Saturday, October 28, 2017
That Grows Is Good (Part 2)
Our Outrageous Demand for Profits
It is important for us to make a distinction at this point. Infusing new money into the system doesn’t make the economy grow. It merely makes growth possible. It supports and sustains growth. Individual businesses still have to find a way to extract profit from the flow. And here we come full circle back to Marx and Schumpeter and Veblen—and to the fundamental problems with their solutions.
Capitalists can steal profits from employees by paying them less than they are worth, and this happens every day in the regular course of business. There are many underpaid individuals in organizational America—underpaid in the sense that they are unable to consume their share of overall production. Hobson’s dilemma again. Why must this be? For the simple reason that if organizational America paid its employees enough so that they could purchase the exact amount of production they add to the economy, there would be, by definition, no profit, no excessive executive salaries and bonuses, and no dividends to stockholders. In order to make a profit, businesses must pay employees a diminishing portion of the system’s total wealth, must prevent them from purchasing as much as they produce. The only way to keep this illogical system going, as discussed earlier, is for businesses to convince their employees to buy today’s production with tomorrow’s paycheck. But debt is merely a short-term solution. Over time, it is lethal, because it further reduces the ability of the working class to buy its fair share of production.
Schumpeter would tell us we can extract profit by introducing innovations into the system. The problem with this is that our economic health becomes dependent on continual innovation. We must perpetually make existing products obsolete by replacing them with newer versions; we must constantly improve quality, endlessly invent new products, and forever refine production processes so that we can make things less expensively. This constant obsolescence and the increase in available products, however, are filling our lives and our world with junk. I’ve been to the local landfill and have seen firsthand the mess created by our disposable society. But I also look around my house and can’t believe all the things my family possesses, and how few of them we really need or use. And it’s getting worse. As the economy grows, the total innovation needed to sustain growth multiplies, as does the waste in the system. This discussion, of course, dovetails with the environmental argument.
Finally, Veblen would tell us that profit is the result of financial manipulations by businessmen who actually sabotage the system. The problem with this source of profit is that it divorces the financial system from the apparatus of production and consumption and makes profit an end in itself. In Veblen’s world, just as in Schumpeter’s, most of the goods that clamor for our spare change (or remaining credit) are not an end in themselves, items that people actually need or that improve their lives. Most products sold in today’s market are means to an end, and that end is profit. They were created, not because we need them or even want them, but so that someone could manipulate and confuse the productive machinery and extort a profit from the flow. Production has become a tool of finance, not the reverse.
“Twenty years ago,” write Daly and Cobb, “the greatest power over the global economy may have been that of transnational corporations engaged in production. Today that power has shifted to institutions dealing with finance. Investment has come increasingly to mean the buying and selling of productive enterprises rather than their establishment or expansion.”1
Financial markets, adds Hawken, “reduce acts of commerce, which always have significant impact on human and natural life, to mere finance, to a decimal, to basis points, to net present value. We are turning over the financing of the world, if we haven’t already, to money lenders whose interests and incentives revolve around minute increments gained in the sale of abstracted financial instruments.”2 Indeed, financial manipulation has grown so prevalent that we now have what has been called a paper economy, or “the direct conversion of money into more money without reference to commodities even as an intermediate step.”3
Finance as an end in itself is a scary thing. When money becomes the most-sought-after product, something is terribly wrong, for money is no product at all. Money is a tool, a pure fiction we use to ease the exchange of real products. John Stuart Mill described money as simply “a machine for doing quickly and commodiously, what would be done, though less quickly and commodiously, without it: and like many other kinds of machinery, it only exerts a distinct and independent influence of its own when it gets out of order.”4
Money in our day has indeed gotten out of order. It has become the most sought after commodity of all, able to expand exponentially without any reference at all to real economic growth or contraction. And because of this, an increasingly speculative currency market has arisen. The financial superstructure in our economy has lost touch almost completely with the actual production and consumption of goods and services. Consequently, the world economy is becoming what Willis Harman calls “one vast gambling casino.” The ballooning derivatives market—a universe of side bets as far removed from Veblen’s financial superstructure as the superstructure is removed from the real world—is the latest manifestation of speculation gone crazy.
To illustrate how out of control money is, consider that annual world trade exceeds $3 trillion. World financial flows, on the other hand, reach nearly $100 trillion per year. What this means, says Harman, is that less than 5 percent of the “funds sloshing around the globe” have anything whatever to do with “goods and services that enhance human life.”5 To put it mildly, both the world economy and the American economy are growing more and more distant from the real world in which people eat, sleep, live, work, die, and consume. The mitotic propagation of money has totally overwhelmed the direct, beneficial type of transactions in which people buy and sell products to better their lives.
In our out-of-control economy, we have too intense a demand for profit, especially profit derived from speculation. There is, however, a vast difference between money and real wealth. Money, which can be created out of thin air, can also grow endlessly. The real, physical economy, on the other hand, is bound by equally real, physical limits. In essence, much of the growth we have seen in recent years has been nothing more than a clever mirage. But growth we must have, even if it is illusory growth, because without growth, capitalism dies.
Capitalism, no matter whose model you like, requires a constantly expanding market, requires that luxuries become necessities, that we constantly improve and replace products in an endless upward spiral, that we extract an increasing amount of profit, and that we infuse new money regularly into the economic flow. Everyone agrees on this. These are the assumptions behind everyone’s solutions. No one questions the insanity of the system at its most fundamental levels.
But is the system never satiated? Must we forever buy and sell an increasing number of products, introduce new luxuries, transform old luxuries into necessities, make technologies obsolete at an accelerating rate, shop till we drop, worlds without end? The answer is apparently yes. The capitalist economy must grow. The alternative is, well, unthinkable. “When the monster stops growing,” explain the owner men in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, “it dies. It can’t stay one size.”6 Growth is the most fundamental assumption of capitalism. For without growth there is no capitalism, because there is no profit, no surplus to turn into capital.
