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This Is the  Story of 'Homo Economicus'

Don't look now, but the economy is forming you — and everyone around you — in its own image. For Christians meant to live in common spaces for the common good, that matters.

For 17 years, Jim Huthmaker worked as a smokejumper for the U.S. government, parachuting into forests to douse fires around the Pacific Northwest. He spent years pursuing the thrill of a career that catered to his skillset and whet his appetite for adventure.
It was his best life.
Then, in the middle of his exhilarating career, he “woke up.”

Kara Bettis

Some leading economists are calling Christians to remember whose image they are supposed to bear.

For 17 years, Jim Huthmaker worked as a smokejumper for the U.S. government, parachuting into forests to douse fires around the Pacific Northwest. He spent years pursuing the thrill of a career that catered to his skillset and whet his appetite for adventure.

It was his best life.

Then, in the middle of his exhilarating career, he “woke up.”

Huthmaker’s wake up wasn’t so much a realization as a confession. For years, he had been “deeply unsatisfied,” and he was finally admitting it.

“I did feel like I was pursuing and had attained some sort of American dream,” Huthmaker said during a conversation earlier this year, “only to find that what I thought was ‘it’ still gave me no satisfaction or peace.”

The American dream didn’t deliver, and economist Brian Fikkert isn’t surprised. Because despite its promises, the American dream can only form desires. Not fulfill them.

The Rise of Unhappiness

In 2015, a startling headline started popping up in the news — the death rate was rising, not decreasing, for middle-aged white Americans. And the spike wasn’t due to natural causes.

The New York Times reported on a study by Angus Deaton and Anne Case that concluded that the rising death rate was not from heart disease or diabetes, but rather from substance abuse and suicide. They correlated results like chronic pain, trouble socializing, and mental illness.

Interestingly, the husband and wife duo who discovered these results are economists, and they were initially looking into whether states with higher happiness levels report lower suicide rates. They do not.

The latest studies on how Americans feel about their economy paint two paradoxical pictures. On one hand, national and global poverty is decreasing, Americans are feeling increasingly optimistic about their finances, and the economy is lower on the list of Americans’ political priorities than it has been in two decades. On the other hand, many Americans are facing crippling debt, stagnant “real” wages, an unstable housing market, unaffordable medical care, and a tidal wave of federal debt.

These factors, naturally, challenge American Christians at the same rate as their secular neighbors.

Polls show that the economy is currently not the top political issue for Americans, as they feel mostly recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, according to an early 2019 Gallup study, Americans are more optimistic about their personal finances than they have been in 16 years. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they expect to be financially better off at the same time next year.

The Story of Homo Economicus

Economists have long referred to the capitalist-driven person as homo economicus — an independent, self-interested, materialistic individual. In a Christian worldview that holds to original sin, homo economicus makes sense.

Homo economicus could be considered simply an academic term for a concept that most Christians already believe about mankind’s most basic tendencies. Capitalism and free markets work well with homo economicus, after all. We are motivated by security, and captured by money.

While from a theological view this might be true, some economists are challenging this concept. Fikkert, founder of the Chalmers Center and co-author of When Helping Hurts, and Michael Rhodes, director of community transformation and an assistant professor at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, are two academics who warn against assuming that homo economicus simply describes the way things are.

Instead of accepting homo economicus as inevitable and unchangeable, they believe Christians should focus on improving the economy by trading homo economicus for homo imago Dei. Mankind may be naturally selfish and motivated out of self-preservation, but they are also made in the image of God. Humanity’s basic nature matters because, as Grove City economics professor Shawn Ritenour has pointed out, “the foundation of economic law is rooted in the Christian doctrine of man.”

What if the market-bred creature of homo economicus is not an academic caricature, but is actually a false god? Fikkert and Rhodes argue just this in a 2017 article in the Journal of Markets and Morality.

If people are made in the image of God, and then are placed in an economic system where institutions, policies, and practices fundamentally serve homo economicus, the result “can be profoundly deforming and contrary to true human flourishing,” they write. Humans are naturally relational and multidimensional, making decisions collectively from the mind, heart, will, and body.

“Human beings are transformed into the image of whatever god they are worshiping and then create culture in that same image,” Fikkert and Rhodes write. If that god is a person shaped by the market, that will affect how humans view themselves in a “radically different way” in relationship to God, self, others, and creation.

While the authors admit there is not a conclusive test to their study, they point to empirical evidence to support their hypothesis. Materialistic messaging, individualistic values, greater unhappiness, among other factors, contribute to a devolving of the imago Dei into homo economicus.

Materialistic Message

It hardly needs to be said that Americans live in a culture that is built upon marketing, advertising, and pushing us to the “next best thing.” What is hard to grasp is how much materialistic ideology subtly sneak into our environment to influence and even form us.

