pictures. words (sometimes). blog nonsense.


This past week, a good friend restated to me his belief that poverty is caused almost solely by the choices of individuals. He credited the wealth of America to the biblical principles espoused by its forefathers. He acknowledged that it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you have nothing, but pointed out that his parents once survived on 15k a year with a growing family–and they pulled themselves up.

What would you say to him?

I think this is one of the most pervasive myths of capitalism, and like all true myths, has elements of factual reality in it. However, the more I travel the world,the more people I meet, the more history I read, the more I think there are huge errors with this way of thinking.

My friend is not alone in his viewpoint. I have read numerous religious-based texts that openly espouse such a worldview and history books that imply it. Many, if not most of my friends probably believe the sentiments my friend shared are reality.

Do you?

I am looking forward to watching this movie and considering its claims. Is it vile socialist propaganda, or does it have some accurate observations to share?

What do you think?

16 responses

  1. has your friend been elsewhere in the world, where poverty is rampant in ways that came about by no means of the poor’s choice?

    I mean….seriously.

    no, I don’t agree with him. not one bit.

    September 22, 2009 at 10:17 pm

  2. Trish

    There is some truth to his assertions, esp. in America – but he is woefully ignorant of the rest of the world, me thinks.

    September 23, 2009 at 4:50 am

  3. j rhymes

    observation: the poor in capitalist countries are far better off than the poor in other economic systems. Capitalism also enables bootstrap elevation, instead of perpetuating poverty, stifling innovation, and stagnating economic growth as command and control (socialist, communist) economies tend to do.
    Is capitalism perfect? No, but it is still the best system by far.

    September 23, 2009 at 5:39 am

  4. susanna–i think he would argue that the poverty of other countries is due to a history of bad (aka “sinful”) choices.

    j rhymes–do you think there is any truth to the critics that claim that western capitalism is perpetuated by taking advantage of the rest of the world, or at the least, using most of the world’s resources? if so, what can be done to improve that? should the rest of the world live like the us?

    i would tentatively agree that the poor in america aren’t really poor by world standards…what other countries do you have in mind when you refer to “capitalist countries”?

    September 23, 2009 at 6:06 am

  5. Well, the movie is propaganda, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth behind it. I have never understood why people rail against capitalism, when in reality they should be objecting to failed government interventions in the economic system that have caused these imbalances. Any time governments get involved in free markets, they cause this kind of suffering. And really, there hasn’t been a time throughout human history when government intervention in the marketplace has favored one group of people over another.

    Another aspect to be considered is what I would call the “Powers” which are institutional, social, and spiritual realities that are affected by forces beyond any individual’s control. I really do believe there are demonic forces at work in the world, and in many ways the Church has failed to live up to its call in confronting these forces. I think every Christian should read “The Powers That Be” by Walter Wink as a good starting place.

    September 23, 2009 at 7:42 am

  6. marion

    Since the movie seems to think that modern poverty started in 1492, i suspect that they have a certain agenda. To say that poverty has only one main cause seems to be short sighted.
    In truth, poverty can be more that just a lack in the bank account. It can be spiritual and emotional as well.
    Following biblical priciples will cause prosperity, even for those not of faith. Conversely not following the principles can cause negative consequences. Sin leads to death.
    Likewise I think the remedy would have to be multi-pronged. It can not be only be pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

    September 23, 2009 at 11:44 am

  7. Phil,

    So you think the government should never get involved in free markets? What about the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression? What about the current recession? Are you saying the govt shouldn’t ever get involved in these? I’m not arguing with you here, just making sure I understand you.


    Yes, their agenda seems pretty clear. However, as an amateur student of history, I do think they are right in that a history of exploitation was started with Columbus!

    I agree that many biblical principles will cause prosperity…as of right now, however, I’m not totally convinced that they’re absolutely unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a matter of fact, I don’t.


    Just by way of gentle reminder, lots of people read this page that don’t believe the same way you do and may have literally no exposure to your church background/language.

    September 23, 2009 at 6:17 pm

  8. Well, I don’t think it’s possible to have an actual market in most case without some government intervention. We’re all using the dollar as the basis of out financial system, and that currency’s value is really based for the most part on US government policy and what other governments do. And therein, lies a big part of the issue. I think a lot of our financial disasters don’t really point to failure of the market as much as failed monetary policy. As far the Great Depression goes, this little pamphlet that Walter Williams from George Mason University has on his site has a good explanation as to why it was more a failure of federal monetary policy than anything else.

    The main thing to remember about economics is that people essentially react to incentives in just about every human endeavor. If it is perceived to be more profitable to take one course of action over another, most people will do it. So when the fed does thing like inflate the money supply or keeps interest rates artificially low, it is essentially rewarding people for doing one thing over another. Namely, it’s telling them to not save money, but rather invest in other things that will have higher rates of return. With the latest financial crisis, interest rates were kept so low for so long, that people were looking anywhere to get a decent rate of return. This led to the creation of financial instruments such as mortgage backed securities and such, which eventually were proven to be what they always were – inherently risky and inflated investments that couldn’t deliver on the returns they originally promised.