The growth assumption worked well for many years. The supply of goods and services has grown and grown and grown, and our technological progress has been impressive. But what we never asked ourselves was where this line of thinking would take us. Is our path a never-ending upward spiral, or does it end somewhere, and, if it does, where does it end and how? I suggest that we are now beginning to learn the answers to those questions—some of them are economic, some environmental. Our economy is spiraling out of control, the slope is steepening, and to move forward we must accelerate our climb—we must reach the next level more rapidly, at greater velocity, or we won’t have the momentum to carry us to the next, even higher and steeper level.
This is why we are experiencing such an incredible demand for profits in our economy, why companies are so glued to the short-term bottom line. If they don’t have the capital to jump right now to the next step, which very often is dictated by new waves of technology that are hitting the shore with increasing frequency, they will be left behind—forever. They will never make the next step.
Aside from the disconcerting fact that intense competitive pressures are leaving numerous businesses in the dust, even more ominous is the fact that the economy also is abandoning millions of individuals. The economy, says Edward O. Welles, “has grown more Darwinian. The highly skilled prosper. The skilled survive. The unskilled fall prey to change.”7 Soon only the most educated and productive workers will occupy high-paying jobs. What will happen to the rest? How will they find enough cash to hold up their end of the equation, consumption, while the efficient and highly capitalized few quicken their already frenzied pace of production?
Unfortunately, the economy is not a machine that we can control scientifically. Rather, it exhibits the characteristics of a living system, and all living systems are, by nature, self-limiting. They grow normally to a certain point, after which they plateau and eventually decline. And the faster living systems grow, the sooner they reach their natural limits. If we try to push them past those limits, we damage them. And we have definitely pushed the economy past its natural confines.
Like a marathon runner at the end of the race, we’re no longer burning fat reserves; we’re burning muscle. Specifically, we’re burning out viable businesses and we’re burning up the middle class, creating a two-tiered society, and the lower tier is increasingly incapable of consuming all the products the upper tier is busily creating with its overabundance of capital.
Living beyond Our Means
One reason we have managed, on the whole, to stay on the steep upward growth spiral without collapsing is that we are extracting our natural resources and transforming them into products at an ever-increasing rate. We are using up many renewable resources faster than we can replenish them. And we are depleting our nonrenewable resources more rapidly than ever. In essence, the world economy is living beyond its collective means. If we look at the global economy as a business, it is headed for financial ruin. As Paul Hawken reminds us, “No business in the world can long survive on its capital reserves. Every businessperson understands this, yet many ignore the fact that this same principle applies equally to energy and the environment.”8 Our collective human business, the world economy, is not living on its current energy income, but on its capital reserves. Any business that pursues this strategy will be bankrupt as soon as the capital runs out.
The economy has reached and exceeded its natural limits, but we fail to admit it. We try to force it to grow, and so it has become like an athlete on steroids: in many ways it is inhumanly strong and agile, but because the growth is artificially induced, its long-term well-being is compromised, it is developing severe emotional irregularities, and it is even beginning to acquire certain freak characteristics. It is definitely not what you would term healthy.
The economy has reached a point at which the old theories no longer work. Our accepted explanations of economic phenomena are now the equivalent of Newtonian physics. They worked well up to a point, but are now inadequate. What we need is a new economic theory, based on different, sounder assumptions. We need an economy that can provide for our needs without being dependent on perpetual growth.
1. Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press,  1994), 436.
2. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 94.
3. Daly and Cobb, For the Common Good, 410.
4. John Stuart Mill, The Principles of Political Economy, vol. 2, bk. 3, ch. 7, 9th ed. (London: Longmans, Green:  1886), 9.
5. Willis Harman, “Whatever Happened to Usury?” World Business
Academy Perspectives 6, no. 2 (1992): 20.
6. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 33.
7. Edward O. Welles, “It’s Not the Same America,” Inc., May 1994, 98.
8. Hawken, Ecology of Commerce, 181.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
That Grows Is Good
Growth of healthy organisms is a natural phenomenon, but unregulated
and unlimited growth is found in nature only in cancers that ultimately
and unlimited growth is found in nature only in cancers that ultimately
destroy their hosts and themselves. We are creating an unregulated
economic system that has become the equivalent of a cancerous tumor,
and its unfortunate host is human society. In the name of free markets,
prosperity, and democracy, modern society is embarked on a path that
ultimately can lead only to the destruction of all three.
—David C. Korten,
“A Deeper Look at
In their book The Second American Revolution, James Patterson and Peter Kim give a somewhat outdated analysis of our recent economic woes, then present four widely divergent plans for strengthening the economy—one promoted by Lester Thurow, another backed by Robert Reich, a plan devised by the Council on Competitiveness, and, finally, Jack Kemp’s proposed return to supply-side economics. Though individual pieces of each plan have some merit, all four are based on the assumption that economic health is a function of growth. If American companies can just become more competitive, the economy will grow, and everything will be all right.
Well, American companies in general have become, or are rapidly becoming, very competitive, the economy is growing once again, but everything is not all right. The problem is that we are looking for answers in the wrong place. We are trying to find solutions within a system that makes sense in the short term but is illogical for the long haul. We need systemic change, not just a more efficient economic machine.
Why should we want a different system, though? Isn’t the current arrangement good enough? Perhaps we can find the answers to these two questions by asking two related questions: Is it possible for the modern capitalist economy to grow forever, without hitting any kind of ceiling? and Is limitless growth a good thing? My contention is that our continued belief in the assumption of limitless growth will bring catastrophic results. At some point, growth comes only at a tremendous price to society. Further, the capitalist economy simply cannot grow forever. It has built-in limits, and both economic and environmental ruin is the price of ignoring them.
Every economic plan I’ve ever seen begins with the assumption that growth is necessary for a healthy society. Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., point out that although economists, like other scientists, claim to be value-neutral, “their shared values are [in fact] easy to identify. They are, above all, for economic growth. To challenge that as a goal is to place oneself outside the community [of economists].”1 But what if growth is no longer the panacea it once was? What if our economy has grown to the point where its size and continued growth are actually hazardous to our social and economic health? What if the answer is not growth? If so, then the community of economists has been asking the wrong questions, which means that all their answers are also wrong. It is not the way the system functions or malfunctions that is the problem; it is the assumptions upon which the system rests and that have guided its evolution.
