Archive for November 19th, 2009

All Quiet on the Blog Front

Sharon November 19th, 2009

It’ll be quiet here for a bit.  I’ve got guests this weekend, and a lovely birthday bash to throw for Simon on Sunday, and almost immediately afterwards, we are leaving for Boston and Thanksgiving with my extended family.  I’ll probably have a thought or two about my favorite foodie holiday or something, but otherwise, expect a bit of quiet.  Lots of other great writers in my sidebar – check them out!


Rowan Williams on the Purpose of the Economy

Sharon November 19th, 2009

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has given a lovely speech on the central question of our times – what is our economy for?  Thanks to Rod Dreher for pointing it out:

“‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, ‘economic realities’, economic motivations and so on belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live. And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, ‘sustainable’ in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.

Economics understood in abstraction from all this is not just an academic error: it actually dismantles the walls of the home. Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about ‘housekeeping’, has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making – until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home – a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings – people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.”


“Earlier I mentioned the work of Kenny Tang. At the end of his wide-ranging recent book (pp.137-60), he sketches four scenarios for the second half of the twenty first century, varying from a ‘golden age’ picture in which economic stability offers a secure background for sustaining the planet’s assets, through a model in which good intentions for sustainable and ethical behaviour in respect of the environment are undermined by boom and bust cycles in the economy, a more serious model in which patterns of consumption do not basically change, so that we face ‘resource wars’ over our finite supplies, and finally a nightmare scenario of a planet that has become a jigsaw of ‘protectionist nation-states’, where each state both refuses to challenge its aspirations for material growth and helps to inflate commodity prices worldwide by protectionist strategies.

What is most sobering about Tang’s fourth model is that so much of it reads like a description of what is already happening in many quarters and what some of the rhetoric of the wealthy world seems to take for granted. And what his analysis points up is a message that can be derived from any of the economic forecasters I have quoted: without a stable economy, the rest is idle dreaming. And a stable economy depends on our willingness to question the imperatives of unchecked growth – which in turn is a moral and cultural matter. The energy for resistance has to come from the sort of stubborn moral and cultural commitment to humane virtue that I have been speaking about.

I realise that the word ‘virtue’ is hard for many to take seriously. But it’s high time we reclaimed it. We have no other way of talking about the solid qualities of human behaviour that make us more than reactive and self-protective – the qualities of courage, intelligent and generous foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare which, under other names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for two and half thousand years: fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. In the Christian world, of course, they have been supplemented by, and grounded in, the virtues of faith, hope and love that, in their full meaning, are bound up with relation to God. But there has always been a recognition that the four pillars of ordinary human virtue were not a matter of special revelation but the raw materials for any kind of co-operative and just society. Without courage and careful good sense, the capacity to put your own desires into perspective and the concern that all should share in what is recognised as good and lifegiving, there is no stable world, no home to live in – no house to keep.”

The combination of graceful prose and intellectual clarity is just lovely.