Americans — millennials especially — care almost as much about the appearance of being successful as they do about actually being successful. A 2018 Chase Slate survey found that 77 percent of millennials made purchases that they would go on to post pictures of on Instagram, including food, vacation, and clothing.

Forget the advertising and marketing world — we need no help in adopting a materialistic outlook on the world. The relentless social media vortex continues to push us toward dissatisfaction with our lives and toward a constant desire for “bigger and better.”

Like most marketing instructors would say, advertising agencies and marketing companies are not selling you products, they are selling you stories and values. If our world is selling us on the values of materialism and financial success, its marketing plan is working.

What Fikkert and Rhodes argue is that it does not need to stay this way.

Individuals and the ‘American Dream’

When the drafters of the Declaration of Independence named as unalienable the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they enshrined in the United States an ideal, an American dream. While there’s no official version, per se, most Americans take as axiomatic that personal success looks like increasing liberty and increasing happiness. Attaining an independent nature and autonomous lifestyle is a virtue.

Economically, being a self-sustaining individual with no need for family, community, or government is a first step in achieving the American dream.

Most Americans believe that educational and economic achievements are the most important milestones of adulthood, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with marriage and parenthood ranking lower than in past decades. Economic security ranks second — about half of adults value holding a full-time job and financially supporting a family as important milestones.

In the pursuit of what appears to be the freedom of career choice, many Americans are taking the chains of student debt. Collectively, Americans owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans in the first half of 2017 — almost three times as much as a decade earlier, according to a Pew Research analysis.

And it’s not just college loans — credit cards and mortgages are the leading source of debt, followed by educational and car loans. Millennials and baby boomers are carrying an average of $36,000 in individual debt.

Factors like race and geography also play prominently, adding nuance. For example, millennials of color are “worse off” financially than their white counterparts, due to greater unemployment, lack of credit history, or being less likely to have benefits even while employed, according to Marketplace Morning Report. In 2017, the Associated Press reported on outrageously unaffordable housing costs in Silicon Valley, even for families considered middle class. Some university teachers were sleeping in their cars due to the cost of living.

“The bottom line is that there are a whole lot of people of who are crushed by the dysfunctions of our systems,” Rhodes said in an interview with Common Good. “If what we want is a more just society, that requires us to listen to what Scripture has to say to us in relation to economic justice.”

Poverty, despite its slow decline, is still a very real issue. An estimated 13.4 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, according to a 2017 U.S. Census report.

Greater Unhappiness

When marks of the American dream are not hit, the person formed by homo economicus suffers.

While poverty is an obvious contributor toward anxiety and general unhappiness, a U.S. Census report that studied the changing economics of “young adulthood” from 1975 to 2016 found additional factors toward economic insecurity in adults ages 25 to 34.

While fewer young women were homemakers (43 percent in 1975 versus 14 percent in 2016), young men were plummeting to the bottom of the income ladder. Forty-one percent of young American men make less than $30,000 annually, compared to 25 percent in 1975 (salaries both in 2015 dollars). In addition, 2.2 million young adults live at home with their parents and are considered “idle;” they go to neither school nor work.

These economic realities have significant impacts on individuals’ well-being, even for older generations.  Reporting in The Economist suggests that suicide rates are highest among poor, white men — especially those between the ages of 45 and 64.

Rhodes points out in his book, Practicing the King’s Economy, co-authored with Fikkert and Pastor Robby Holt, that nearly 43 million Americans experience some form of mental illness each year. He observes that substance abuse, mental illness, and depression seem to be rising along with rising incomes.

Where Do We Go from Here?

People commonly think capitalism itself is morally neutral. But Rhodes says this idea ignores the formative effect of institutions on people — both in positive and in negative ways.

Don’t think Rhodes wants to get rid of capitalism. Instead, he believes it is possible to develop a Christlike economy, a Christlike capitalism. And that’s what he wants Christians to discover.

“If everything is informed by capitalism, capitalism is forming me,” Rhodes said. “How do Christians use capitalism, not be used by it? How can we use markets and market exchanges and bend them toward kingdom purposes? ...

“Most Christians need to spend less time saying, Theoretically, which political economy should I put down on a whiteboard? And they should spend more time saying, How do we bend our economic lives and systems toward an economy that reflects God’s kingdom?”

Basically, you can’t be informed all week long about profit maximization and expect that not to shape your thinking and desires in ways Christians historically reserved for theology and spiritual disciplines.

“We don’t actually have a framework for Christ to be Lord over our economic lives,” Fikkert said. “We default to the only story we know — Western capitalism. The only story we know to live out is the American dream.”

What’s needed, Fikkert says, is a thoroughly Christian way of approaching the economy.