As David Korten points out in the epigraph to this chapter, not everything that grows is good. Indeed, the only instances of unlimited growth found in nature are cancerous tumors, which grow by stealing sustenance from healthy tissue, by fooling the immune system, by deceiving nearby cells into forming food-bearing vessels and producing growth-enhancing chemicals, and by opening new pathways for the malignancy to spread throughout the body. In essence, cancer tricks the body so that it actually contributes to its own destruction.
The unlimited-growth assumption makes capitalism similar in many respects to cancer. It creates economic growth at the expense of health in other areas of social concern. And as it becomes entrenched, it converts the surrounding society into a support structure for its continued growth. Everything becomes economic, and self-perpetuation becomes the guiding rule of the economic system.
Is there an alternative, though? Can we even imagine an economic system not dependent on perpetual growth? I suggest that we must begin to think along those lines, because the growth assumption is fast reaching the end of its long, long rope.
Let me introduce three arguments against limitless economic growth that may help put this issue in perspective. The first argument is simple and straightforward and has been presented in greater detail by others who have a more specific interest in environmental matters. The last two are more theoretical in nature, but point to an inherent flaw, an internal illogic in our system of unlimited capital ownership that suggests we must look beyond the present system.
The Environmental Argument
Kenneth Lux points out that our capitalist economic theory does not concern itself with human needs. In economics, need is a nonword. Economists are interested only in wants, or demand. “An important thing about wants,” says Lux, “is that they are ultimately infinite and therefore unsatisfiable.” Add to this the overall objective of conventional economics, which is to satisfy these wants, and a paradox emerges.
It appears that economics has construed itself so as to attempt to accomplish the impossible: to satisfy that which cannot be satisfied. . . . From this we can start to see that economics, even at the level of its theory, may have something to do with why we are destroying our natural world.
We live on a finite planet. If human beings are defined as being made up of infinite wants, and the task of an economic system is to fulfill that infinity, then such a system will go on endlessly churning out goods in an attempt to reach what is from the beginning an impossible goal. When the infinite production of goods meets up with a finite planet there is bound to be a collision.2
If we were to imagine the traditional capitalist system as a container for wealth and consumable products, its shape would be that of an inverted cone, extending forever upward and outward. The growth assumption insists that we can keep pouring time, energy, and natural resources into the cone in the form of consumable products, and that it will never be full, never overflow. It will simply hold everything, forever. This, however, is an utterly irrational assumption.
Environmental factors alone should convince us that eventually two things will happen: (1) we shall run out of various natural resources to pour into the economy, and (2) we shall discover that all along the cone has not been self-contained, that it has been leaking toxins, contaminating the world around it, creating an enormous, costly mess.
Both economists and businesses have always operated on the assumption that the future will be similar to the past, that since the capitalist economy has grown over time, it will continue to grow. They don’t consider the possibility that as the economy grows, it encounters constraints that were irrelevant when it was small. We might liken the economy to a seven-foot-six basketball player who had no trouble with doorways or finding clothes that fit when he was ten. But at twenty he has to duck to leave a room or to dodge light fixtures and must special-order pants, shirts, and shoes. The minimal impact of industrialization on the environment when the earth was a seemingly infinite, sparsely populated place has little relevance to our present circumstances. Times change. We cannot logically expect the effects of the ever-expanding capitalist economy to remain negligible.
“If capitalism has one pervasive untruth,” declares Paul Hawken, “it is the delusion that business is an open, linear system: that through resource extraction and technology, growth is always possible, given sufficient capital and will. In other words, there are no inherent limits to further expansion, and those who wish to impose them have a political agenda. . . . [But] ever-expanding abundance is not a theory based on science, or history, or nature. It is based solely on self-interest.”3
Capitalism’s Imperialist Tendencies
John Hobson, a frail little Englishman with a speech impediment and a penchant for economic heresy, argued a century ago that in order to grow, indeed, in order to survive, capitalism had to become imperialistic. Without exporting both production capacity and products abroad, he maintained, capitalism will eventually suffocate itself. At the time, no one really took him seriously except the Marxists, who twisted his ideas into a strange confirmation of their own misconceptions. But Hobson’s reasoning was both fascinating and deceptively simple: growth, the very engine that drove capitalism, also created a situation in which a nation could never consume everything it produced.
The poor, Hobson argued, didn’t have the means to buy their fair share, and the rich had too much money to consume their proportion of the nation’s production. Someone with a million-dollar income couldn’t (or wouldn’t see any reason to) buy a thousand times more consumer goods than a person with a thousand-dollar income. In fact, the wealthy in every society are mindful of what they don’t spend, for if they spend all they have, they are no longer wealthy. Wealthy people, because they both want to and have to, save a good portion of their excess, but those savings must be put to use. If they are invested in new production capacity, which they usually are, it only compounds the problem, says Hobson. If society is already having difficulty consuming all it produces, then this perpetual increase in production capacity will only flood an already saturated market.
In order to grow, Hobson concludes, capitalist economies must not only invest their capital abroad, they must also sell their increased production abroad. They must export more than they import. From one nation’s perspective, this provides a temporary solution for the necessarily imperialist capitalist economy, but in the long run it ruins a world economy, as more and more nations need an outlet for their excesses.
Hobson’s ideas, although largely forgotten, are nonetheless significant, especially when seen in the light of American expansion after World War II. Because it was the dominant and, for a long time, the only real economic power on the block, America was able to fill the world not only with factories and production equipment, but also with Coca-Cola and Levis and Chevrolets. We ran large trade surpluses. And at home our standard of living shot skyward. There was no underconsumption to bog down our economic growth, because we sent excess production abroad and real wealth was our most significant import.
Predictably, though, the rest of the world began to catch up with us, even surpass us. We tend to see this as a tragedy, of course, for many of our industries have either failed or lost their competitive edge, but it had to happen. We could not expect to live forever in the unreal economic conditions that prevailed after World War II. Now the tables are turned. Japan and Korea and Germany and other countries are investing in America, selling us their excess production, pursuing the same policy of economic imperialism that gave us such prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. And we have a huge trade deficit, for we insist on overconsuming in an environment that suggests we should actually be underconsuming. Somehow, we’re actually consuming much more than we produce. How is this possible?
