Thursday, October 27, 2005

Befuddle an economist

I am drafting a two-minute “stewardship moment” speech that I have been asked to give in church this coming Sunday.
Some of you know that I am by profession and training an economist. It is not always something I am eager to mention in church.

Many lay people think economics is the study of money or finance. Economists themselves define their science as a particular outlook on the social world. For example, one of the best and simplest ways to understand the behavior of businesses is to imagine that the business owners seek to pay as little as possible for their raw materials, and to earn as high a price as possible for their products, thereby making as much profit as possible within the constraints of existing technology. Similarly, economists typically imagine that families like yours and mine seek to maximize our happiness by buying as much as possible within the constraints of our budgets. Everybody wants to maximize something as much as possible within their constraints.

Sometimes this thinking is carried to extremes. An economist got a Nobel Prize in part for an economic model in which men and women choose between marriage and divorce based on a comparison of their likely earnings as married people or single people, with some adjustment for whatever pleasure they might take in each other’s company.

So you can imagine that economists have sometimes been befuddled by our common practice as people of faith, in synagogues, mosques, and churches, of giving away large fractions of our money – larger fractions, I believe, than people give away in the wider secular society. Perhaps, our donations are a form of assistance to our extended clans, frequently related to us by blood. Perhaps, some economists have suggested, these donations are part of a quid pro quo, in which I help you now in return for your help later. Perhaps, some have suggested, these donations are just part of an informal mutual insurance scheme. The problem is that some people are giving more money away, to more distant beneficiaries, than can be explained by these theories.

Perhaps, some economists have suggested, some people just get happy giving their money away, so that’s why these selfish church people give and give and give. But even other secular economists realized this argument had become a tautology, begging the question of why some people are happy giving their money away.

Two weeks ago, in one of these “stewardship minutes,” Mike P___ eloquently offered some of the most common reasons why people of faith say they give generously. He explained that his wife gives simply out of heartfelt gratitude for the many gifts she has been given. He explained that he himself gives from a feeling of the importance of stewardship, knowing that God wants these gifts to be used for God’s purpose.

Since the important reasons have already been taken by Mike, let me offer my own humble additional reason. Have some fun! Befuddle an economist! Give generously! Somewhere, some day, in some windowless room, in front of a flickering computer screen, some economist will scratch her head and wonder what she is missing.

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