Aug 17, 2010

separate worlds?

Claiborne has a chapter called Economics of Rebirth with a section called "God's Economy." He adheres to the school of "Sabbath economics" which I'm just exploring and think is interesting. I have a minor in Economics and have been recently interested in the "economics of abundance" as I discovered it from Chris Anderson - first in his book The Long Tail, then in his bloggings about economics of abundance, and then in his next book Free: How Today's Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing.

Given our technology and productivity, I've often wondered what's the minimum hours a person in America would need to work per week to survive. Quantifying 'survival' as poverty-level income as established by the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines yields $10,830. Quantifying 'productivity' as GDP per hour worked from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $55/hour. Factor in a 10% profit for firms and employees' hourly wage could be $50/hour. So, $10,830 / $55 = 217 hours per year. So, as a society, we only need to work 4 hours per week if we want to simply 'survive' - keeping in mind that American 'poverty' measurements typically account for American standards of living (i.e., utilities such as mobile phones, etc.) Truly we live in a society of abundance. So why don't we experience it?

I'm an adherent of Hanlon's razor - "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" or more diplomatically, "never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence." I'm not the zealot of free-market capitalism I once was, nor am I a polemical detractor nor economic revolutionary. So, without discounting the malice of greed that permeates our economy, I'll point out a large economic cost - coordination, generally called 'administrative' cost on income statements. Finding, hiring, training, and equipping the right people, who collect, make, and assemble the right materials into things, and then move those things to the right people - the people who need those things. I think some sociologists (like Claiborne) underestimate this coordination cost or attribute it to malice, and so deride it in works of charity. (Economists may overestimate this coordination cost, or ignore how much of it goes to astronomical salaries for executives.)

Anyway, Claiborne writes, "the social-work model can easily entangle the church in the efficiency of brokering services and resources in a web of 'clients' and 'providers' and struggling to retain God's vision of rebirth, in which we are all family. Faith-based nonprofits can too easily be the mirror image of secular organizations, maintaining the same hierarchies of power and separation between rich and poor. They can too easily merely facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting plenty of professionals in the middle to guarantee that the rich do not have to face the poor and that power does not shift. Rich and poor are kept in separate worlds, and inequality is carefully managed but not dismantled."

I'll offset with a personal example.

Tiffany and I went shopping today for groceries to pack bag meals for a downtown outreach. We go to Sam's and buy the value (i.e., 'efficient') packs, then we put together 20 or 30 bag meals and bring them downtown to an area where we meet some poor and homeless folks to give them food, clothing, and other supplies, and just generally chat and hang out. While shopping today, we talked about our list of what we already had, what we needed to buy, and where we would store everything, when we would pack it all, and how we would schedule our trip downtown tomorrow - our coordination costs. All told I'd say we'll spend about $75 to give out 30 meals or so - $2.50 per meal.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma received a $2 million grant to feed 58,000 families with kids. The boxes we packed looked like they would last for a week of 3-meals-a-day. So assuming 3 family members in each family, that's 63 meals for 58,000 families or 3,654,000 meals for $2,000,000 - $0.54 per meal. Because of their scale, CFBEO's coordination costs are much lower. CFBEO 'merely facilitates the exchange of goods and services' - I will not 'face the poor' to whom they distribute the boxes I packed. And yet, I don't believe it's a bad thing. ;)

Yes, this is crude efficiency. No, I won't stop going downtown to "face the poor." Nor will I stop donating to charities - 'brokers of goods and services.' I believe we should do both. I love others because God loves them. I love that God has given me an incredible job - I'm paid very well to do something I love and something I believe improves the world. I'm a steward of the time and resources God has given me. I'll spend some personally - 'face to face' with the poor downtown; but it will also help His children if I simply donate resources to CFBEO - others who work 'face to face' with the poor.

Tagline: We don't have to live in 'separate worlds' if we live with love for the whole world. I'm sure Claiborne would agree, I just wanted to make the point in support of traditional charities.