It’s simple, really. We have found a way around Hobson’s insistence that capitalist societies cannot consume all they produce without becoming imperialistic: debt. We are buying on credit. Not only is the trade deficit healthy and growing, but consumer debt accounts for an incredibly large portion of the average family’s monthly budget. And what we can’t afford to pay for with our own credit, Uncle Sam covers. Government spending over the past decade exceeded government revenues by about $3 trillion. And on top of this we have a mountain of corporate debt, which directly funds economic expansion. In short, we’re paying for our expanding production with debt. We’re not even coming close to covering it with money we earn today. Theoretically, it is impossible to do so. And unless we replace our assumptions about growth, we’ll just continue to dig a bigger hole for ourselves.
Interestingly, of the four economic plans I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Patterson and Kim found through extensive surveys that the American public overwhelmingly favors Jack Kemp’s return to supply-side economics. In other words, most Americans want to use government resources to spur an even greater expansion in our production base, in hope that we can somehow consume all that production and keep the economy growing. This is both madness and a sure-fire recipe for economic disaster.
The Problem of Profit
The preceding discussion of John Hobson’s ideas hints at the underlying question of this chapter. What makes the capitalist economy grow? The answer is very simple: profit. Profit is of course the difference between what a company charges for its products and what it spends. If the company reinvests that excess to expand production capacity, we call it capital, and it is the pursuit of capital that makes the capitalist economy grow. And Hobson would tell us that it is this engine of growth itself that prevents a capitalist society from consuming all that it produces—unless it invests abroad or purchases on credit.
The lust for capital is what causes the gap between the haves and have-nots to widen. Most people are motivated by the desire to increase their wealth. Why not? I don’t know many people who would rather be poor than rich. But those who own or control capital have leverage in this quest for wealth. They profit by keeping costs down while charging as much as the market will allow for their products. Their incentive, therefore, is to pay their employees as little as possible, and to keep for themselves as much as possible. The widening gap between rich and poor is simply evidence of this incentive.
So those who already own capital strive to increase that capital by reaping a profit. And this brings us to a question that perplexed worldly philosophers for centuries: Where do profits come from? Curiously, only three reasonable answers were ever put forward: one by Karl Marx, another by Joseph Schumpeter, and a third by Thorstein Veblen. Even the venerable Adam Smith wavered on this question between two possible answers.
For a more detailed examination of these theories, I recommend Robert Heilbroner’s classic, The Worldly Philosophers, but let me briefly outline the three answers to this pivotal question. Marx would tell us that in capitalist economies, profits tend to disappear over time as market forces equalize wages and advantages. This was not an original insight. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill had already pointed out the same thing. What Marx did was to create a model of capitalism to show where this phenomenon would lead and to explain how it worked.
Marx’s model was not patterned after reality. It was a theoretically “perfect” capitalism. And what he concluded was that profit could exist in the capitalist system only when the capitalists stole it from the laborers. By paying them less than their actual value, capitalists were able to extract profit from their operations.
Marx’s model is very involved and does have several gaping holes in it, and others have adequately exposed these, but Marx’s ideas are significant because they do offer an explanation of where profit comes from.
To Joseph Schumpeter, profit was not stolen into existence; rather, it came honestly from innovation. He describes production and consumption as a circular flow that follows a regular and predictable course: people trading money and products with one another. So where do profits come from? They magically appear whenever the circular flow of production and consumption departs from its usual course. And when does this happen? Whenever an innovation enters the system. Whenever someone invents a new machine or new product, devises a new method of production, or improves quality, this disrupts the flow.
Innovation allows someone to take money out of the flow, either because quality has increased and people are willing to pay slightly more, or because production has become more efficient and the capitalist needn’t pay as much to someone else, yet can temporarily charge the traditional price for a product. Profit, to Schumpeter, is a temporary glitch in the flow of production and consumption. Before long, everyone’s quality will increase or their costs will decline as they learn the new method or purchase the new machinery. Then, as in Marx’s model, profit is squeezed out of the system. Profit exists in Schumpeter’s world only in a transient state. It is a temporary phenomenon, a constantly recurring temporary phenomenon, which explains the survival of the system.
Thorstein Veblen offers yet another view of profit. He saw “the economic process itself as being basically mechanical in character. Economic meant production, and production meant the machinelike meshing of society as it turned out goods. Such a social machine would need tenders, of course—technicians and engineers to make whatever adjustments were necessary to ensure the most efficient cooperation of the parts.”4 But, asked Veblen, where does the businessman fit in? The businessman, he concluded, was basically a saboteur of the system who extracted a profit by disrupting it.
The system itself saw no other end except making goods. The businessman, however, was interested only in making money. But “if the machine functioned well and fitted together smoothly, where would there be a place for a man whose only aim was profit? Ideally, there would be none. The machine was not concerned with values and profits; it ground out goods. . . . So the businessman achieved his end, not by working within the framework of the social machine, but by conspiring against it! His function was not to help make goods, but to cause breakdowns in the regular flow of output so that values would fluctuate and he could capitalize on the confusion to reap a profit.”5
And how did the businessman cause these breakdowns in the production machine? By creating the never-never-land of corporate finance. “On top of the machinelike dependability of the actual production apparatus,” explains Heilbroner, “the businessman built a superstructure of credit, loans, and make-believe capitalizations. Below, society turned over in its mechanical routine; above, the structure of finance swayed and shifted. And as the financial counterpart to the real world teetered, opportunities for profit constantly appeared, disappeared, and reappeared.”6
Now, all three—Marx, Schumpeter, and Veblen—were partially right. They isolated direct causes of profit in individual businesses, but none of them carried the question to the next logical level and identified the underlying source of all profit (and all growth) in the capitalist economy.
It’s easy to see where one company’s profit comes from. Xerox, for instance, simply charges more for its copiers than it pays to produce them. The difference between what it brings in as revenues and spends as various expenses appears on its financial statements as profit. But if we look at the economy as a whole, how does it profit, or expand, each year? Where does growth come from? Well, directly, it comes from the surpluses of its specific parts and pieces. Individuals and corporations either reinvest their wages and profits in production capacity to expand our product base or spend them on old and new products to increase the overall level of consumption. Who can deny that the economy encompasses more goods and services than it did a decade ago? There are more cellular phones, more microwave dinners, more books about the economy, more consultants, more accountants, and more fast food outlets than there were last year. But this explanation—that the economy grows because of recurring profit in its individual parts and pieces—misses something important: How is it that the sum of all businesses experiences more profit than loss in a given time period?
