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.

6 comments:

Dave Brondsema said...

Giving efficiently isn't bad, certainly it's better to help many than to help few. But either way I think it's key that we do it out of love. Our love may not show to the end-recipient, but it can be demonstrated to the people "in the middle" who are serving, by enabling them to love & serve others. We do this when we support missionaries, as a very common example.

My uncle runs the The Tract League, http://tractleague.com/ and they send a lot of their proceeds over to the branch in India. He's commented before about how cheap it is to bring Christ to someone over there. It's kinda strange to think about, but it's true - a dollar there (in the use of a Christian evangelistic group) goes a lot further in bringing the Word to people than it can here in the US.

Hopefully, I'm not just rationalizing how little I reach out locally, and spend time out of my comfort zone to do Good right around me.

Saint said...

There's a gov't employee group called the CFC, which I forget what that stands for, or if that's even right. When a fed employee gets paid, they can opt a portion of their paycheck to go directly, untaxed, to a charity of their choice. The group lists the charities and the efficiency of each charity, that is, how much money is spent on administration versus the actual service. I think a green rating was given to those who manage to keep admin/overhead costs under 10 percent. Just looking at the list, you can often see groups who run around 50 percent!

luke said...

'Efficiency' is an interesting thing, for sure. Claiborne isn't a fan of 'cheap grace' as he calls it. And he's not a fan of economies of scale either. He quotes Mother Teresa who says, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

Far be it from me to expand on Momma T, but I think corporeally we might be able to do great things with great love.

Esther Crouch said...

What Dave commented on is general concept that Mark and I have grappled with, and have come to no real conclusion except that what we do should be done out of love and obedience to God's voice. We've both felt called for years to take our particular skill sets overseas through medical missions, to be a (limited, human!) physical expression of God to people who might not otherwise experience knowing Him.

But how much more efficient it would be to take the astronomical amount of money it will require to support an American physician overseas, and use it to enable a large number of local docs to do the same things we would do! With the added advantage of not needing to teach them any kind of cross-cultural stuff, thrown into the bargain.

And yet ... that's not how we feel we're supposed to do things.

On a selfish scale, Mark's and my lives (and hopefully those of our neeners that we'll drag around the world with us!) will be so enriched by being 'go-ers' rather than 'givers' ... but the inefficiency, at least in our eyes and understanding, of this way of doing it is something that I still think about a lot!

Saint said...

Indeed, Mother T probably did do great things. But someone doing great things with great love would never recognize that, since love makes all things small. In a good way. I mean, handleable. Er, humbly, or whatever. You know what I mean. Merton said something along those lines, and now I'm butchering whatever it was he meant.

Saint said...

And Ecka, it depends on how you look at it. The people who would be receiving care from you guys might not have a chance to receive care AT ALL. Whereas those who would receive care from you in the States have a 99 percent likelihood of being dealt with by someone else.

And it should be only expensive to fly and train you. While you live there, it should be dirt cheap. If you're living too much above the locals, then you're almost defeating your mission part. :)