that there should not be a government. And that’s part of the Christian heritage, I think the Bible is pretty clear about the need for government and the question is always how big should it be and what are the services it should provide versus the free market, the capitalistic system, and then how are you gonna fund or how are you gonna tax to provide the services you decide you want the government to provide.
Joe started talking a lot about the relationship maybe between our tax code and inequalities and the outcomes that we get, and I think that there probably is a linkage there. But I always think of economies as containing land, labor, and capital, and they mix and come together to produce output. My biggest criticism of our current tax code in our capitalistic America today is we tax labor way too heavily, because we don’t value labor as we should as the key ingredient in the economic process. I don’t think that should occur and insofar as we do tax labor and we don’t tax capital as heavily or people can have made the taxation on capital then I think that it ought to change. Not only do I have sort of an economic efficiency argument, and I think that economies are more productive where the central ingredient, labor, is taxed less heavily, but I think that there is a Christian argument for that which is that the Lord intends for you to work for a living. He gives you a specific command to do so, and I don’t believe that we oughta then dissuade people from working by taxing them.
Now I think the United States could get off the dime and cut the payroll tax which is what I always say and I’ve said it through a number of administrations. I don’t care if you have to tax capital more, and I don’t care if you have to put on a tariff either. Cut the payroll tax and graze your tariffs somewhere else.
The payroll tax is a regressive tax. They use it for things other than the Social Security system even though they gabble on about lock boxes and whatnot, and if you add it all up they ought to stop. I think our economy would work better if they did, and I might actually get agreement from Joe here.
JOE: I think I agree with you that we shouldn’t discourage labour. The piece that I’m concerned about, which is, I think, the same as you, is that as we move more and more. .. Like through the 80s we had automation and automation was kind of a culprit in unions and other places as to getting rid of people in occupations such as the auto industry. So a lot of these jobs went to the wayside because of automation. Well now we have this other wave that’s coming: artificial intelligence, use of big data. There are a lot of jobs that are going to be disappearing over the next ten years, fifteen years, five years. We’re seeing evidence of that from pattern recognition radiography. All kinds of occupations that historically had really good jobs, we’re now letting machines talk to machines.
As we move the production function from land, capital, and labor to capital and labor to what it is today—production as a function of capital and labor—tomorrow it’s going to be just capital. Capital is going to be where it’s at and the Jeff Jeff Bezos and other folks of the world, they’re right there. We’re gonna see that Gini coefficient that I was referring to earlier moving more and more and more and more toward one because of the big companies like Amazon and others that can afford to adopt all these technologies and do all the research in order to get themselves positioned to gobble up all of this income. People could get left by the wayside and here’s where government for the people, by the people has to really step up and and look at how we are going to manage this process so that it’s equitable for people, and that they will still have occupations even if it means redefining what an occupation is. We are not a society of needs; we’re only a society of wants. But what we need is a very small segment of the overall economy. What we want is what we spend money on.
VAN: Joe, you’re always talking about the Chinese and how much they’ve done. I have nothing against the Chinese, but the Chinese were able to advance the status of their people and their quality of life because the United States gave them access to our markets in a favorable way, which we didn’t necessarily have to do, and in away they damaged some portions of our population. In the long run, I still feel sorry for the Chinese because the truth of the matter is they have difficulty feeding their population because of the land limitations that they have. The United States is unusually blessed and fortunate in our land endowment.
Another example would be Saudi Arabia. I mean Saudi Arabia is not blessed in its land endowment, they’re blessed in their oil which I would clump under natural resources under the land endowment, but in the long run they’re not blessed. So I think in your macroeconomic thinking, you have to stick with the old land, labor, and capital and then you have to figure out how you’re going to tax them to provide the necessary resources. Right now I think we tax labor relatively strongly compared to some other things, and I think that we should move it and that we’d get better macroeconomic performance.
JOE: Well, the Chinese, it’s not necessarily that I think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Obviously there are some serious human rights issues that are occurring in China and there’s always have and will for some time to come. However what I do appreciate about the Chinese government and the economy is that they get things done. That to me, in an economy, is extremely important. For example, they have 89,000 kilometres of high-speed rail. They have more electric cars than anyone in the world. They are producing photovoltaics beyond any other country. They’re fast moving into high technology. We could learn something from them, and I’m not afraid to learn something from the Chinese.