As we trade money and products with one another, shouldn’t profit and loss cancel each other out? In other words, in an economy where imports and exports balance (and therefore cancel each other out), shouldn’t total business revenues exactly equal total business expenses? Some may point out that business revenue is made up of both expenditures by other businesses and consumer purchases. But where do consumers get the money to spend? From their wages, which are a business expense. Where, then, does the surplus come from? How do we solve this paradox? The answer is that, yes, indeed, total revenues and expenses should be equal—unless the quantity of money in the system increases. If new money enters the picture, then total revenues can in fact exceed total expenditures.
This, then, is how the economy expands. New money is introduced—primarily through a nifty bit of financial magic we might call borrowing money into existence—and this sustains economic growth. The new money permits capitalists to extract a profit from their operations (it also permits individuals and organizations to profit from financial speculation), and it allows revenues to exceed total expenses in any given period of time.
[This explanation is incomplete, but it is as good as I could come up with in 1995. Maybe when I’ve finished posting the chapters of Economic Insanity, I’ll post a more complete explanation of where profit comes from. Next up will be the remainder of chapter 3.]
1. Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press,  1994), 131.
2. Kenneth Lux, Adam Smith’s Mistake: How a Moral Philosopher Invented Economics and Ended Morality (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), 9.
3. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 32–33.
4. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 6th ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 235.
5. Heilbroner, Worldly Philosophers, 235–36.
6. Heilbroner, Worldly Philosophers, 236.
Monday, October 9, 2017
Consumerism: A Perfect Circle
That’s Empty in the Middle
[Note: This chapter seems a bit quaint after all these years, and I would probably disagree with a few minor points, but since my purpose is simply to see how well these ideas hold up after almost a quarter century, I’ll leave it as it was written.]
The small volume of saving by the average man, and its absence
among the lower-income masses, reflect faithfully the role of the
individual in the industrial system and the accepted view
of his function. The individual serves the industrial system not
by supplying it with savings and the resulting capital; he serves it
by consuming its products. On no other matter, religious, political,
or moral, is he so elaborately and skillfully and expensively instructed.
—John Kenneth Galbraith,
The New Industrial State
Before I address the topic of consumerism and the problems that arise from placing this enormous burden on a shrinking middle class, let me backtrack a little and make an observation. If we are to solve our deeper social and economic problems, we must reverse our thinking about growth and prosperity and start imagining ways in which we as a society can attain a comfortable degree of prosperity without having all our economic activities be dependent on endless growth. Perhaps the first step in this rethinking process is to come to grips with one simple fact about progress, the philosophical doctrine that undergirds our growth imperative: Progress is a journey without a destination.
In The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch debunks the notion that our belief in progress stems from either the Christian doctrine of the millennium, that thousand-year period of peace preceding the end of the world, or the ubiquitous secular ideal of utopia, a perfect society toward which all human beings should be striving. It is not my purpose here to recite Lasch’s arguments against the supposed millennial or utopian roots of progress. Suffice it to say that the fundamental distinction between our present-day conception of progress and the older notions of utopia and the Christian millennium is that the last two are end conditions, goals to guide our footsteps in the present. They are destinations toward which we are (or should be) traveling. Not so with progress. Progress has no destination, no culmination in something perfect or even desirable.
Progress is never satisfied. It assumes that what we have is never enough. We must continue to accumulate and consume, accumulate and consume, forever and ever, with no upper limit. This, of course, is insanity of the highest order. But the idea of progress is open-ended. It always looks beyond the present to the next step. It denies the existence of such a thing as the good life and focuses only on bettering our current state. But if there is no goal, no ideal to direct us, how do we know what progress even is? How do we know we are improving, moving forward instead of backward? Well, we don’t. Movement is all that matters. Direction is a nonissue. This is why so much of our material progress is accompanied by social and moral deterioration.
And this is the fatal flaw of the progressive ideology: it cannot admit to an ideal. It cannot say, “This is good,” for then the chance would exist that we might actually achieve that good, and progress would necessarily come to an end. But the doctrine of progress assumes we shall never arrive anywhere.
Progress can never answer the question “Where are we going?” because any answer would concede the existence of a destination, an ideal, a perfect pattern we are trying to achieve. It would also admit to certain moral absolutes, such as goodness, truth, and happiness. So, in the absence of moral certainty and a specifically desired destination, how can we possibly know we are “making progress”? We can’t. Such knowledge is impossible.
The only evidence of progress is movement. Not movement toward something, just movement. Any movement is better than no movement at all. And the more technically quantifiable that movement is, the easier it is to document. This is why we measure our progress in terms of technological advancement and scientific breakthroughs and the size of the economy instead of by how compassionate or cooperative or moral or happy we are. Measurement is everything where progress is concerned, and such intangible attributes are nearly impossible to measure.
This is why good is a nonconcept in our progress-minded world. Good can’t be measured. Better, on the other hand, can be measured, because it compares two different things. But in the absence of an ultimate destination, how do we know which of two different things is better? We don’t. And so to get around this obstacle, the ideology of progress quietly embraces one unusual absolute: more. More is better. This axiom lies at the core of our belief in progress, and yet, strangely, this one absolute is in perfect harmony with the relativistic idea of endless progress, for more is never a final destination. By definition, it implies instability, insatiability, expansion, and obsolescence.
Indeed, the governing reality in the progressive dogma is the notion of obsolescence. Every advance shall be superseded by a new advance. Nothing is best, because everything can be exceeded and, therefore, nothing is certain. “That nothing is certain,” says Lasch, “except the imminent obsolescence of all our certainties—our scientific theories, our technology, our artistic styles and schools, our philosophies, our political ideals, our fashions—naturally gives rise to the sense of impermanence that has been celebrated or deplored as the very essence of the modern outlook.”1 Impermanence, you might say, is the one permanent fixture in our progressive lives.
