Friday, November 30, 2012

Economics as if People Mattered

I love the concept of practicing economics as if people mattered.  E.F. Schumacher wrote the book , Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered in 1973. The book inspired the “buy locally,” and “fair trade movements, decried the wastefulness of large corporations, and advocated that economies should be built around the needs of the community rather than the needs of the corporation. Schumacher even has an essay in his book about “Buddhist economics” which he characterizes as, “Giving a person the chance to develop his or her skills and talent; joining people with others in co-operative effort; and bringing forth society’s needed goods and services.” You can read a brief overview in Wikipedia here,  or an in depth book review here

I happened to stumble upon an old televised sermon by Bishop Fulton Sheen on economics that aired in the mid-1950s which was an excellent example of economics as if people mattered.  I haven’t heard a lot of Bishop Sheen and to be honest, I was put off a bit by his flamboyant style the few times I had seen a clip from his old TV show.  I was channel surfing last Saturday because I really wasn’t interested in seeing more of the Alabama-Auburn football game when I landed on the re-play of Bishop Sheen’s old black-and-white TV broadcast. I must say that I was pleased and astounded by the message he presented. It is one that we need to hear today in light of the Occupy Movement and the many de-regulations (and Supreme Court rulings) in recent years that have resulted in more power for the corporations and huge salaries of CEO heads.

Private Property and Corporations

Consider this quote as Bishop Sheen is outlining the rights of property ownership: “The right to property is personal, but the use of property is socially conditioned… One economic error is the insistence on personal rights to the exclusion of social use… That would be monopolistic capitalism so prevalent in the last [19th] century… the attitude that I want no moral law, no code, no state telling me what I can or cannot do with my money. That resulted in the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few to the impoverishment of the masses – a system which was greatly broken up, thanks be to God, by the advent of labor unions.”

And what about this proposal of his regarding corporations? “Any man who has stock in a corporation is entitled to a return on that stock…how about the worker? He has a different investment: his very life, the sum of his days. He is also entitled to some of the social wealth that he helped to create…there should be some form of co-ownership in which he will feel some stability… so that he is no longer working for someone, but rather working with someone…No one boss is entitled to all the profits.”

Bishop Sheen also talked about profits that are a result of what one does with one’s property. He stated that a person should have enough for himself and his family to provide for their needs, security, and education, but that “any superfluity of wealth is owed to the poor.” It sounded like Bishop Sheen had a vision for how to bring about pride of ownership in a productive society that would also actually benefit the whole of society. I liked the fact that he could say, “Thanks be to God” for the important work that labor unions have brought about. They did, after all bring us things like the 40-hour work week, safer working conditions, paid vacations, retirement pensions, sick pay and health insurance – all things designed to bring a better life for the worker;  things that did indeed allow for some sense of “ownership” on the part of the worker.

Job Creators, or Community Builders?

Bishop Sheen was thinking of economics as if people mattered. His vision was one of communities that work rather than one of endless wealth for corporations.  Sadly, today we have allowed much of that vision to fall by the wayside as politicians and corporate bosses have turned back the clock on regulations and weakened the influence of labor unions. The average worker is once again finding himself or herself at the mercy and whim of the corporation. Moreover, contrary to the political speak in Washington, corporations are not “job creators.” They only create a job when it is absolutely necessary for getting something done. Their primary focus is on profits for stockholders, so adding a worker’s salary to the equation is one to be avoided if at all possible.  If adding one job increases profit, then that job will be added, but if eliminating 500 jobs increases profit, those jobs will be eliminated regardless of production or community.


If you are interested, I looked on You Tube for Bishop Sheen’s sermon. I was not able to find the entire message, but I did find two significant segments:

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