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Straight Thinking about Capitalism

This essay is a look at the assumptions behind capitalism and their corresondence (or, in this case, non-correspondence) with the values that most of us hold. Despite this, those assumptions have become the underlying rules for our society. Until we begin to think differently, we won't act differently

December 2009

As a physician I occasionally speak to groups of medical students.  A number of years ago, I noticed that my years as a doctor and writer working among the poor for justice had—in the eyes of some students—somehow qualified me as, in their words, a “saint.”  Their judgment, apparently, was ultimately based on my voluntarily accepting an income well below average for physicians, that is, not using my medical credentials to earn the highest possible income.  

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Capitalism’s Evolution

As we begin to think together about how best to restructure our economy, this essay is a background piece to help us understand that capitalism is not monolithic, that the extreme, free-market capitalism of the last generation is a deviation from capitalism's historic evolution, and that there are concrete, practical, and (most importantly) just alternatives to our current economic system.
This essay was first published on AlterNet.

The current collapse of the global economy puts before us a critical question: Is the current economic system fundamentally sound, needing only minor correctives, or has it reached its limits, requiring fundamental rethinking? It is my contention that the unconstrained free-market ideology imposed on American economic thinking for the last thirty-five years has been a hijacking of the evolutionary development of capitalism that could otherwise offer us a just, sustainable economics.

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Did Moral Lapses Cause The Economic Crisis?

How Idolatry, Hubris, Greed and Injustice Led to the Financial Meltdown

We are now in the midst of the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, the immediate cause of which was the meltdown of the global financial industry.  But what caused the financial meltdown?  Was it certain “bad actors” (greedy bankers, regulators asleep at the switch, low-income borrowers, etc) who overran the system’s checks and balances?  Was it the capitalist economic system itself, which gives so much power to the wealthy?  Was it specific financial instruments—the collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and others—that were put into broad use before being properly understood?  Yes, these all share the responsibility.  Largely missing from the conversation, however, is the moral failure underlying and lacing together these other disparate roots.  Basic to the financial crisis was a silencing of the crucial moral checks and balances embedded within the several American religious and philosophical traditions that ultimately make society possible and ought to underlie any economic system.

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The Limits of Capitalism

The following is a lecture I gave on the limits of capitalism to our class at our church's Servant Leadership School that was a conversation between the Gospel and capitalism. It's a beginning look at some of the inherent limitations of capitalism in dealing with some of our most important problems.

One of our primary objectives during this conversation between capitalism and the Gospel is to begin a discussion on the limits of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism, so that we can begin to define alternatives that will better serve God’s creation. I’d like to suggest that the current global economic structure cannot—even in theory—deal adequately with the primary problems facing humanity today. Regardless of our politics, unless the economic system changes significantly, our civilization will not survive.

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Kindom Economics Sermon

This is a sermon from February 2007 to my own Eighth Day Faith Community, in which I try to begin a conversation between capitalism and Scripture. It seems clear that our current economics is leading us in directions very few of us want to go regarding poverty, inequality, the quality of work, and the environment. But we don't seem to know how to change courses. I'm coming to believe that both Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament offer us some important guidelines.

Bible ext: Mt 6:24-34

I’d like to talk with you this morning about economics and suggest that there are some irreconcilable internal contradictions within unchecked, free-market capitalism that lead inexorably to the environmental devastation, global poverty, and wars that threaten our civilization.  I’d also like to suggest that we can find a vision for an alternative economics in our Scriptures, a vision that we’re called to flesh out and be faithful to.

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