The upshot of this reasoning is that in terms of the rationale of progress, there can be no such thing as an American Dream. The Dream vanishes in the wake of an endless and measurable parade of technological innovations, because progress allows no ideals, no desirable and attainable stations where we can stop our goalless march and simply declare, “This is good. This is what civilization is supposed to be like. Let’s stay here forever.”
Let’s look at an example of the insanity spawned by the progressive ideology. An interesting scenario has been playing itself out in the software industry. WordPerfect and Novell, two companies headquartered in the valley where I live, recently merged, creating the third largest firm in the industry. They saw this as the best, perhaps even the only, option for staying in a game increasingly dominated by Microsoft. Novell and WordPerfect are not alone. Adobe and Aldus are joining forces, as are Electronic Arts and Broderbund. Consolidation is typical in this industry, as it is in many others. If companies do not grow, they die, and the easiest (and certainly the quickest) way to ensure future growth is to merge, to become instantly as large as possible.
The only problem with this is that ultimately growth in the software industry rests on only two pedestals: (1) new applications and (2) upgrades of existing applications. Unfortunately, both pedestals have inherent limitations. How many new applications do consumers really need? And how many can they afford? Likewise, why should consumers buy an upgrade when the current, “obsolete” version has more bells and whistles than they’ll ever use? Take me, for example. I am using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS to write this book. Depending on how you count, it’s either one or two full steps—and soon will be three or four—below the current top-of-the-line upgrade. Sure, I’d like to have WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows, but my current version has more features than I’ll ever use. Besides, I can’t afford an upgrade. What happens when most users reach my situation?
The growth imperative is illogical, yet Microsoft, WordPerfect, Novell, and all their competitors are caught in its irresistible pull. They must create demand out of thin air, especially for upgrades that people don’t need. Why? Because if they don’t, the competition will. Then they will lose market share. This example holds true for most other industries also, whether you’re talking about electronics or automobiles.
Perhaps no one else sees it this way, but it seems to me that most companies in these endless-upgrade industries have somehow misplaced the reason for their existence. They don’t see the company’s primary purpose in (1) providing a good working environment for members of the community, (2) bringing prosperity to the community by selling a quality product, or (3) serving society in general. Their primary purpose has evolved into an imperative to grow, even if growth means selling products no one needs. But the reasons for this growth rest snugly in the arms of self-interest. It is not good enough anymore for a company to produce a quality product, offer good working conditions for many members of the community, or serve society. It must become the biggest, the best. Market share is everything.
Can every company in a given industry afford to embrace this self-centered philosophy? No, because for every company that gains market share, there is another that must lose market share. But in this intricate dance of organizational survival called capitalism, every company is driven by the growth imperative.
This, however, is a false, illogical, immoral imperative. The economy simply cannot grow indefinitely. Every industry in the economy cannot grow indefinitely. Every company in an industry cannot grow indefinitely. Technological progress cannot play itself out in an endless panorama of repeated obsolescence and perpetual replacement. This is a bankrupt economic philosophy that will reach its logical conclusion in relatively short order. We cannot afford such insanity. No society can. And yet we are hell-bent on pursuing this course, regardless of what either reason or the hard facts tell us.
We consumers must continue to buy things we don’t really need—endless upgrades of nonobsolete products and a perpetual parade of new “stuff”—and we must consume it in increasing quantities. If we do not consume, overcapitalized businesses can’t make a profit, they lay off workers, disposable income contracts, consumption falls even lower, and a particularly insidious cycle kicks in. And yet, as unbridled capitalism unwinds along its inevitable course, we consumers are less and less able to consume enough to maintain high enough levels of economic growth.
As I write, the economy is riding the momentum of a four-year-old recovery, but the closer one looks at this recovery, says Time magazine, “the more it appears to be unlike any in recent memory. It is a split-level surge in which mass layoffs are continuing side by side with new hiring and heavy overtime; high-income people are making more money, while many others are working at worse jobs for lower wages than a few years ago and still others have seen pay raises, if any, fall behind even today’s slow (2.5 percent) pace of inflation.”2
National polls show that as many as 40 percent of the workforce think the nation is still in a recession. There has been no recovery in their personal economies. Even President Clinton admits that “this appears to be a recovery for investors.” That’s a nice way of saying that the capitalists are getting richer, while everyone else is getting left further behind. More and more people can’t make ends meet, and myriad others are using up savings and going into debt to maintain a subsistence level of consumption. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re going to recover from this economic malaise. Its source lies deeper than our repeated recessions and recoveries, which, like waves on the sea, are merely indicators of more profound forces.
Perhaps Bertrand de Jouvenel was right when he suggested that “societies are governed in their onward march by laws of which we are ignorant.”3 Maybe the dynamism that “carried them to their prime” is the same force that leads them to their doom. Perhaps there is nothing we can do about our addiction to progress and the illusion that we can pursue it like an ever-retreating pot of gold at the end of the technological rainbow. Still, I would like to think we can change course before it’s too late, that we the people can regain control of our wayward nation and rein in the extreme economic, political, and social philosophies that are driving us to the precipice.
Of the two opposing political orientations popular in America today, theoretically, you would expect the liberals to believe in progress, which they do. But Lasch points out the inherent paradox of a “movement calling itself conservative” that doesn’t “associate itself with the demand for limits,” and not only on economic growth, but also on “the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the ungodly ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature.”4 Liberals and conservatives alike have always worshipped at the altar of unending technological progress. And progress, Lasch contends, has become our secular religion.
Contrary to the Christian millennial vision that it replaced, the gospel of progress has no culmination, no utopia or paradise in which mankind will find rest from the competitive arena, from the mercenary world of commerce. Progress simply goes on forever, changing, growing, consuming everything in its path. The reason the secular theology of progress does not aim toward some ultimately desirable and happy ending is because its roots are not religious. They lie rather in the soil of moral relativism, agnostic science, and economic Darwinism. Human society, as a species, is adapting and reshaping itself, but not with any particular end in mind. Survival is our only motive, and the process—progress—is all that matters. We are pursuing a means without an end. But that means will indeed have an end, an unexpectedly abrupt and tragic one—unless we mend our ways.