    So, to get back to the developing nation thing, I’d there are similar things at play. Yes, in many way the blame for horrible conditions in African nation falls at all of feet, but I think a bigger portion of the blame can fall at the feet of government policy as well. For example, by subsidizing American farmers, the US government keeps the price of commodities such as corn lower than it would be under normal market conditions, and this ends up making the bottom of these markets drop out to the point where smaller farmers in developing countries simply can’t sell their crops without taking a loss. Of course, farm subsidies are something no US politician will ever touch because of the whole aura of “supporting US farms”.

    I guess my disagreement with what the people in the video seem to be saying is the way they seem to make global economics into a zero-sum game where if one person obtains wealth, it means he’s taking it from another one. Certainly that is sometimes, or even many times, the case, but I believe it has to be the rule. I believe that there are things that can be done where wealth is created without explicitly depending on forced redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

    September 24, 2009 at 11:13 am

  9. j rhymes

    Well said Phil.
    Josh, Phil’s point on zero-sum economics negates the idea that American economic wealth and prosperity is caused by or contributed to by third-world suffering. In fact, when the American economy grows and does well, the entire world benefits. We employ talent in India, we start factories and pay laborers in China, our consumers’ demand for products grow the economies in other countries. India is an emerging economy, where would they be if American corporations didn’t need software engineers and call centers?
    Yes Western capitalism uses resources, but that is a moot point. Any economic system will use resources, and because we live in a global environment, a country with raw materials is useful to a country with only production capacity. The result is an economic partnership benefiting both parties.
    By capitalist countries I generally mean countries with free markets, economic systems with limited government involvement. This usually occurs in Western civilization, although Hong Kong could be an Asian (though hypocritical – the rest of the country is communist) example.
    Although flawed in some areas, capitalism is by far the best system. So yes, the rest of the world should endeavor to create a similar environment where economic growth is not stagnating by government meddling, where incentive exists for innovation, and where private property is protected. Only in that setting will real growth occur, thus raising standards for all socioeconomic strata, including the poor.

    September 24, 2009 at 12:56 pm

  10. Phil, thanks for the great post. I agree with you on most of your points re. internal economic policy in America. I also think your point about farm subsidies is spot-on (while I support drastically different tax policies for American farmers, I think the subsidies have been awful). I tend to think that my biggest complaint with American economics/life is not that we exploit others, but is that we hoard and protect the wealth we do have and restrict others from accessing it. I don’t think that can last forever.

    Phil, you said “I believe that there are things that can be done where wealth is created without explicitly depending on forced redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.” What are those things? Should we just rely on the benevolence of the general public?

    Jrhymes, I do agree with you that capitalism is the best system I’ve observed or encountered, to date. However, I will critic it and question it at every opportunity in order to do my part to make sure that it stays that way…or until I find another.

    That said…I remain unconvinced that capitalism is biblically founded or is the only way to do things. Pure capitalism seems much more Ayn Rand than Jesus -influenced to me, and that’s troubling.

    Along those lines, this just came up in my reader today:

    Finally, as a closing comment–while I sympathize with the general idealism of Jrhymes and Phil’s self-governing freemarket, in practice I’m not convinced that it does. While I completely agree with Phil that keeping the fed low can reward the wrong practices, I do see the need for government checks and balances, or at least internal checks and balances beyond those of internal competition. Furthermore, I remain extremely skeptical about trickle-down economics, whether it be for those working the call-centers in India or for the urban poor in our own country.

    September 24, 2009 at 4:23 pm

  11. j rhymes

    Interesting article from your blog friend, however he gave a second of legitimacy to Mr. Moore, and that was a second too long. His previous “mockumentaries” were shown to be bogus, this one will be no different.
    There are biblical principles to be held individually and maintained by the Christian and the church, but turn the other cheek does not work in a national security context.
    In short, the Bible is not meant as an economic model, or a sample Constitution. No, God used our Founding Fathers to establish this country as a bastion of freedom to the world, a nation of unprecedented success so that we would have the ability to spread the gospel in a manner unimagined before. Sure there were missionaries before the United States was around, but since our founding we have been the most effective at sending missionaries and aid around the world. Why? Because of our success.

    Fair enough Josh, the more critics in this country the better it will be. However, because it is the best system, I will seek to defend it (from government largesse) and improve it to maintain its prominence. So I suppose we have the same goal.

    An example of a government “check” gone very wrong: a large cause of the financial crisis is the government rating of mortgage backed securities. They were ranked AAA by a world banking body (I forget the name) and so our banks thought they were high quality when in fact they were not. Because the securities were endorsed by the government, everyone stepped along in sync.
    The beauty of capitalism is that every person and company can pursue their own unique competitive strategy and the best one wins. The risk of each strategy is spread out, eggs in different baskets so to speak. But when government regulation steps in and forces all of those decisions to be identical, all of the eggs are in one basket and the risk is consolidated. Voila, financial crisis.

    So I would recommend erring on the side of free-er markets.

