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Contented Consumers

Christians have curiously mixed attitudes towards prosperity and affluence. Many have merely adopted the attitude of the culture in which they live. They have the same concerns, the same desires and the same reactions as their unbelieving neighbors. Just like their neighbors, they worry about how to stretch the paycheck to cover the mortgage, pay something on their credit card bill, save up for the next vacation and finance the kids’ education. Just like their neighbors, they dream about having a larger disposable income. It has probably never even occurred to many of these Christians that there could be any other way to look at things.

Others have concluded that prosperity is a Christian’s birthright. They think that wealth and affluence are indications that they have God’s approval. Some even go to the extreme of saying that it is a Christian’s duty to become wealthy. Moderate income, lack of material possessions, and sometimes even poor health, are taken as signs that a person is outside of God’s will.

Still other Christians view prosperity with deep suspicion. They have a tendency to look at all money, regardless of source, as tainted. Though required in order to live in today’s world, it is a necessary evil. Wealth must have been acquired through questionable, if not dishonest, means. Even Christians who do not adopt this extreme distrust of prosperity and affluence, are often troubled by the way the world’s wealth is distributed. If they enjoy a modicum of prosperity, they feel almost guilty that others do not have the opportunity.

Now, your attitude toward prosperity and affluence does not necessarily depend on how much you actually have. The “love of money” can, and does, afflict the poor just as easily as the rich. But I suspect that wrong attitudes in this area are more of a potential problem in our day and age that at any other time of history. You see, affluence wasn’t a realistic possibility for most people until fairly recently. Oh sure, like Tevye, we might occasionally daydream about “If I were a rich man,” but we normally don’t waste much consideration on things which are hopelessly out of reach. And that’s just what affluence was – an impossible dream.

For most of human history, and in most societies there were basically two kinds of people: The haves and the have-nots. Either you were rich, or you were poor. The gap between the two conditions was large and there were comparatively few people in it. And, while the rich could become poor, there was little opportunity to change your status from poor to rich. At least that’s what my reading of history seems to indicate.

While, historically, the poor may not have had much opportunity to change their status relative to the rich, their condition was affected by general economic conditions. The poor generally experience even greater hardship during an economic downturn. Conversely they, along with everyone else, tend to benefit from a booming economy. “A rising tide lifts all boats.” General prosperity increases the opportunity for individual prosperity.

With that in mind, I think it is highly significant that God told the Israelite exiles to pray for the prosperity of Babylon. “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NIV) It’s incredible that even though the Israelite people had been driven into exile as a result of their sin, God still cared for them and desired them to prosper. It reminds me of Romans 2:4, “…God’s kindness leads you toward repentance…” (NIV)

In our day, aside from prayer, what is it that drives prosperity? What brings affluence to a whole region or nation? I blame it on the horse collar. No, not really, it’s not the horse collar but rather what the horse collar represents which is one of the major causes of prosperity and affluence. You see, it was the invention of the horse collar which made rapid transportation and large cities viable. If memory serves, before the collar, a horse couldn’t haul much more than its own weight without choking on the harness. With the collar it could (if I have my figures straight) haul ten times its own weight. Because a horse is much faster than an ox, this meant that produce and other goods could be moved more quickly than before. It also meant that a farmer could plow more quickly or, and this is the important thing, could plow a larger area in the same day. This meant that fewer people were needed on the farm to accomplish the same amount of work. Redundant people tended to move to the cities in the attempt to find employment in the manufacture of goods or in providing services. The horse collar, in turn, made it possible to haul enough produce to feed the larger cities and to transport the goods produced in them. Thus, began the long process of migration from the farm to cities. The trend accelerated dramatically during the industrial revolution when steam, internal combustion engines and, later, electricity, began to displace muscle power. I witnessed the mechanization of the farm in the country where I grew up. Untold thousands of people were displaced from the countryside and flocked to the cities hoping to find work.

Where was this work supposed to come from? Who was going to provide it? Why factories, of course! But that was only a hope. A factory can exist only as long as there is a market for its products. So, in order for people to find work in a factory, the factory has to produce something that can be sold. The big question is, “Who is going to buy the stuff the factories produce?” Obviously, people who can afford to do so. The problem is that it takes a degree of affluence in order to buy non-essential goods. But when only a small percentage of the population is affluent, the rich can consume only so much. So, we have the classic problem of people needing work which will only be provided if someone will buy the goods produced. But nobody can buy the goods unless they have the means to do so. And they won’t have the means to do so unless they have work. It’s a vicious circle.