The notion that progress does not have any noble objective or purpose bothers most people, when they take time to think it through carefully. Even George Bush (or one of his speechwriters) expressed dismay at the idea in his 1989 inaugural address: “What is the end purpose of this economic growth?” he asked. “Is it just to be rich? What a shallow ambition. Is there really any satisfaction to be had in being the fattest country? . . . What will they say of us, the Americans of the latter part of the twentieth century? That we were fat and happy? I hope not.”
But what is the purpose of endless economic growth? What is the purpose of all our progress? According to our modern, technological definition, it has none. Progress is not actually taking us anywhere; it is merely a joyride we have pursued for the sake of what we might see and experience along the way. If, in the end, it deposits us back at the very beginning, where our journey began, then that, we must concede, is as good a place as anywhere else.
And what exactly do we experience along the way? The only experiences that count in the current progressive ideology are those we buy. Consumption is the name of the game, because consumption keeps the whole mechanism moving. Not only must we consume at ever-increasing levels to perpetuate the ride (like buying ticket after ticket at the amusement park so that we can go in circles until we’re dizzy and nauseated), we must also consume because without consumption our lives would be empty. With no end destination to all this growth and progress, we can achieve satisfaction only through the “ride,” through the illusion that we are going somewhere and experiencing something worthwhile. Laurence Shames decries modern consumerism as consumption without justification, without purpose:
During the past decade, many people came to believe there didn’t have to be a purpose [for consumption]. The mechanism didn’t require it. Consumption kept the workers working, which kept the paychecks coming, which kept the people spending, which kept inventors inventing and investors investing, which meant there was more to consume. The system, properly understood, was independent of values and needed no philosophy to prop it up. It was a perfect circle, complete in itself—and empty in the middle.5
Consumer-based, progress-driven capitalism is completely amoral. It must be. If our economic system were governed by a well-defined morality—say, for instance, that corporations were required to abide by the man-made laws that hold individuals in check or the absolute laws that regulate nature—it would die. It is, in fact, capitalism’s amorality that makes it so strong. It professes no inherent need to bend either its methods or its motives to conform to any but the most forceful external moral restraints. The sole purpose of capitalism is to provide goods for consumption, at ever-increasing levels.
John Maynard Keynes proclaimed that such abundance would produce a “decent level of consumption for everyone” and would free people to pursue more important noneconomic interests.6 The flaw in his reasoning is that capitalism can’t settle for a “decent level of consumption.” Its dependence on progress and growth dictates that consumption must increase without end. Hence, a “decent” level of consumption is always “a bit more than what I now consume.”
What this means is that production, likewise, will always increase. We can never say, “We’ve arrived. This is enough productive capacity.” More is always better. The engine of capitalism is specifically designed to create profits and turn those profits into new capital—forever. The engine may burn out, or we may turn it off, but it will never create something other than what it was designed to create. And what capitalism is designed to create is an increasingly capitalized world, a world filled to overflowing with both products and production capacity. More factories, more equipment, more products, for ever and ever. And we must consume everything that is produced. That is the other side of the coin.
A Nation of Consumers
Because we are expected to consume everything that capitalism produces, America has evolved from a nation of citizens (who are so necessary in maintaining a republic) into a nation of consumers (who are essential only in maintaining an economy). Consumerism is our second job, you might say. “One of the most pervasive myths in contemporary society,” write William G. Scott and David K. Hart, “is that, regardless of what people must do on the job, when they leave work, their time is their own. . . . The sacrifices and responsibilities that organizational obedience entails are amply rewarded by salaries that enable people to exploit their leisure time to the fullest. This is a cruel deception.”
They go on to explain that, even though the range of options is great, what one does away from the job is also determined to a large degree by the needs of profit-seeking organizations. This predetermination of leisure activities is a logical extension of the organizational imperative: “that all behavior must enhance the health of modern organizations. . . . The rule is: The primary obligation of the individual off the job is to consume.”7
One largely unrecognized difficulty with this obligation, however, is that even though “we call ourselves consumers, . . . we do not [really] consume. Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste, and an additional half-ton per week when gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide are included.”8 Perhaps what we need is not just a redefinition of our purpose as citizens of this nation, but a redefinition of basic terms, such as production and consumption.
If we were to redefine production to mean the creation of either fully consumable or easily reusable products, rather than simply the churning out of quantifiable, purchasable stuff, and redefine consumption to mean the judicious acquiring of life-sustaining, rather than lifestyle-enhancing, goods and services, we might begin to rein in the rampant growth imperative that governs corporate America and threatens to destroy our society.
We toss about the term economy, as if all it meant were an expanding smorgasbord of delectables to consume, but economy, in the more original sense, refers to the thrifty, efficient, frugal use of resources. Our “economy,” ironically, has come to represent the exact opposite of this original definition. It is, in fact, so uneconomical that its profligacy is consuming us.
1. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 48.
2. George J. Church, “Recovery for Whom?” Time, April 25, 1994, 30.
3. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power, trans. J. F. Huntington (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 378.
4. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 39.
5. Laurence Shames, The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 80–81.
6. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 536.
7. William G. Scott and David K. Hart, Organizational Values in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 72.
8. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (New York: HarperCollins), 1993, 12.
Monday, October 2, 2017
Tonight I mourn for my country. I mourn for those who lost their lives or were injured in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas. But beyond that, I mourn for what America has become.
I mourn that we have elected politicians who are so cowed by the NRA that they make excuses for not banning military-style weapons. These weapons have one purpose and one purpose only—to kill people, as many as possible, as quickly as possible. There is no reason on earth why anyone other than a soldier should be allowed possess one of these weapons.
I mourn that so many of my fellow Americans think the right to own a gun is the supreme right, that it trumps all others. It certainly trumps the right to feel safe in public places.
I mourn that so many of my fellow Americans do not understand that rights come with responsibilities, and if we as a people cannot be responsible, we must forfeit the associated right. We prove every day, over 30,000 times a year, that we are not responsible with the right to own guns. We are the only “civilized” country on earth that permits this many gun deaths. Which means, I suppose, that we are not civilized.