    That being said there is definitely a place for government checks, for example the SEC provides a vital transparency function for our capital markets. We could use a similar agency for our healthcare markets. In contrast, Fannie and Freddie provide a dangerous function by handing out mortgages to people who can’t pay them and call it “affordable housing”…

    September 25, 2009 at 6:35 am

  12. Jrhymes,

    Personally, I wouldn’t claim that the reason we’ve been wealthy and strong as a nation for the last few hundred years is chiefly so we can send more missionaries…I don’t try and figure out God like that because I think it leads to a national egotism that I am very uncomfortable with. Not to mention, I bet African Americans (amongst a host of others) might take issue with your “bastion of freedom.”

    Please note too that while I said I think capitalism is the best economic system, I did NOT say that America is the best system. There is a big difference.

    I understand your point between individual biblical principles and national ones. However, I recently participated in a Bible study that examined what God said to government throughout the Bible. It was fascinating–it read a lot more like social welfare than you’d probably be comfortable with, I imagine! Be careful of claiming biblical inspiration/annointing, because God might hold us responsible for the full kit and kaboodle of things he told govt throughout scripture.

    Yes, you are right–greed is both the motivator and the downfall of mortgages (and freemarkets) everywhere.

    September 25, 2009 at 6:54 am

  13. j rhymes

    Social welfare is bankrupting this country my friend – social security, medicare: all on a fastrack of failure. To borrow from Phil, wealth redistribution is bad policy, and not biblical. We are called to be generous with our money and wealth, not other people’s.

    If you are refering to slavery, the institution was in conflict with the ideals of the Constitution. Hence our finest president’s (Lincoln) successful efforts toward emancipation. No country or system is perfect, but ours is by far the best. A majority of Americans still believe in the exceptionalism of this great nation – and we are in turn held to a high standard of responsibility. Egotism? No; patriotism.
    God is not that unknown that we cannot observe his hand in history. I’m not holding out wealth/responsibility cause-effect as absolute truth, but i think it makes sense.

    And my point had nothing to do with greed – banks and financial institutions were not being greedy, they were making rational, supposedly conservative investing decisions. Turns out the governments were flawed in their rating systems – a lack of competence in our elected officials!?

    September 25, 2009 at 7:16 am

  14. Joshuae

    Wow! This has been quite the discussion. There are a whole bunch of points that I would love to jump in on. However, in the interests of brevity, I’m just going to jump in with a few obvious points. First of all, the fundamental problem with humanity is not poverty or lack of resources, but sin. (Yes, I’m starting with a profoundly Judeo-Christian slant — if you don’t like it I’m sorry but I don’t know how else to start.) Poverty is one result of sin. This is important because it suggests (at least to me) that no human strategy (government, peace corp, Constitution) is likely to be truly successful because they’ll still be implemented by humans who are themselves sinful. That’s not to say I’m against using any and every means at our disposal, but I do tend to have a skeptical attitude towards them. Further it seems obvious to me that sin affects both my choices and decisions and those of the people around me. This is important because it suggests that some of my bad status is the result of my own poor choices. However it also suggests to me that much of my status (good and bad) is the result of choices that I had nothing to do with — choices of people I may not have even known.

    If I live in a post-communist country in grinding poverty with seemingly NO chance for improvement of my situation and with a general attitude of hopelessness, then yes, my choices probably won’t be the best out there, but even if they were it is unlikely that it would have much immediate impact on my situation. In practice much of my situation reflects choices made a hundred years ago that I had no stake in. That seems like a profound injustice to me, and like one, that, as a follower of Christ I am duty bound to seek to correct in any way possible.

    If I live in an inner city broken home and am educated in a horribly broken school, then yes, I am likely to wind up with an attitude of hopelessness, which is almost certain to lead to my making bad choices. On the other hand, even if I make better choices I’m likely to be held back by my poor education and up-bringing (and even if I make bad choices it is hard to compare my standard of living to that of the person in the first example.). How is this justice?

    What I’m getting at is that it seems to me that poverty is fundamentally both a result of my poor choices and a result of things outside my control. Any explanation that fails to grapple with this paradox seems to me to be profoundly naive.

    I’ll also just say briefly that it seems to me, based on my reading of the Bible that as a Christian I am called to work for justice in whatever way is open to me. With that said I tend not to be a huge fan of government programs and their attempts to bring justice since it seems like it is commonly comparable to using a machete to do surgery — it’s just not deft enough (especially at the Federal level). But I think that justice does need to be a focus of our government, as well as a strong personal focus of ours.

    September 28, 2009 at 4:54 am

  15. j rhymes

    ah, but if your premise is correct (which I believe it is) how can fundamentally flawed sinful humans pursue justice? wouldn’t that justice be flawed and sinful?

    September 28, 2009 at 6:21 am

  16. Joshuae

    Good question! And to some extent I do think any justice we can pursue won’t be perfect. However that also isn’t the full story. The full story is that we are all created in the image of God which we still bear, however imperfect and flawed it may be. Further God is in the process of redeeming all things and making them new, which his church is called to partner with him in. Put another way, some justice is better than less justice.

    September 29, 2009 at 12:17 pm

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