Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: economics


Atheists often tell us that atheism is nothing more than a simple disbelief in God. According to them it is not a worldview, a philosophy of life, or a system of morality. It is a simple statement about the existence or non-existence of God, and has no implications for anything else.

    Strictly speaking the statement is quite true, sometimes exasperatingly so as we try to get atheists to think through the implications of their radical stance. We cannot help, at times, but suspect that their denial of any broader implications is an artful dodge. If the universe was not created by an intelligent Supreme Being, then how did it get here and what is it like? The existence or non-existence of God must have some implications for the rest of reality, and a simple denial of God’s existence, without an accompanying explanation, leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

    But what, then, are the implications of God’s existence? What difference does it make in our day-to-day lives?

    We saw a particularly vivid example recently in the controversy surrounding the faulty ignition switch installed on several models of General Motors small cars. The switch would turn from the “run” to the “accessory” position at the slightest touch, causing the engine to stall with a loss of power to the steering and brake systems. What is worse, the airbag system was wired into the “run” circuit, so that when the engine stalled the airbag would not deploy. Several people were killed as a result of having lost control of their vehicles.

    What is especially astonishing is that General Motors knew about the problem right from the very beginning. The prototype car stalled on the test track at the factory when the driver’s knee hit the key fob. The engineers, one would have thought, would have noted the problem and made a point to fix it. And yet the engineer with responsibility for the switch, Mr. Ray DeGiorgio, signed off on it. GM chose to treat the problem as a “nuisance,” and at one point dealers were advised to tell their customers not to put too many keys on the key chain.

    The safety issue aside, one wonders how General Motors expected to sell cars that were, by their own admission, “nuisances.” In the highly competitive small car market, where GM is up against the likes of the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic, and the Nissan Sentra, who would want to buy a Chevy Cobalt that might stall in the middle of a busy highway? What could Mr. DiGiorgio and his fellow engineers and managers at GM possibly have been thinking?

    All of which brings us back to our original question, what practical difference does the existence of God make? It should have made a huge difference, in point of fact. In a way, GM’s folly is all too typical. Most of us go through life pursuing our own individual interests, and employees are naturally focused on how they can succeed on the job. Success is measured in terms of favorable performance reviews, bonuses, pay raises, and promotions. In order to achieve that kind of success, we must impress the supervisor above us. But an employee in a large company rarely looks at the bigger picture – about how to make the company as a whole succeed. And in a typical large manufacturing operation the customers are invisible – the assembly line worker never sees them. Thus in the employee’s mind the company’s business plan is only a secondary consideration at best. He simply goes about his job attaching part A to assembly B without giving any thought to the larger business objective. And that is probably the way most of us approach life in general. To get ahead we go along, and the broader considerations are things about which we rarely think.

    The genuine Christian, however, has a radically different approach to life. The new birth has brought him into contact with a higher reality. He has experience “the life of God in the soul of man,” as one old writer put it, and he now sees life in a whole new context. He is conscious of the fact that God is the ultimate reality, that everything in life has a purpose and meaning, and that our goal in life is “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus in our thinking we start with God Himself. How did He intend human society to function and operate? This question touches on every aspect of human behavior and relationships.

    This, in turn, leads us to consider every institution within human society – the church, the state, the business community, and academia. And within the business community each individual company has its role to play, the contribution it makes to the general economy. Thus each company has its own business plan, a long-term strategy for turning a profit and achieving success. Each department within that company, in turn, has an assigned task and function, and each individual employee has his own particular job to do. All of it should contribute to the success of the whole.

Thus, while most people, in their thinking, start at the bottom, with themselves, and work up, the Christian starts at the top, with God, and works his way down. This gives the work he does meaning and purpose, and gives him an incentive to pursue excellence in every endeavor.

In other words, General Motors should have been trying to make a profit by making quality cars that fulfill a human need for safe, reliable and cost effective transportation. And Mr. DiGiorgio’s job should have been to design an ignition switch that is at least as good as all the switches that are already on millions of other vehicles. Not one of the cars with the faulty switch should ever have made it to a dealer’s showroom.

    In the business world, as in all of life, God expects us to respect the rights and wellbeing of others. A profit is legitimate only if the product or service meets a genuine human need. Thus, in order to succeed individually we must advance the common good. We build prosperity collectively, as a society.

    All of which appears to have been lost on Mr. DiGiorgio and his colleagues at General Motors. I am very far from thinking that one must believe in God in order to be an effective automotive engineer. I have long favored Japanese brand vehicles (I currently own a Suburu and a Nissan), and it is doubtful that most Japanese engineers are devout Christians. Presumably competition in a free market economy will provide the incentive to make a quality product. General Motors has apparently grown too old or too large to respond to market forces, and probably needs to go the way of all scrap metal. But belief in God should make a real difference. It provides a higher motive, a nobler ideal. The managers and engineers at General Motors should not have needed to have been prodded along by Congressional committees and lawsuits to do the right thing. Their duty should have been perfectly clear. And if they had thought about God they would have seen it.


Early settler's home, Steuben County, NY

Early settler’s home, Steuben County, NY

    I live in a rural area in northern Pennsylvania not far from the New York State line. This area was first settled at the beginning of the 19th Century, and when you drive around it today you can still see many reminders of the past.

    The local histories tell us something of what life was like for the early settlers. They came from New England, eastern New York State, and from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. When they first arrived here they were greeted by a vast unbroken forest of pine and hemlock. There were few roads to speak of. With axe in hand they cleared the land one tree at a time. They built primitive log cabins, and shot wild game for food. In spring they broke the ground with horse-drawn plows, removing the numerous rocks and stones by hand. It was backbreaking work, but eventually a harvest was the result. . “The wilderness was reclaimed, hamlets, villages and towns came into being and comfortable farm houses had taken the place of log huts. Broad fields of grain and pasture land and granaries rich in stores of golden corn were the result of a few years’ toil and perseverance” (History of Tioga County, p. 32).

    The story was repeated all across America as the frontier moved steadily westward. Road and canals were built, railroads were laid across the continent, and vast swaths of land were brought under cultivation. Factories were built, and American became one of the leading industrial nations of the world, enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

    This prosperity was made possible partially because the country was rich in natural resources. But it was also possible because of the hard work and enterprising spirit of the hardy pioneers and settlers who did the actual work of clearing the forests, breaking the ground, and building infrastructure. It should be noted, however, that this labor and toil was directed toward a single overriding goal: the creation of wealth. The farmers, miners, lumbermen, construction workers and manufacturers took raw materials and made them into finished products which had real market value. Their combined efforts increased the wealth of the country.

    How different it is today. What took our ancestors a century and a half or more to build up, we have torn down in a matter of a few decades. Our factories have gone overseas, and the bulk of our workforce is employed in the service industry, working for low wages in low skilled jobs. The middle class is disappearing, and a growing class of the “working poor” is struggling to survive.

    The recent Great Recession has taken its toll. But it is becoming increasingly evident that many of the jobs that were lost are not coming back. There are disturbing signs that we are looking at the “new normal.”

    The American Dream has largely disappeared. And it has disappeared because we did not have the sense to realize what makes for real prosperity. Instead of producing tangible wealth on Main Street, we have settled for producing paper profits on Wall Street. And in an economy in which the masses of people are deprived of disposable income business ultimately succumbs. A business needs customers to survive and prosper.

    We are currently living off the wealth created by our ancestors. It will not last forever.