When a Christian understands the full mission of Jesus Christ on earth, he is saying, it helps to create a framework for the kingdom of God and how the Christian can be a contributing member of promoting that kingdom here on earth. Without that framework, Fikkert says Christians default to the story they are told by their culture and society.

Wheaton College assistant economics professor Enoch Hill agrees with the formation of capitalism when its participants are passive. Capitalism is not “completely morally neutral,” he said. “Left unchecked, it leads toward a materialistic focus — but it doesn’t require a materialistic focus.”

There seem to be several ways forward in order to avoid sliding into a culture of homo economicus. While difficult and counter cultural, each one is rooted in biblical principles and a hope in redemption rather than defeat to sin.

These pathways to homo imago Dei include integrating virtue in work, changing the way churches interact with their congregations, having biblical hope that change is possible in this life, pursuing social innovation and increasing generosity.

“We can practice Christlikeness in all of these systems, and can transform them,” Hill said.

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“The bottom line is that there are a whole lot of people of who are crushed by the dysfunctions of our systems. If what we want is a more just society, that requires us to listen to what Scripture has to say to us in relation to economic justice.”

Michael Rhodes

A Pursuit of Virtue

Many economists seem to be arguing for a return to virtue in the economic realm. In his new book, Redeeming Capitalism, Kenneth Barnes challenges his readers to “imagine virtuous capitalism: an economic system with all of the wealth-generating possibilities of the capitalism we have, plus the social benefits of the capitalism we desire — a system that consciously embraces and enthusiastically employs common grace for the common good.” In Barnes’s vision, the key to transforming capitalism is virtue.

“A mutant, postmodern capitalism has begun to define our culture: devoid of a moral compass and resistant, if not impervious, to ethical constraint. Left unchecked, this form of capitalism will continue to produce the behavior responsible not only for the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, but for such scandals as Enron, WorldCom, Barings Bank, Parmalat, the subprime mortgage crisis, the LIBOR scandal, and the ticking time bomb of national debt,” he writes.

Other American, Christian thought leaders have linked virtue and economics together, such as Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse and James K.A. Smith.

Change Starts in Church

The church does not need to take a back seat on economic matters. There is no better place to study the homo imago Dei than through the preaching of Scripture and the teaching of the local church. Many Christian economists are spending their careers studying the intersection of faith and economics and have produced a plethora of resources for pastors and lay leaders.

Hill thinks the local church should have a say in how Christians live economically.

“The church is desperately needed to be the goal setter in all of the economy,” Hill said. “When your interests are aligned with God’s interests, your interests are going to be much better than collecting as much stuff as possible.”

Theologically, there are many examples of God’s call toward relationships over profit, such as the Old Testament gleaning laws that called landowners to leave some of their harvest for the orphan and widow (Deut 24:19–22), Fikkert pointed out.

“That’s a different way of being, it has different kinds of formative implications for us,” Fikkert said. If Christians are being shaped by the marketplace during the week, they will need some deep conviction and teaching in order to overpower those habits. Pastors can — and should — offer a different narrative.

“Our solution is preachers who know the message of the Bible thoroughly,” he said. “People are shaped by stories. We haven’t given people a story of what the heck is going on here.”

In practice, that looks like a different kind of preaching, Fikkert said. His controversial opinion? The average evangelical sitting in a church pew on Sunday morning does not fully grasp why Jesus came to earth. Most people view his mission as a legal transaction to make men right with God so they can spend eternity with him. Fikkert argues that’s only part of the picture.

Fikkert explained how Jesus introduces himself as the promised Messiah. He is the king who is ushering in a kingdom that expands without end, bringing, amongst other things, peace and comprehensive restoration over “every square inch” of the cosmos. Yet the average American churchgoer would probably not explain the mission of Jesus that way. They wouldn’t say that Jesus came to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.

“It’s a bad day at the office for the church of Jesus Christ when we don’t even know his message,” Fikkert added. “Pastors can help our congregations to see why Jesus came to earth. It’s a different story than the one most congregants have.”

Specifically, pastors and church leaders can show Christians how Jesus Christ is Lord over all of their lives — including their economic lives. When a Christian understands the full mission of Jesus Christ on earth, it helps to create a framework for the kingdom of God, and how he or she can be a contributing member of promoting that kingdom here on earth.

Because without that framework, Christians default to the story they are told by their culture and society — the American dream.

As their churches replace the worldview of the American dream with the worldview of King Jesus, Fikkert said, Christians will start asking how to reorient their entire lives in order to build up the kingdom of God.

The “Already” in the “Already, And Not Yet”

“We say we believe in ‘now and not yet’ — and we really believe in the not yet,” Fikkert said, referring to the kingdom theology coined by theologian George Eldon Ladd. Kingdom theology posits that the “kingdom of God can be already present but not yet here in its fullness.” In other words, if Christians truly believe that Christ’s kingdom is currently established, they can strive to fulfill that here and now, yet be expectant that it will be brought to completion someday.