One of the big problems that we have in our government is that we have proposals that float through Congress and the Senate, and we get nothing done. All we do is argue. We pay people $200,000 a year plus they have these nice speaking engagements and book deals and all kinds of things to do nothing. All they do is argue about stuff. The level by which we are destroying ourselves is just remarkable. The wealth that we have is going towards the 1% fast. I always have data, right? And so, for the first time in history, like I said at the very beginning of the podcast. . .
VAN: Joe has a graph, by the way.
JOE: It goes back to about 1960, and it has the 400 richest families, and now the 400 richest families are paying less tax than the bottom 50% of the population. So if we look at the economic turnover for some of the decisions that government is making today, it is fast-forwarding the revenue to those who already have the most. And artificial intelligence is going to help usher that process. If we don’t do something about it, we’re just going to keep pedaling backwards. Our infrastructure is falling apart.
VAN: Can I jump in here? Joe and I actually see eye-to-eye on the need for infrastructure and on the value of infrastructure. And I actually have personal experience with this as Joe does as a municipal official in milwaukee. I would say, for example, the Trump administration repeatedly says that it’s interested in infrastructure, and it is interested in infrastructure, and there’s a lot of yakking and talking but no passing of infrastructure bills.
VAN: One of the things that they get hung up on sometimes is how to pay for it. Where do you sit, Joe, on just good old-fashioned borrowing it? That’s one of the things that they talk about now, and they’ve borrowed money in the past, they could borrow money at a low rate of interest in order to actually fund a lot of these infrastructure projects. And Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in the house could just send a bill through, working its way through the system, and I bet you president Trump would sign it. So why don’t they do it?
JOE: Why not another trillion in debt? I’d much rather take a look at these 400 richest families and make sure that they pay their fair share.
VAN: So you want to soak ‘em rather than borrow their money and pay them no interest on it?
JOE: I didn’t say soak them. I just said that, you know, your secretary shouldn’t have to pay more tax than the CEO. That I think is just unethical and, from a Christian point of view, it’s robbery. I think it’s criminal, but that’s where we’re headed.
VAN: I just go back to the question I asked you, which is more or less, you can borrow it from them now and pay them no interest on it and do your infrastructure project. And I think that that’s something that they should certainly do. I’m not in favor of debt, and I don’t have any debt. But maybe because the interest rate is very low, and if other people are gonna let you use their capital to do something good, then I think you should do it, that’s whether you’re a public entity or a private entity. In this case, I wonder why we’re not pulling the trigger on some of this stuff, and I don’t think the problem is in the White House.
MICHAEL: So just to take a step back, we’re getting into some good issues here, but what I’m hearing overall is that you’re both passionate about having a government that works for people. We’ve gone deep into issues here, but if we pulled back out and we look at a high level, what is an economy that works for people really look like to you? What does that mean? What can we do, in general, that nudges us in that direction?
VAN: Can I go first? Because I know that Joe has gotten to go first and I get to hit first now.
MICHAEL: Yes, please do.
VAN: An economy that works for people is an economy that allows them to fulfill their potential and has a spot for them and what they’re good at. What I always say is a good economy is a diverse economy. That’s always been one of the benefits of the American economy is we do have great land, we have people from all around, and we’ve accumulated a fair amount of capital both on the public and private side. I think that we still have the bones of a good structure. I’m for maintaining a diversified macro economy and for lowering the tax rate on the labor function of it.
Some people might say well how would you do that, but I already just said. Then you get to the precise details, which is cut the payroll tax and raise the tariffs. You need to have a diverse economy and if that means the government needs to intervene to prevent over specialization in terms of the American economy and its position in the globe, well then we should intervene and not allow over specialization. I don’t think we should allow some other country to do all our manufacturing and specialize in something. I think that that hasn’t worked out well in the past, and it won’t work out well in the future. I think that we should aim at providing a diverse economy that allows people to fulfill their potential, and everyone can find a different niche. If you do that, then you’ll be shocked and amazed at what you get.
JOE: I would say an economy that works for men, an economy that works for women, an economy that works for blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians, and everyone else who’s out there—that everyone has the same opportunities. An economy that promotes education for everybody so that if you’ve got some kind of talent, you can use that talent and grow just like Van said and reach your highest potential and find some formal way to do that. I think on the social front that probably is one of the elements.
The other one is to have an intelligent economy that, I got to use this word, that does regulate in terms of the natural environment—that we have clean water, and that we have clean air, and our rivers are not contaminated and that we’re not spewing out gigatons, millions of gigatons of CO2. Climate change is something that is absolutely real and the government has to step in and at least align itself with the rest of the world so that we’re reducing our carbon emissions. It’s a very real situation. If I were to say there are a few things that need to be addressed, it would be along those lines. That would be just, and I mean not just for people but for the environment too.
