Erosion of the Nonmarket

Theology of Money, part 1

Mary Oliver wrote:
“I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
What will you do with your life? That is, how will we deploy the resources you have: resources of talent and interest, drive and motivation, knowledge and skill, social connection and influence, time and availability, and – here we come to it – money.

The first task of a suitable spirituality of money – a theology of money -- is getting clear on where it belongs and where it doesn’t, and why. So let’s start by reflecting on that: what are the realms of money and market, and what aren’t. And then I’ll talk about the money part – and how this, too, is how we manifest who we are.

The marketplace is all about keeping score – and money is how we keep score. Our most precious relationships are not marketplace relations, and aren’t about keeping score. The relationships of family and of dear friendship do require a sense of reciprocity. The relationship isn’t working if one side is doing all the giving and the other is doing all the taking. We just need to see that the other person cares about us – are ready to do for us what they can.

I once called it "inexact scorekeeping," and stressed how the inexactness was important, but in fact the inexactness is SO important to these relationships that it’s misleading to call it "scorekeeping" at all. Call it inexact reciprocity. The attempt to measure it, to make sure it’s equally balanced, or, if not, to have a measure of its imbalance, is deadly to these relationships of love: families, friends, and lovers. In this sphere of life, it is essential that value not be measured. When value is measured, we measure it with money: that’s what money is: our system for measuring relative values of things.

Imagine what that would be like: assigning measured value to everything friends or spouses do for each other and the end of the week, say, tallying it all up to determine who was indebted to whom and by how much. At that point, the market would have overrun the precious nonmarket sphere. We do want to feel some sense of reciprocity, but it must be inexact, for the value of what we do and are for each other in these relationships is, literally, immeasurable.

The boundaries between the market and nonmarket spheres of life are not fixed and not always mutually exclusive. I don’t know where the best place to draw the line between what’s for sale and what isn’t might be, but your theology of money, your spirituality of money, would include reflective consideration of what just shouldn’t be for sale. Possible examples:
  • $90 a night will buy you a prison-cell upgrade in Santa Ana, California and some other cities. These cities decided to offer nonviolent offenders the chance to pay for a clean, quiet jail cell separated from any non-paying customers – I mean, prisoners – who might disturb them. (See this NYTimes article.) Should we be selling that?
  • A mere $8 – in Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and a few other cities -- will now get you access to the carpool lane while driving solo. The rates vary according to traffic. We have toll roads, you might argue. And this is essentially a “toll lane,” so why not? Maybe because the point of HOV lanes is to encourage civic-minded conservation rather than -- just the opposite -- to further privilege wealth?
  • $8,000 dollars will get you the services of an Indian surrogate mother. Should women’s bodies be for sale? Is there an alternative?
  • For a quarter-million dollars the government of South Africa will let you buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino. They’re not doing this just because they need the money. In fact, the money doesn’t go to the government. This is actually a plan to protect the species. By allowing ranchers to sell the rights to kill a black rhino for $250,000, they are giving the ranchers an incentive to protect the endangered species. Whatever we might think of whether this is a necessary evil, even if necessary, it does seem evil.
  • Under the EB-5 visa program created in 1990, foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment – and who don’t have any outstanding warrants or a criminal record – will be granted permanent residency. Essentially, we put the right to immigrate to the US for sale for $500,000. Should that be for sale?
  • You can get $10,000 from selling the space on your forehead. A woman in Utah was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoos bring less.
  • You can get $7,500 for serving as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company.
  • You can get up to $1,000 a day as a mercenary soldier, fighting in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor. Soldiers, certainly, should get paid – but should they be doing it for the pay so much so that they’ll fight for a country that isn’t their own?
  • You can get $15 to $20 an hour for standing in line overnight on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing. It’s OK to hold a place in line for a friend, but something’s gone wrong when we’re just hiring people to stand in line for us. ("Linestanding.com" claims it "has been a leader in the Congressional line standing business since 1985," and produces "high quality line standing services for Congressional hearings or other events.")
  • One underachieving Dallas school is trying to encourage reading. They’re paying second-graders $2 per book read.
  • For $1,500 and up, per year, you can get your doctor’s cellphone number. Some offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. I respect my doctor’s right, and need, to not be at my beck and call 24/7, but I want her to be sleeping, or playing with her kids, or, heck, even getting in a round of golf. I don’t want her to be unavailable to me just so she can be available, instead, to a wealthier patient.
  • For $10.50, companies in Europe can buy the right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

What is the legitimate place and role of money in these areas?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Theology of Money"
See also
Part 2: Market Harms and Market Benefits
Part 3: Practices for Paying Attention to Money

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