Enter Henry Ford. In the early days of the automobile, most manufacturers produced high priced vehicles intended for the well-to-do. The logic was quite simple: The well-to-do were the ones with the money. Also, higher priced vehicles carry a higher profit margin so you had to sell fewer of them in order to get a decent return. The problem with this strategy was, of course, that there were relatively few well-to-do people able to afford the high priced vehicles. This, in turn, meant that relatively few expensive vehicles could be produced before the market was saturated. There was little room for growth or expansion. Ford’s genius was that he realized that it was possible to increase the market by reducing the price of his cars. The reduced profit on each individual vehicle would be offset by the increased volume of sales. In order to make lower prices possible, Ford turned his attention to increasing efficiency of production. During the years 1913-1914 Ford introduced the first moving assembly lines in his factories. As a result the time needed to produce a Model T automobile fell 87%. By the end of 1916 Ford was able to lower the price of a Model T 58% to only $345, yet still rake in millions in profits.

Had Ford merely lowered the costs of production and the price he charged for his cars the impact on society would have been relatively minor. The main difference would have been that the wealthy accumulated their wealth even faster. But he did something else which had a profound influence on the economy, not only of the United States but the whole world. In 1914 he introduced the $5 a day wage plan. At the time such a high level of compensation for a day’s work was unheard of. Thousands of desperate men from all over the United States swarmed into Detroit in hopes of being one of the fortunate who landed a job in the Ford factories. While some applauded Ford for a stupendous act of generosity, others derided him as an altruistic fool who would not be able to sustain such astounding wages. Others denounced him for mixing “spiritual principles” with business. What Ford’s detractors could not know was that with the efficiencies obtained by the moving assembly line, Ford could have easily paid his workers much more and still made a handsome profit.

Something else which Ford realized, and his detractors did not, was that by increasing wages he also increased the purchasing power of his workers. He expressed his philosophy this way: “I hold that it is better to sell a large number of cars at reasonably small margin than to sell fewer cars at a large margin of profit. I hold this because it enables a larger number of people to buy and enjoy the use of a car and because it gives a larger number of men employment at good wages. Those are two aims I have in life.” (As quoted by Robert Lacey in Ford, The Men and the Machine, Ballentine Books, New York, 1986, p. 179)

What was the result of those high wages? According to Lacey, in two short years, the value of houses owed by Ford employees increased 900%. In the same period, their savings rose some 282%.

To his credit, Ford never attempted to patent any of the assembly-line and manufacturing technologies which he and his team invented – something which he could have easily done. The techniques Ford pioneered were soon adopted by manufacturers everywhere. They had to in order to remain competitive. Other manufacturers were also forced to follow Ford’s lead in paying higher wages. For who was to buy all the increased output of the newly efficient factories if it were not for the very laborers who operated them? Efficient factories produced large quantities of goods at comparatively inexpensive prices. High wages enabled workers to buy the goods. The standard of living rose with increased purchasing power.

There is no doubt that the U.S. economy, and that of much of the world, is now based on consumption. Consumption and the ability to consume has produced a level of affluence unprecedented in all of human history. More people have more wealth than ever before. The middle-class U.S. consumer is the engine which drives much of the world’s economy.

And this brings us back to those ambivalent attitudes I mentioned at the beginning. On the one hand, consumption has brought prosperity and increased standards of living all over the world. What could possibly be wrong with that? Like the exiles of Israel should we not pray for the prosperity of the place we live? If the American consumer were to suddenly stop buying, it would bring genuine hardship to millions.

On the other hand, there is something about the consumption economy which seems cross-grained to Christianity. For one thing, there’s the sheer waste of it. It just seems wrong to throw so much away! This is particularly evident in high-tech. We are forced to toss out perfectly good equipment for the sole reason that it’s no longer compatible with the latest software. When something breaks it’s often cheaper to replace it than to repair it. Somehow, it doesn’t sit well, even when there isn’t a viable alternative.

Another way in which the consumer economy seems at odds with Christianity is that it is so materialistic. It’s easy to allow the sheer number of ‘things’ to divert time and attention from what is really important. Is it really necessary to have so many gadgets? The bigger house? The newer car? Does it really matter if the neighbor buys something we don’t have? The Apostle Paul writes, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8 NIV)

And that, I think, is the solution to living a Christian life in a consumer economy. It’s a matter of perspective. Having things is not wrong in itself. In its place, consumption is okay too – particularly when it provides employment and daily necessities for someone else. Where we get into trouble is when we allow the things to take priority. Jesus said, “…do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33 NIV)

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