MICHAEL: So you know one of the one of the limitations I think that I’ve seen with not moving forward with more of an environmentally friendly kind of initiative has been that that’s gonna hurt certain industries, right? So I mean, for example, you could look at solar and then putting an emphasis in it and wind power versus coal or something like that, and you can see that you’re gonna have to pivot towards one, invest in it maybe to the neglect of another. Is it possible to balance, gain momentum in the economy and also be environmentally friendly?
JOE: Yes, absolutely. We should be moving fast forward into the future. There’s about 53,000 jobs in coal right now, and solar photovoltaics and solar thermal there’s almost 200,000 jobs. So the jobs are already there, and that doesn’t include wind photovoltaic geothermal. it doesn’t include energy efficiency and electric cars and all of those other areas that are part of an economy that is reducing its carbon footprint. So that’s a pretty pretty serious offender.
I look at it like this: when we were warned about the ozone layer, chlorofluorocarbons was the target, that we can’t produce anymore chlorofluorocarbons because it’s putting a hole in the ozone layer. And when you put a hole in the ozone layer, radiation comes in and that’s not good for people. And we outlawed freon 12, 13 and so on, and we got rid of aerosols that also contained it, okay, worked wonderfully.
Acid rain. Acid rain was a big deal in the 70s. When it rained, it would kill big acreages, hundreds of miles of crops and trees and everything else in its path. And okay, we’re gonna put big houses and scrubbers on power plants, and we did that. So now scientists are telling us there’s this relationship between CO2 and our surface temperature that goes back so many years, and there is all this methane trapped. Then we also have a change of color that absorbs heat a lot faster when it’s snow versus ocean or land and. These are just basic physics, and if all the ice on earth melted, it would rise the sea level about 58 meters. So yes, there has to be some oversight.
MICHAEL: I know Van’s eager to jump in here.
VAN: Yeah, I think that Joe is more concerned about, for example, global warming and the CO2 problem that I am, although I am concerned about the environment. I would say simply the American system in the past has corrected some of these abuses. The problem with a lot of the solutions that are come up with now, I think, penalize the United States, and the United States is not as large as an offender as some of these emerging economies like China and India. So if you look at things on a global basis, we do everything Joe says, and we cut down all the CO2, it really won’t matter because the Chinese are not doing anything to stop their offences and maybe they’re even accelerating.
The other thing that I would say is historically speaking the temperature of the earth has fluctuated over time. A classic example would be the Norse colonies in Greenland. The weather got colder and those Norse colonies were snuffed out, and now the weather is getting warmer and Greenland is beginning to look more like it did when those Norse colonies were actually settled in Greenland. I think we should take care of the environment, but we shouldn’t cripple ourselves or specialize as opposed to diversify our economy and pick a winner or a loser which I’m not for. The other thing I would say is whenever I first came to Concordia, I had a role in the government relations side of the shop, and we had a number of big powwows here and we talked about the level of Lake Michigan. Everybody was having a fit: the level of Lake Michigan was going down, the lakes were gonna drain out through the St. Lawrence Seaway for some reason. Oh my God, oh my God, we’ve got to do something. What are we going to do? It’s inevitable now, we’re doomed. The water level in the lake is going to go down forever. I cannot say this enough. And then in fact, lo and behold, it turns around and the lake level has risen instead of declined. There is never. . . Joe speaks as if there is certainty in some of the science when there simply isn’t. And then I would say, from a Christian perspective, I am always suspicious of people who tell me they know exactly what’s going to happen in the future because they don’t.
JOE: Well two things. First of all, cashing in on climate change is something that the United States should be in on. That high-technology, sustainable technology, clean technology is the way of the future for the world, and whoever’s in there producing all of these products and services is going to benefit a lot. So if we’re gonna miss that train, okay, but we shouldn’t.
Second, the Milankovitch theory is over 23,000 years long. When you look at the interglacial periods and glacial periods when the earth wobbles around the Sun over 23,000 years, we’re talking about a hundred years, this is not even in the same ballpark. So that is a long, long time, and I was surprised you even bring that up, because it’s 23,000 years.
VAN: The Little Ice Age that began in around 1500. So if we can just get some sunspot action going, it would counteract everything.
