Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, adult entertainment . . . When we hear the term ethical investing, many Christians typically think about industries they must exclude from their investment portfolios. More recently, climate change, identity politics, and corruption have come to dominate this discussion. Still, a new issue, brewing for a while, may prove a bigger topic of conversation this year, namely, income equality.
While we may not think about this as your typical ethical investment issue, or even as an investment issue at all, it threatens to become the economic world’s biggest societal issue. And heading into the United States presidential elections in November 2020, it may become even more heated. To the extent that investment performance has been driven by economic and monetary policy, the income inequality debate will have a large impact on investments. In the investment industry, discussions around monetary stimulus, social spending, and “helicopter money” are certainly more pronounced.
What in the world is “helicopter money”? Economics fans may know that it’s the idea that a country or its central bank can provide direct financial stimulus to its citizens, even if it has to proverbially rain down from a helicopter. The idea, made famous by Ben Bernanke, former chair of the United States Federal Reserve, is to bail out a country’s economy by “bailing out the people.” While some may think that’s a ridiculous notion, it’s precisely the discussion that’s on the table today. And it may not sound so ridiculous if you think about the trillions of dollars spent to bail out banks, corporations, and Wall Street in the past decades, while Main Street has suffered from job losses, stagnant wages, and soaring costs for tuition, health care, and other basic living needs. Some may agree that perhaps it’s a good idea or a good time to “bail out” the consumer.
Is capitalism right? moral? ethical?
This isn’t just an issue for those living in a “flyover state,” those rural “unimportant” parts of the country forgotten by the nation’s economic development; it’s not just a blue-state-versus-red-state issue (Democrats versus Republicans); or Boomers versus Millennials. It is an issue that affects us all, but certainly in a polarized way. For some, government intervention into financial markets has been a great benefit; for many others it has distorted the economics of daily life and caused much pain. Some argue that if it were not for bailouts, we would all be suffering. Others say that bailouts have long overstayed their welcome and we need to return to “sound money” principles.
The big question in investment ethics today may be the very nature of our economic system. Is capitalism right? moral? ethical? Or should we embrace something that looks more like socialism? Would a centrally planned system be a more egalitarian society, in which wealth redistribution is managed by a central authority? But then is it right to take something that “belongs” to someone and forcibly give it to another? On the other hand, is it right to maintain a society in which a few people flourish while many struggle to get basic necessities?
The argument needs to be expanded. Is it moral for one country to have great wealth and modern luxuries while other countries remain entrenched in a “third world” existence? Do we feel comfortable in the West to be able to buy “cheap” goods made in far-off countries in which people, paid very little, work in unsafe conditions? Should we rather buy things that are “made in the USA,” “made in Canada,” or “made in [your home country]”? Should we buy things that are made in a country that oppresses its own people? People everywhere wrestle with these deep questions about the economic systems that govern their societies.
So who’s wrong and who’s right? Is it socialism’s left or pure capitalism’s right? Some ask whether we even have real capitalism today—a fair and open system of business and finance. Some insist that it’s just “crony capitalism,” in which those aligned with people in power get the capital. Some suggest that we need a “new deal” right now—a fairer distribution of money. But how far are people willing to go in tearing down our current economic foundations to get to a fairer system? What does a free and fair society look like? Protesters in Paris, Beirut, Hong Kong, and elsewhere want to find and experience it: economic fairness will be the question of this decade.
The problem originated in the West, where a free market system has been transformed into a warped system that prioritizes money over people. Central banks have exacerbated it, distorting monetary principles to inflate asset prices to keep wealth secure. But central banks now seem to be trapped in a corner with no ability to get back to what was once normal monetary policy. When the U.S. Federal Reserve tried “normalization” in 2018, the stock market plunged 20 percent. The Federal Reserve quickly reversed course to “save” the markets.
I’m the traitor if I fail to faithfully do whatever the Spirit bids me to do.
Stock markets today are back at all-time highs, but the idea of continuing to “bail out Wall Street” is becoming much less palatable in our social-political climate. Average consumers, responsible for much of the economic activity, have reached their limits of spending. Since we’ve bailed out corporations and the wealthy in the past, shouldn’t we now bail out ordinary citizens? And is “helicopter money” the placating answer? Given the central banks’ inflated asset bubble, we may have no way to keep the system in balance but by “reflating” consumers so they can keep buying. It is a solution of our financial problems that relieves individuals of personal fiscal responsibility.
Our world stands on a dubious platform, an economic construct that requires perpetual growth. Rein in the growth, and chaotic rebalancing occurs. Much of today’s continuous economic expansion is likely unsustainable. Uneven wealth distribution depends too much on continued cooperation by the have-nots. On the other hand, experiments in centralized control—communism, socialism—have been mostly disastrous. Even where capitalism and socialism seem best in balance—Canada, perhaps—societies still rely on the global capitalist system. Canada’s oil, minerals, and real estate all benefit from the global financial system. Communist China and Vietnam are committed to building capitalist-like financial systems in order to access funding to fuel their growth. In the end, capitalism and socialism both ultimately fail for the same reason, selfish human nature, the corruption that power inspires.
Whether we choose to bail out Wall Street or Main Street, the problem is that eventually it’s our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will pay. Moreover, our children, having already spotted the non sequiturs in our economic faith, are looking for a better system of financial governance that will bring fairness and equality. Is there such a system? And can we get to it without causing chaos?
Heading into this new and potentially tumultuous decade of the 2020s, where do we stand as Seventh-day Adventist Christians? Do the different economic systems of Bible times offer helpful suggestions or solutions for us? Shall I leave a corner of my field to be gleaned by the poor, and forgive all debts after seven or 50 years? Beyond this, should believers in Christ become economic justice warriors? Finally, what did God Incarnate teach us about relating to poverty or wealth, high or low social status? Thankfully, even in our current Christian living we may enjoy a life of economic godliness consistent with principles of economic peace
and balance that will rule the new heavens and new earth we shall soon inhabit. Here’s a list of a few of those principles:
Our financial world is broken, and neither capitalism nor socialism offers the ultimate solution. Our most vital role as Adventist Christians may well be to help somebody else survive the coming economic onslaught. Our sacrifice and acts of love will share with them the true gospel of Christ.
Tim Aka is an associate treasurer of the General Conference and director of investments in Silver Spring, Maryland.