Aug 13, 2010

The Suburban Way

I'm finally reading The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. It's a great book of Claiborne's stories and lessons living the Gospel, as he calls it, "The Simple Way." I borrowed the book from my friend Phil who has adopted and embraced the message and practices of New Monasticism in very real and substantial ways. Phil and Claiborne challenge me as I frequently recall my own internal misgivings about what the New Testament has to say about wealth and riches. Challenge is a good thing. This is one of the important things the church does.

Personally, I'm drawn more towards spirituality in good Old Monasticism more than New Monasticism. However, one of Mother Teresa's quotes that Claiborne cites inspires me to make my own serious conscious efforts to love, engage, and identify with the poor, as the New Monastics do.
Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta. - Momma T
I'm a suburbanite, no mistake. There are probably no homeless people within 10 miles of my home. The average annual income in my zip code is $48,444. We own our very nice house (mortgaged), we own 2 nice cars, we enjoy all the typical suburban luxuries - electricity, water, heat & air, mobile phones, a laptop for each of us, digital cable TV, high-speed internet, an xbox, a wii, a clean & safe neighborhood with friendly people all around, even a new porch in our back yard.
Yet I don't know that I am called into New Monasticism any more than I am called into Old Monasticism. Don't get me wrong - I love making trips to the Benedictine Abbey here in Oklahoma. Joining in their spiritual practice just a little makes me a much better disciple of Jesus. But we all recognize and understand that monks are a rare set of men who are called to totally and literally embrace the call to "pray without ceasing" in a special way that not every Christian will live for God.
[If I have any bone to pick with Claiborne, it's when he says he "finally met a Christian" in Calcutta - Andy had been a wealthy businessman in Germany who sold everything he had, gave it to the poor (Lk. 12:33), and moved to Calcutta where he had lived for over ten years with the destitute. I'm not sure if Claiborne implies that others are not "Christian" or just stresses the authenticity of Andy's discipleship. Claiborne does say other "Christians" were "selective fundamentalists" who aren't willing to take Jesus literally on "things like that." I could just as easily say that Protestants aren't willing to take Jesus literally when He said unless we eat His body and drink His blood we have no life in us. (Jn. 6:53) Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics aside, I know far too many sincere Protestant disciples to try to pigeon-hole our Christian authenticity by exegesis. (I went a touch skeptical when Claiborne used Kierkegaard's "The Bible is very easy to understand." quote)]
Anyway, I'm trying to adapt and adopt some practices and disciplines - inspired by The Simple Way, lived here in Suburbia.
  • Share meals at restaurants when you go out - Tiffany and I have started doing this and it's amazing how much money we can save. Also drink water (I only rarely get a beer at restaurants now.) - it's cheaper and better for us anyway.
  • Go out less often - Going out to eat dinner with friends is probably the #1 activity of Suburbia? Instead of a restaurant, have dinner at someone's home. It's more work, but we can save some money. Though maybe not much with gas and the cost of the meal. Which leads to ...
  • Eat simple meals - Phil turned us onto this at Agora. We now have a Simple Sunday Meal™ once a month at Agora. Simple ingredients like rice, beans, and vegetables can feed 50 people for $30 or less. We noticed with our leftovers we were eating simple meals at home the following week and it's a great way to save money and still eat well as a family.
  • Rent a movie instead of going to the theater. Those of us with kids are practically forced to do this anyway, but a dozen friends can watch a $3 rental instead of spending $60 on movie tickets. We have a Netflix subscription so we probably watch a half-dozen movies a month for $10.
  • Add volunteering to hanging out - Phil and I went to the community food bank one night to pack boxes and then we had a couple beers afterwords. It was great, and I want to start doing stuff like that more often and with more of our friends.
  • Most importantly(?), donate the savings to charities that serve the poor. In addition to volunteering, this is the difference between simplifying my lifestyle just to save money and simplifying my lifestyle to help the poor. Eating a simple meal also helps convey some identity of the poor - most of the poor in the world survive on little more than simple rice, beans, and/or vegetables. No Taco Bueno value meals.
These are just some things I've considered as I've lived some of these questions in the last few weeks. What am I missing? What are some other things we can do to live in solidarity with the Gospel message to love the poor - in our own Calcuttas?