JOE: Yeah, or we can make sure one of the volcanoes erupts. I think the way to go is to jump on the front end of all of it, from an economics point of view, from a business point of view, to jump on the front end of all the clean technology, advanced technology, AI used for the purposes of mitigating the negative effects of CO2. And then also getting the government to actually incentivize some of these things rather than incentivizing coal, because they are incentivized right now. They’re getting subsidies in the coal industry which just boggles my mind.
DAN: So we could go down a climate change rabbit trail. But a question about culture, because Van you said that economics is a function of culture or it’s kind of all wrapped up in there, and it seems like we’re seeing a bit of a culture shift in especially the so-called Generation Z, right? They have some new ideas about economics or maybe they’re they’re starting to embrace socialism or what they consider to be socialism. Capitalism maybe has some bad PR right now. Why do you think this culture shift is going on?
VAN: Well actually I’ll come at this a little bit different, but I’ll hit it because I do think that we’re undergoing a big cultural shift. I try not to pay attention to technology, but in this case I think it has severely impacted the way people think, and I’m not sure what the outcome will be. It does seem to me that the younger generation spends more time with their devices, looking at stuff and messing around on their phones, and on their computers and stuff, and they’re less interested in other forms of stuff. So they’re perfectly content to live in a smaller house. They don’t have books. They don’t really seem to have a desire for cars in the same way we can. I mean those are real, and I don’t know exactly what that will mean for the economy because the economy has been about making stuff.
This has actually been playing in Thiensville’s favor you know. Thiensville has the small three-bedroom ranch homes that were built in the 1950s. And everybody’s constantly moving away from those, we need the bigger. And then for whatever reason our homes are really very attractive to people now. Their relative valuation compared to the larger homes in Mequon—which is our neighboring suburb, newer housing stock, larger homes—used to be considered higher valuations, it’s changed, and it really has to do more with the changing perceptions and desires of the people. They may have the same socioeconomic status but they just don’t want a bigger house, they want a smaller house because they don’t spend time wandering around in their house. They spend time sitting somewhere looking at their phone.
JOE: The culture is changing, but people are moving to cities and especially coastal cities. Cities are growing. Look at Milwaukee, for example. Milwaukee is not a big city by any stretch of the imagination, but the downtown is just, there is building all over the place. There’s apartments going up. They’re gonna put up the tallest building, they finally got their permitting and financing for it. But if you’re looking at the downtown area in Milwaukee, it’s quite a bit different than it was just 20 years ago or 15 years ago, and so people want to live there. They want the convenience. They like walking. They like taking their bikes. They like taking the train—now there’s a train downtown—and so they like going to the Milwaukee market and getting something.
They’re living more of a sustainable life, being a little more conscientious about what I’m where I’m living, how many square feet I have. I don’t need all this stuff. I don’t need big cars or big homes. That’s the way a lot of the younger people are thinking. They want money but they want money to travel and experience the world and learn more about what’s going on. It’s more of an intellectual kind of existence. It’s moving more towards the museums and other things, the universities, for example.
I think there is a cultural shift, and I think it’s a good thing, because if you’re living a more sustainable life. . . One of the major shifts overall, as where the economy is a function of, is population. The United States has about 340,000,000 people living here. We have 7.4 billion people on the earth, and by 2100, here’s the prediction you don’t like, is 11.2 billion people. That’s quite a bit different than1950, right? Not too long ago there were only 2 billion people on earth.
VAN: I’m so thankful that you brought that up about different approaches to economics. That goes back to the old Malthusian problem about whether we only have resources for so many people, and I simply don’t believe that. And that goes back to part of my Christian orthodoxy, which I think I shared with Adam Smith, which is I think that the Lord will always provide. They’ll always be enough for people and human beings should not worry about that even if that means we end up going into the stars or whatever. I also believe that the Lord gave us a variety of commands that we should listen to and think about carefully and their implications. Among them was he told us to labor and he told us to procreate, so I think you know people should labor. They should actually have families and have children and that is a sign of a healthy economy. One of the things that I do worry about today’s economy is that they spend it online and the physical interactions are important and good in it. I hope that they make sure that they spend time together with one another in real physical contact including within the bounds of holy matrimony. And I’m serious about that because one of the things that we see in the advanced economies, it is very concerning, like in Japan, the young kid who wanted to marry an anime figure. He had been detached. He didn’t have any contact with real human beings, and I don’t think that that’s what the Lord intended. If the economy is driving us in that direction, then we should be very suspicious of that and try to make sure that we don’t go in that direction because that’s where technology could be very detrimental in a big way.