Christians often act as if they are victims of a sinful world, rather than redeemed ambassadors working to invite people into the kingdom of God. Fikkert believes that this is not just a tendency of his own belief system, but widespread in the evangelical church.

“The grain of the universe is toward shalom — toward wholeness. There is some, ‘now,’” Fikkert said. “I think we need to lean into it. We need to pray for rain and believe in rain. Let God decide how much is ‘now,’ and how much is ‘not yet.’”

He pointed to the movement in the past few decades toward improving society through business.

Some businesses are intentionally choosing to hire those who often go unemployed: ex-offenders, autistic workers, or refugees. Most visibly, Starbucks announced last year that it was committed to hiring 10,000 refugees globally by the year 2020. Amy Wright, who founded Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina, was awarded CNN’s 2017 “Hero of the Year” for hiring dozens of employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Searching for Homo Imago Dei

But social innovators do not have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to make a difference. Take Steve Nash, for example. The executive director of the nonprofit Advance Memphis, he has been working to fight unemployment in South Memphis for two decades.

When he started in 1999, the zip code of 38126 was the third economically poorest neighborhood in the country, he said. It’s still not great — in fact, it is still ranked as the sixth most economically distressed community in the nation’s 100 largest cities, and the only city in the South ranked in the top 10 most distressed, according to the Economic Innovation Group. Generational poverty and its consequences of unemployment and crime have hit the city for decades.

In his community, Nash sees the instability of the housing market, temporary jobs, and drug use as some of the most significant economic challenges.

Nash said, “That is a huge barrier to economic [growth] because it’s driving up health care costs, driving up crime, reducing educational outcomes, and reducing healthy employment outcomes.”

Nash began his work by building relationships in the 38126 zip code, hopping in cars with people and driving around with unemployed friends to help them find work. Now, his nonprofit helps the 38126 community with employment, financial literacy, and job skills. The graduates of Advance Memphis’ entrepreneurship program own businesses like daycare services, lawn care, and photography.

Along with soft job skills training, Advance Memphis offers hands-on, holistic programming based on a “relational view of poverty” rooted in When Helping Hurts ideology. They tackle both work and life skills that include conflict resolution and maintaining emotional health.

In Fikkert and Rhodes’ thought, as practiced by Nash, Christians need to flip traditional methods of serving the less fortunate on their head. In Practicing the King’s Economy, Rhodes, Fikkert, and Holt take the example of a soup kitchen and contrast it with a potluck. While a soup kitchen puts a wall between the servers and the served; the potluck creates a community, allowing everyone to contribute in a meaningful way.

“In our US cultural climate, we tend to think of society as just a collection of individuals; the community itself is more of a bonus in the background of our minds,” the authors write. “The Bible sees the community as absolutely essential for the sake of both individual and communal flourishing.”

Twist in the Story of Homo Economicus

If ever someone embodied homo economicus, it was Jim Huthmaker. And his American dream hit an end. No satisfaction, he said. No peace. None of the things for which he went looking (and climbing). Thankfully, that end wasn’t Huthmaker’s.

“I found peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction that was in my ‘old life’ an impossibility,” he said.

When he woke up, he felt his faith was calling him to something more. What that was, he was not sure, but it led him through a maze of attending Bible college, marrying his wife, Jessie, and traveling back to his hometown of Lexington, South Carolina.

“I started loving people. Life was not about me anymore,” he said.

In 2017, the Huthmakers and their two children launched The Haven, a Lexington coffee shop that intentionally engages its community. In a century-old, 3,000-square foot space right on Lexington’s main street, guests can work solo from their laptops or together open their Bibles, Huthmaker described.

During the week, Huthmaker roasts his own beans for The Haven and neighboring coffee shops. On Sundays, the shop converts to a small nondenominational church of about a hundred people that Jim pastors on Sundays. The Haven, a nonprofit, uses revenue from beverage and bean sales to support the church and provide benevolence among church members.

Huthmaker switched careers, but this wasn’t just a job transition. It was a spiritual journey. It was a move toward a deeper way of doing work and even conceiving of things like profit and value. In essence, it was a twist in the story of homo economicus.

It was about homo imago Dei.

“The Christian church in America as individuals has become very self-centered,” Huthmaker said. “We’ve developed this attitude of, if I’m not driving a brand-new car or have a huge house or making $100,000 a year my life is falling apart. Jesus said in the Gospels, forsake yourselves and follow me. That’s a tough one for middle-class Christianity.”

That’s because forces — economic and otherwise — are forming Huthmaker, you, and me alike. And this is what Fikkert’s thesis is all about. These forces don’t stop at the end of the workday.

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