Thursday, June 8, 2017

By Andrew T. Light

Economics is not always the location in which Christians first think to engage culture, but economic realities touch the lives of each person in unique, personal, and profound ways. Thus, as Christians, we must see business and economics as a domain in which we are obligated to engage culture with grace and truth. Specifically, those of us in this field must engage in asking the questions, “What if…?” and “What ought to be…?” Innate in these questions is an understanding that society and culture are not perfect, but both are redeemable. As we accept the redeemable nature of society and culture, we also imply that something is needed in order to move culture from where it is to where it can (and ought) to be. Christian engagement, can and should be, one of the vehicles leading toward this maturation from here to there and from “what is” to the “what if.”

One example of how these questions can be harnessed as a means for Christian leaders engaging culture is in the current, societal conversations about minimum wage. The conversation and dilemma is this. If the government were to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.00, then one (or all) of the following three will regularly come true, each with its own problematic tangents: 1) some employers will layoff workers to avoid paying higher wages, 2) some employers will transfer the higher wage payment to consumers in terms of higher product price, and 3) some employers will choose to accept lower profit threshold.

None of these three results, a decreased workforce, increased prices, and unfavorable return on investment are desirous. Although, most (if not all) would agree that it is good to help unskilled workers maintain a basic standard of living in our culture, which is progressively more expensive. This end goal of equitability is not the problem, it is the various answers to the question of “how” that divides cultural response. The goal of this conversation is not under deliberation, but the processes for traveling from “what is (our reality)” to “what ought to be (our future reality)” that has been the sandbox for infighting and debate. This is a typical “What ought to be” statement that often makes up normative economics. Normative economics analyzes issues subjectively and is based on value. Not every country has the minimum wage. But, in the American culture, we have accepted the existence of minimum wage as a good and normative practice.  Thus, we come to the question regarding how Christians in business and economics should engage issues such as this.

The value system of Christians should be based on the unchanging tether of scripture rather than relative cultural norms. With warm hearts, we may argue that employers should pay a reasonable wage to unskilled workers; thus, minimum wage legislation is necessary. This is already reality. It is the degree to which it is necessary that is now in debate. Therefore, cultural engagement must not be purely affective. Along with warm hearts, Christians must engage with cool heads.

Based on economic theory, for the minimum wage regulation to be effective, it has to be higher than the current market wage. This will create an excess supply of unskilled workers thereby increasing unemployment. Therefore, after the minimum wage regulation, those workers who still have jobs receive benefits in terms of higher wage, but those workers who lose jobs, suffer emotionally and financially even more than before the governmental fiat on wage increase.  If there were no minimum wage regulation, however, more workers would be working, but with wages lower than the minimum wage and the cost of everyday life. So, should Christians support such a wage increase for the potential positives or do the potential negatives outweigh the momentary positives?

My intent here is not to provide a canned answer to this question thus neatly resolving all tensions, but to suggest that what is needed for those in this field desiring to engage Christianly is not only warm hearts but also cool heads. In general, Christians should support economic arrangements that do not violate the principles of scripture, but more so seek the end, impact, and blessing that the church is to be in this world as salt and light. This is seeking the “What WE ought to be…” Regardless of the way that culture around us approaches such questions, we should pursue deep thinking undergirded by a robust theology. The tether of the Word of God should bring leaders in this field to a position of humble recognition as they lead businesses, organizations, and people not for their own end but as divine emissaries who have been granted a modicum of authority in the here and now. This role is as a steward, who is serving in place of, and on behalf of, his or her master. Thus, we endeavor to guide our positive economical pursuits on this reality to which we are called. For this, we recognize that scripture speaks to the realities economics, business, interest, borrowing, and free market principles. It is our role, with our hearts warmed and our minds informed to practice within the boundaries of scripture.