JOE: My worry about technology is that it really does sometimes replace human interaction with one another and compassion for one another. You become isolated and then you become self-centered and then you become this only self-interested kind of person which is not true today. I agree with that, but I also think that this is all a test, that the Lord is testing us right now because the Lord also gave us a brain and we’re challenged. We should be able to think our way through these things. I really believe that especially things like climate change that are very big and so consequential, that we are given the ability to predict some of these things and it’s kind of a test to see: I wonder what those people are gonna do. Having enough production for everybody on earth is not an issue right now, so I agree with you 100%, but it is an issue with the distribution.
There are hundreds of thousands of people who die every year from malnutrition, starvation, and dehydration, and in the future that’s going to be more and more and more just by virtue of increased population. My view from a Christian point of view, is that we should be taking care of those kinds of things for not just Americans, not just self-centered, not just me and my iPhone.
VAN: And I don’t think that has been the traditional American practice either. The United States has been generous including with China which is one of them.
JOE: Were in debt to China quite a bit.
VAN: Well then they’re in debt to us quite a bit which is a normal thing. The other thing that I would say, there always comes a time when you say, no thanks, I’m not going to trade with you anymore or I’m not gonna borrow any more from you. I’m not gonna borrow money and go down and buy a burger at McDonald’s. I’m gonna actually cook a burger on my grill. I’m gonna do it myself. And I think that that’s part of the thing for a macroeconomic decision that the United States can make as a macro economy and that we are making, and I don’t think it’s anything bad for the Chinese. They’ll be fine although they still will need our food, and they should remember that and I think that they do.
JOE: Well, they’re going to Brazil for it now.
VAN: Well that’s a, you talk about that the CO2 stuff and everything. I mean there’s just an example if you’re really worried about climate and the global health of the world, then the Chinese should not be encouraging the Brazilians to chop down their rainforests.
JOE: I agree, absolutely.
MICHAEL: A lot of what we’re talking about kind of centers around the limits of contentment. So when is enough, enough? What should we be happy with? So you know Jesus speaks a bit about contentment, Paul speaks a bit about contentment, the early Christian writers do the same. As we come to the end of our conversation here, I’m curious about your thoughts as a Christian, what does contentment look like?
VAN: Well I think that that is the key, and it looks different for different people, but I think that there are some norms. Joe was talking about what would make people content in the future, and he talked about the revitalization of urban areas, making do with less and that may be. But I gotta tell you since I’m the village president of Thiensville, people are most content in Thiensville. It is a good place. I think it’s the classic American dream of a strong middle class where people can do a variety of different occupations, and they don’t have to get paid a whole lot, and then they’re not in poverty, and they can provide for their children to do the same thing in the future. I think that that is the American dream at its best, and I think that the American Dream still has legs in the 21st century, and I think that we’re going to have it. So I’m an optimist, I’m not negative. But then I don’t want too much. I don’t want to rule the world. I’m content with a small 3-bedroom ranch that was built in the 1950s, and I like my job here at Concordia. I know that I’m blessed but I think other people could be blessed too. I think there are other people that are still blessed in our economy, and I want to help those that aren’t. I think the best way to do that is to let them labor without taxing them and to maintain the diversity in our economy. I think that we’ve got some policies that we could put in place and that we will and some of them rely upon market forces and capitalism and some of them are the good old government, and I think that we’re gonna be okay.
JOE: Everyone’s a little different, right? We can’t have one size fits all for contentment. If stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and six-foot washing machines and 75-inch screens are what make you happy and content you know so be it, but that’s not what I view as contentment. The free market system is there and you can do these things and you can live a decent life. You’ll be able to eat, you’ll be able to do some recreational activities, learn things, do good things for other people, be cognizant about what you do. These kinds of tenets would be something that leads to contentment. It’s more of results from some intrinsic kinds of beliefs and values rather than extrinsic beliefs and values. That you feel like you are actually accomplishing something, that you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you are, that you’re contributing to someone else’s well-being, that you have an economy that allows you to do that.
VAN: I would agree with Joe on that in many ways. Ultimately contentment comes, we can mix faith and learning which is what we do here at Concordia, ultimately contentment comes, it’s a gift of God, and it comes from a relationship with Christ.
MICHAEL: This has been very interesting. Thank you very much for joining us, and I actually hope we could do it again. It’d be fun to continue this.
