Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Greed Good?

Before we can answer that question, we must define the terms. Sloppy moralizing sometimes leads to sloppy morality, and I fear that is the case when it comes to thinking about greed.

This has come to my attention since a friend of mine posted on his Facebook page this old video of Milton Friedman explaining to Phil Donahue all that has been accomplished for human good out of a motive of greed. Mr. Friedman was explaining that most of the innovations that have improved mankind's material well-being have been brought about by people pursuing a profit for themselves. It is an engaging dialogue, and I would urge the reader to view it.

Mr. Friedman was responding to a question from his host, and the economist accepted Mr. Donahue's terms in answering the question. The term greed, as used in this snippet, is synonymous with the notion of self-interest. While that usage is common, it strikes me as incorrect. For one thing, virtually everything we do has some element of self-interest, whether it be material or intangible.

In thinking about this, I decided to consult the Bible, and I was surprised at how infrequently some form of the word appeared (I am using the KJV for this study because I have a concordance for it, but more modern translations would render a similar result). In the various contexts, it seems to me that the word does not denote the pursuit of self-interest; rather the term is used to speak of inordinate excess in the pursuit of something. Sometimes the term "greedy" conveys the thought of a ravenous animal: a lion greedy of its prey (Ps. 17:12) or "greedy dogs" (Is. 56:11). Using the term as meaning inordinate pursuit by humans, Proverbs 15:27 tells us that the person who is greedy of gain troubles his own house, presumably due to the person''s never satisfied ravenousness. In some instances, the term is used to speak of the inordinate pursuit of the wrong thing: the error of Balaam (Jude 11) or uncleanness (Eph. 4:19). In I Timothy 3, it is used in the context of saying that overseers and deacons must not be selfish or covetous of other people's money. The term is also used with regard to coveting in Proverbs 1, where greed for gain is used analogously to taking lives, and Proverbs 26, where coveting greedily all day long is contrasted with a person who is giving. In Ezekiel 22:12, the word "greedily" is used to describe illegal activity -- extortion and usury.

This has been a quick survey, but from it we can begin to sort out the meaning of greed in a sense that points to human sinfulness. In these passages, the pursuit of profit or self-interest is never condemned. However, the following are clearly condemned:

1. An inordinate amount of desire for something;
2. Covetousness -- that is, the pursuit of something that belongs to someone else;
3. An absence of generosity; and
4. Desire that leads to taking what belongs to someone else.

This survey also permits us to differentiate between some writers on the political right. Rather than seeing the profit motive as morally neutral, depending on the motives and actions of the person pursuing profit, Ayn Rand defines the profit motive in and of itself as a positive good, and she despises generosity as weakness. That is morally objectionable and goes beyond what I hear Mr. Friedman advocating in this clip.

In these matters, we should be careful to examine our own motives, and slow to condemn the motives of others.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Disappearing God

In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that in Creation the "invisible attributes" of God "have been clearly perceived." That being the case, it is sadly ironic that He is so difficult to locate in many churches. Of course, the trouble is not that God is not in the churches. The Psalmist pointed out that even if he descended into Hades, that God was there, so surely He must be even in contemporary American churches. However, He has largely disappeared from the proclamation of many of those same churches, and that is a tragedy.

This musing arises from the receipt in today's mail of a glossy brochure from "Fellowship of the Parks," which seems to be a church meeting in Keller, Texas. I say "seems to be," because they never actually refer to themselves as a church. In fact, having received brochures from this entity every couple of months for some time now, I have noted the fact that these marketing pieces carefully avoid mention of anything that would identify Fellowship of the Parks as a Christian entity. They avoid any references to God, Jesus Christ, the Gospel, salvation, or the death or resurrection of Jesus. After receiving a brochure just before Valentine's Day inviting visitors to learn more about love, my wife and I had a lengthy discussion as to whether a mailing sent before Easter would manage to mention any themes related to the death or resurrection of Christ. Today, we received our answer: it did not.

Of course, a marketing brochure does not tell one everything about an organization, and one might note that the doctrinal beliefs asserted on the church's website are broadly evangelical and orthodox (though I could not subscribe to all of their beliefs). However, an organization's marketing does tell what it believes it has to offer to its customers (a word I am using both advisedly and with disapproval). Evidently, Fellowship of the Parks does not think that its beliefs about the Bible and Christian teaching represent a value to the public. While one might argue that they offer these teachings once they have hooked people in, this strikes me as an enormously dishonest bait and switch.

The current brochure does not contain any Christian content, though it does invite us to a "five part series" on a common religious, including Christian, word: disciple. However, even their introduction of that term invites us to think about discipleship in non-Christian ways. It advises us that "living the life of a disciple calls us to a relentless pursuit of something better." Really? Did not the Apostle Paul tell us (in Philippians 3) that he had given up his relentless pursuit of something better so that he might gain Christ?

No doubt, the Fellowship of the Parks would strongly disagree with the suggestion that they are legalistic, and they would be correct that they are not legalistic in the way that churches commonly were a generation ago. But read that sentence from the previous paragraph again and tell me whether it conveys a message of what one might call "legalism-lite." Some of us as children were taught to sing, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder," by adults who managed to ignore the fact that Jacob never climbed his ladder. Rather, heaven came down the ladder to him. The vague, spiritual pursuit of "something better" often ends in disappointment and burnout for those who fail to realize that we in fact must rest in the work that Christ has already finished. It is His sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection that provides the foundation of what it means to be a disciple.

Churches that shroud biblical categories in favor of the modern rhetoric of motivation, self-help, and therapism argue that they are making themselves relevant to modern hearers. However, in their effort to be currently relevant, they all too frequently render themselves eternally irrelevant. Of course, these churches are popular. However, C.S. Lewis noted that children making mudpies in the streets sometimes cannot imagine the joys of a vacation at the beach. May God grant believers a vision of churches offering more than mudpies.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Seeing the Future of Health Care, and It's Not Pretty

Roger Abramson provides an extended quote from Scott Gottlieb that I think gets it right. Read it here. This expensive new health care entitlement will in short order become an example of government finding new and more cumbersome ways to fix problems that it will have first created.

The only thing that he leaves out: the trend, already started, of some physicians, particularly primary care doctors, to move toward "concierge medicine" (that is, practices that decline to accept payments from private insurance or government programs, but that instead offer enhanced care to patients paying an annual fee) will continue to accelerate. Those who can afford to receive care from such alternative providers will do so.

The Oracle is furiously saving his pennies with that option in view.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Herding their voices

The Oracle noted that on March 3, the President brought a group of professionals to Washington and put them in clean white coats so that they would look like sheep.

Like lambs, they didn't speak. They were just there as props.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

He Gets Around

Not many people can claim to have done work for both Pat Robertson and for corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but Ralph Reed can. Perhaps his past association with Mr. Robertson explains why CBN's announcement of his potential candidacy for Congress failed to take note of that other association.