Week Seven: The Economy

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

During worship Sunday morning, I watched a carpenter ant crawling across the cover of a hymnal.  It started in one corner, made its way to the next, then turned ninety degrees rather than crawl right off the top.  At the next corner, it turned again, then again at the next.  In this way, the ant proceeded to circumnavigate the hymnal cover seven or eight times before deciding to cross diagonally.  But that didn’t lead to a solution, either.  There was no escape from the hymnal cover, short of stepping off what must have seemed like a veritable cliff, as tall as the ant’s body.

 So began Chautauqua’s week on economics.  We heard from economists, podcasters, and public policy influencers.  We heard that the economy’s actually working really well right now—for everybody except poor people (that is, according to every metric except unemployment and homelessness).  We heard that purpose-driven companies also make more profits and that people can be influenced by their theology to vote against their own self-interest.  

But we didn’t hear anything that really broke the standard paradigm.  The same arguments, the same metrics, the same tension between radicalism and incrementalism . . . and a lot of dodging of difficult questions that didn’t fit neatly within a given speaker’s assertions.  Sister Joan Chittister demanded we consider the question, “What is your spirituality of money?”  And yet, that’s not really an economic question.  It’s a personal finance and philanthropy question.  Economics seems to exist in a non-human, theoretical space.  It may be the sum of individual monetary transactions, but it’s also one of those systemic things with its own movements and momentum.

Each Friday, Quaker House has storytelling, and I share several stories on the theme of the week.  One story I told this week was of Lizzie Magee, the creator of the game that became “Monopoly.”  (She was not a Quaker, contrary to rumor.)  Her original game, “The Landlord’s Game,” included two versions of the rules.  It could be played competitively, winner-takes-all, or it could be played cooperatively, with all wealth gained benefitting all players.  Eventually, the game idea was stolen by a man called Charles Darrow, slightly modified, sold to Parker Bros., and published with only one set of rules, the set that assumed a winner-takes-all model.  Magee’s original intention of showing an alternative model was lost.

I don’t think Friends have a collective economic testimony.  We have testimonies of integrity, equality, and stewardship, and these might influence our individual economic decisions.  But we have not yet come to clarity on how to approach systemic economics.  

This week at Chautauqua, though it’s been genuinely fascinating, has felt like the moment when the carpenter ant tried crossing the hymnal diagonally.  At least it’s something different than wandering in circles . . . but it’s still not a pathway to an actual solution.