DAN: Okay, let’s go back into this. All right, we’re back after a real excellent discussion. Allow me to be the first to say that I was wrong. I didn’t think I would enjoy the discussion. I thought I would find a lot to disagree with, however, I found that I actually agreed with a lot of what they were saying and strangely some of what Van Mobley was saying even though I consider myself to be somewhat to the left of Mr. Mobley.
MICHAEL: So what were you expecting?
DAN: I was expecting a lot more kind of by-the-books capitalism cheerleader-type discussion, but instead it was very in-depth, very academic on some levels. There’s a lot of in the weeds talk which I think is interesting, maybe not for everyone. I was impressed, I thought it was a good discussion.
ANGELINA: Yeah I had the same expectation of, oh economics, it’s gonna be like sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture. I especially appreciated their dynamic with each other and seeing if they disagree with each other, how they still, I mean it was amiable. That was neat to see.
MICHAEL: I’d like to cast them in a buddy movie.
DAN: I would watch that.
MICHAEL: I think this was really good, and I learned a lot. Like I had mentioned earlier, it’s just kind of sitting and listening. It’s kind of interesting.
One of the purposes for the show is that people who disagree can sit down and talk and have a productive conversation and come to the realization, that I think was hit upon a couple times during this conversation, that people are just doing what they think is best for the world. No one’s intentionally saying, I think this is the worst thing for the world and therefore we should go this direction. So it was just nice to hear people that, I would assume, are probably further apart than they even appeared on this show politically, coming together.
DAN: I noticed that they kept using the phrase macroeconomy. I understand the difference between macro and micro, but I thought it was interesting that they would use that specific phrase to differentiate kind of what they were talking about. I tend to think about things on the micro economy scale versus macro and maybe on the macroscale things are just different. Those aren’t the waters that I play in very often. So I think for me, that part of the conversation was enlightening. I assume that macro economics obviously is like from a national or international level even. When we make a change to the economy, we’re making it to the entire economy across systems versus the micro economy might be your Etsy store or your local coffee shop.
MICHAEL: One of the main reasons we did this podcast was because we wanted to talk about different economic systems, socialism, capitalism, communism, all the different isms, distributism.
DAN: Nobody said distributism.
MICHAEL: I like it and how does that align with people of faith, right? I don’t know if anything is all-encompassing as our economic system. I mean think of all the ways that it shapes us, all the ways it dictates culture and dictates personalities that should be cultivated. It changes lives. I mean, it creates life-or-death situations in some instances. It’s such an all pervading aspect of our time on earth, and if we have a moral imperative from Christ to live in a certain fashion, to live in a Christ-like fashion where we love the Lord God with all of our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves, you have to think about that in the context of an economy. What did you guys think? We touched on that a little bit with our two guests, but do you guys have thoughts about about that in your reflection?
DAN: I think this maybe comes back to macro versus micro. On a macro level, I don’t know. I mean these are the kind of questions that we’re constantly asking about, how does faith and culture and politics, how does that all kind of mesh together? From that macro level, I think it’s a lot harder to say we’re going to do something Christianly or ethical or moral on a macro scale. You talked about the Good Place and the idea that every decision impacts so many thousands of other things so that you can actually never make a decision that doesn’t somehow impact someone negatively.
So you’re talking about these macroeconomic decisions, just choosing to raise interest rates or lower interest rates could wipe out someone’s 401k or you know could drive up the price of taxes in someone’s home so high that they have to sell their house and leave. There’s all these huge decisions being made. I don’t know I think that’s really hard to try to make decisions that are Christian at that level, which is why I always like to go smaller. Like from a personal economic standpoint how do my personal economics affect the world around me or the people around me? So my purchasing, for example, or the way that I spend money or the way that I make money. How can I do those things in a way that reflects Christ? I know they didn’t talk about these things, they talked about on the macro level. But on the micro level, by buying things made by slave labor, by buying Hershey’s chocolate. It’s in the news a lot.
ANGELINA: When they were talking about contentment towards the end, and I don’t know if they both have said this, but talking about how it can mean different things for different people. It makes me think of that study that was done where they evaluated people’s happiness based on the amount of money that they make, and how after 75K, it doesn’t increase. I’ve just been thinking about that. Is contentment different for everyone? Even when he was talking about the 400 richest families and what their tax is, contentment for them could be at that level. But then how do we hold them responsible versus someone who doesn’t make that much money? There’s a lot that I have been thinking about and tying it back to my faith, and how I interact in the economy and the decisions that I make. I do think it’s hard to think about what’s the Christian decision to make at a macro level, but our faith should still inform what happens. Even on a micro level, who you vote for, who leads in your community, all of that impacts up the ladder. I think our faith still does inform macro decisions, because what we do at a micro level still impacts what’s happening.
DAN: It bubbles up.
MICHAEL: What does contentment look like for you guys? What do you think contentment in our society, and as a way of pleasing God with the way you live, what does that look like for you guys?
DAN: I was thinking about that when you asked them about contentment. I don’t know. It’s a complicated question, because I think there is a degree to which I haven’t necessarily experienced economic discontentment. I grew up in the middle class. I come from a working-class background but middle class. I’ve been poor but not devastatingly so, not in poverty. So for me to talk about contentment, I guess having my needs met, if we’re going to talk about it from an economic sense.
But, for me, it’s always been more of an existential question because I’ve been discontent with a lot of my life because of decisions that I’ve made, haven’t made. Being content with my life wouldn’t really have a lot to do with material things or money or things like that. It would be, and I think they both mentioned this, being able to fulfill my potential as a person or to do something meaningful. I think there’s a lot wrapped up in our faith with that as well because I think that God does want us to fulfill our potential as people. I think that’s what we’re doing in in the kingdom of God. We’ve been restored so that we can fulfill whatever the highest ideal God has for us. That’s what contentment would look like for me.
ANGELINA: I find myself feeling content in an economic sense if the purchases that I’m making or the generosity that I have lines up with my values, my morals. If I buy from a local farm instead of going to the supermarket that makes me feel like I used the resources that I have in a way that helps someone else versus just giving it to a corporation. Or preserving food or growing my own food, in an economic sense, I feel contentment there. Or just living with less, so every purchase that I make, even if it’s something super small, I always think about do I need this and what will this impact in my budget. Does this keep me from giving money to someone who’s in need? Does it keep me from being generous? Does it keep me from spending money on something that’s not better but maybe more meaningful than another bag of Sour Patch Kids? I feel content when I feel like I’m spending and supporting from a place of integrity. Because if I say that I believe in these things but then my spending doesn’t match up with that, then I feel like a fraud. So my contentment isn’t so much tied to what’s in my bank account but more if I’m being wise with the resources that I’ve been given.
DAN: What about you Michael? Where does your contentment lie?
MICHAEL: $5 sweatpants from Walmart.
DAN: Building up the Walton family fortune.
MICHAEL: Best purchase I ever made. You know with contentment, I think there’s always a moral quandary. So you could be lower middle class in America and compared to someone in another country, you’re living incredibly lavishly. Or you could be fairly impoverished but if you consider how people lived hundreds of years ago, you’re living like royalty. So there’s always this like relativist thing going on with do you have too much or are you being materialistic. So for me, that’s something I think about a little bit and wrestle with. I also it balanced that with I want my kids to be in a nice, safe place, an environment that’s conducive to them to grow, so it’s about the family. But I think overall, contentment is a spiritual thing. I think you could be pretty poor and be very content if you have a close relationship with Christ. I think it’s practicing the presence of God, being in a spiritual, connected, rooted kind of way with God. I think that’s that’s what contentment is.
Our guest talked a little bit about how you know Christianity has existed in multiple economic contexts, so it’s not obviously tied to one type of economic situation. It can morph and change with the rest of culture, but there’s something that’s immutable about that, and that’s, I think, the real connection between God and his people.
DAN: I want to dig into the contentment a little bit more because there was maybe six months ago a hot trend towards minimalism with that one TV show. Marie Kondo. There was a trend towards minimalism for a few minutes, and people are throwing away all their items and whatnot. Is there some kind of a moral calling towards less? When I think about economics again at the micro scale, I think about wealth. Jesus has a lot to say about wealth and about wealthy people and condemning it roundly. To me, part of a Christian economic philosophy, is no wealth accumulation. In that sense, I’m kind of anti-capitalist because capitalism is a lot about wealth accumulation. But I also recognize that some people maybe had a really successful career, and they made a lot of money, and they don’t know what to do with it so they can give it to the church or missions. I’m wondering do you guys think that there’s some kind of a moral imperative to minimalism or to no wealth or no material goods?
MICHAEL: I think you should store up your treasures in heaven. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a bank account that has some savings in it. Do you know what I’m saying? Are you focused on finding your security completely in your wealth, finding your joy completely in your wealth or your stuff?
There’s a lot of good that’s been done by people that acquire wealth or organizations that acquire wealth and then spend it. But it’s not that they spend everything; they’re able to sustain themselves because they’re able to control their finances.
DAN: So you’re saying no or yes?
ANGELINA: Or maybe?
MICHAEL: Is there a moral imperative?
DAN: Yeah. To minimalism, to not have wealth, not accumulate wealth, to live a simple life.
MICHAEL: My answer was no. That’s the wrong phrasing. It’s close but I think it’s wrong phrasing. I think if you store up your treasures in earth and that’s what your focus is, then that’s not something that you should be doing. That’s a sin. But I think that if you have your attention on things of God and if you’re acquiring wealth but you’re being generous in ways with it, if it’s helping other people, not just sitting and it’s for you. . . I would say this: I don’t know if there’s any reason for someone to own like a $150,000 car. I can’t think of a good reason for that. I’m sorry if that sounds judgy.
DAN: So that’s the line?
MICHAEL. I can’t fathom it. That’s the whole thing. There’s always another. . . so there’s a $30,000 care, well could make do with a $10,000 one. But in my opinion, there’s some things that I think are just clearly not needed. You don’t need a 30,000 square-foot house for four people. That’s a little cartoonish, but there’s people that have that. I don’t think that that’s Kingdom minded unless you’re doing something with your 30,000 foot house.
DAN: Bringing in the homeless.
MICHAEL: There are ways you can make it work.
DAN: Angelina you come from a tradition of minimalism. What do you think?
ANGELINA: Personally that resonates with me, but it’s not to the point where I would say if you’re not living that way, that’s wrong. I do hear people talk a lot about, I want to do this and I want to make this money and then I’m going to give all this money away. It’s like, if you’re not being generous now, you’re not going to be generous when you’re making however much money you want to be making. So I think it’s relative. Like if you’re making $30k a year and you’re giving $100 a month away, and then you start making $70K and you’re still only giving $100 away, something’s wrong there. Your generosity should increase to whatever. . . That’s my belief. Your generosity should match what you’re making. For me, I’m not super tied to stuff. I know some people find security in that or find joy or meaning in having stuff and keeping stuff. That’s not me. I would rather, kind of like what they were talking about with my generation, we’re more apt to spend our money on experiences or learning or travel. That’s kind of more important things. I don’t like to impose my own way of living my life on other people because I just know that it can be different. But I do think, your generosity should match. . . Even if you’re not someone who gives to a church, there’s so many other things to give your money to.
MICHAEL: I mean I think it’s a responsibility for Christians to support their communities. I mean, there’s one thing that’s clearly demonstrated in the Scripture that you should be. If you go to the church, you should support that church in some way, and you can debate about the amount that you want to do.
DAN: At one point Joe said that we no longer live in a needs-based economy. He said we live in a wants based economy. So everything that we need is pretty much, we have it. But it’s the things that we want that’s what’s driving the economy. You’ve heard it before that we live in a kind of a consumer economy, and it’s the more money each of us spends, the better our economy is going to do. To me, that’s a kind of a red flag, honestly. I have some concerns with that because I think it does leave people out and maybe not everyone has what they need. I think Joe did a good job, they both did actually, of saying we want an economy that serves people. How do you get that is the questions.
I have some friends and acquaintances who are very anti-capitalism to the point where it’s like burn it all down.
MICHAEL: We all do.
DAN: I appreciate that perspective, but Van actually did a pretty good job of building a convincing case for the usefulness of it.
MICHAEL: I think it’s a question of the free market and what does that look like, ways that there can be a free market. so China has a free market and we have a free market, and they’re different. I tend to think, just my personal opinion on it, the free market is good, but I think it should be really hyper local. I think that there should be a localism and maybe there should be some limitations on how big things get so that the focus of the economy becomes smaller, local entities. And also the family would be a core component of the economy as opposed to the individual or the community. But everyone has their opinion on it. You can’t debate though that the free market has done a lot of good in this world. There’s some negatives, too. I mean you could say the same thing with government-controlled economies that are completely regulated. There might be some good they’ve done, but there’s also been a lot of horrific things that have been done by it. So there’s a give-and-take to any kind of choice you make in life and any kind of system you set up because we live in an imperfect world. I think that’s where it goes right back to this whole thing, what are you looking for when you’re buying things? What are you looking for when you’re saving your money? If it’s security and joy, you’re not going to get it from that? It’s only from God that you can get that stuff. So I think if you’re aware of that as you enter into the economy, I think that you can even find what you need in most cases.
All right. Well then, I think we’re a lot of people that are not academics and economics to have a conversation about it, and you’ll hear more of our uneducated opinion next time.