I mourn that a majority of us has elected leaders whose highest priority is to funnel as much wealth as possible into the hands of those who do not need it and to withhold food and shelter and medical care from those who so desperately do need it. I mourn that they are willing to lie in order to camouflage the true intent of their legislative agenda.
I mourn that those same leaders would attempt to replace an imperfect health-care system with an abominable alternative that would primarily do harm to millions of Americans—all for political gain—rather than try to fix the imperfect system.
I mourn that we have allowed a corporate economy based on greed to prevail over our better instincts of sympathy, compassion, service, and generosity.
I mourn that a slight minority of us prevailed in the recent presidential election (through a quirk of the Electoral College) and has placed in the White House a narcissistic, amoral, crude, nationalistic, sexually predatory, fraudulent, vindictive, petty, insecure man who is both unfit for the office and consistently embarrassing to our country. And I mourn over the millions of Americans who are willing to apologize for his abhorrent behavior rather than hold him to a higher standard.
I mourn that this same group of Americans has turned its collective back on science and in the name of bogus economic benefits is willing to make the earth eventually uninhabitable. This is inexcusable, and their posterity will curse them for their willful blindness.
I mourn above all that my country is no longer a beacon of light to the world, but is a gaping black hole of moral hollowness.
Tonight I mourn for my country.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
I'll get back to Economic Insanity with the next post, but some of the conference talks this weekend got me thinking about a different topic. Since Sabbath Day observance has been a point of emphasis for the General Authorities lately, I thought I’d post a rather unconventional talk I gave on that subject last year. I serve on the high council and happened to be assigned to my home ward for this topic. I’m pretty sure you’ll never hear a talk like this in general conference (or probably in your own sacrament meeting), but here goes. Thanks to Craig Harline for most of the history.
The Sabbath Day Is a Perpetual Covenant
The topic the stake presidency asked the high council to address comes from Exodus 31:16: “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.”
In our instructions from the stake presidency, they asked us specifically to extend their love “to each and every member.” They also asked us to thank you for your “goodness and obedience in following this prophetic priority in ‘elevating the spirit and power of the Sabbath day.’”
So, it’s my challenge to speak about the Sabbath. I’ve got more family here than usual today. Tricia and her family are visiting from Texas, and Matt is here from New York. Believe me, they didn’t come all the way to Utah to hear me speak, and I’m sure they’re saying to themselves, “He can make anything complicated. I wonder what he’s going to do to a simple topic like this.”
Well, the truth is, it’s not me that makes things complicated. Most things in life, when you look at them carefully, are already complicated. I just don’t see any purpose in simplifying them unnecessarily. So, what about the Sabbath?
As most of you are aware, when the Lord gave the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, he was referring to the seventh day of the week, which began and ended at sunset. But here we are, on Sunday, the first day of the week, which begins and ends at midnight, attending worship services, trying to make it a day of rest, and even calling it the Sabbath. How did this happen?
Most Mormons, I suspect, just assume that after Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week, either he himself or his Apostles determined that the Sabbath should just be shifted one day so that it would now be celebrated on the first day of the week instead of the seventh. Well, as you might suppose, it isn’t quite that simple.
And I knew just where to look to find out how this shift took place. Craig Harline, a history professor at BYU, wrote a book titled Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. Some of you might recognize Craig as the father of Jonny Harline, the BYU tight end who caught the pass from John Beck in the end zone with time running out to defeat the Utes a few years ago. But Craig is actually a very good historian and is quite entertaining.
So, let’s go back in time a few millennia. Harline begins his book by observing that trying to find the origins of Sunday is like trying to find the source of a great river. “The delta at the end and the long channel flowing into the delta are easily recognizable. Yet the farther one moves upstream toward the source of the river, the trickier the going: tributaries multiply, lead astray, or go underground. And when finally located, the humble source may bear so little resemblance to the massive amounts of water downstream that one will surely wonder what the beginning can possibly have to do with the end.”1
But this much is clear: “‘Sun Day’ emerged in the ancient Middle East, as part of a seven-day planetary week.”2 But this was just one of many options. Weeks in the ancient world varied anywhere from five to sixteen days. But parts of the Middle East and then the Roman Empire settled on a seven-day week. Each day was named for one of the known planets. “Saturn Day was the first day (not the seventh), Sun Day was the second day, then Moon Day, Mars Day (Tuesday), Mercury Day (Wednesday), Jupiter Day (Thursday), and Venus Day (Friday). (Some of our English day names seem a bit obscure because they come from the old Germanic names for the gods the planets were named after.)3
The idea that one day of the week was superior to the others came from a different seven-day system, that of the Jews. They also had a seven-day week, but only two of their days had names: the Sabbath and the day before the Sabbath, called the Day of Preparation. The other days were numbered.4
Now, as you might suspect, these two seven-day systems bumped into each other, and by the first century AD, the Romans started observing a weekly day of rest. Their initial choice was apparently Saturn Day, the first day of their week, which just happened to coincide with the Jewish seventh day or Sabbath. This was convenient for everyone. And by at least AD 100, the Romans had started regarding Saturn Day as the seventh day, instead of the first.5
As you are probably aware, the Jewish day began at sunset. So did the days in the old planetary system. But the Romans began their days at midnight. So what we now have is the result of two or three different systems colliding.
Only one element of our current system was missing. That is the prominence of the first day, Sunday. This came, apparently, from the followers of both the Roman Sun God and the early Christians, who began calling the first day “the Lord’s Day” because that was the day on which Jesus was resurrected.6
Craig Harline says that “the early Christian portion of the long-flowing Sunday river is perhaps murkier than any other.”7 Scholars have never been able to be certain about when, where, and why the Lord’s Day emerged among early Christians. “Was it in Jerusalem or Rome or elsewhere? Was it the work of the apostles or later church leaders? And most of all, was it meant to replace the Jewish Sabbath, to accommodate the pagan Sun Day, or to establish something entirely new and uniquely Christian?”8 Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence in the surviving records to say for sure.
We do know a few things, though. First, while the Sabbath for the Jews was a day of both rest and worship, the Lord’s Day for early Christians was just a day of worship. In the Roman Empire, Sunday was initially a work day, so the Christians met early and late, before and after work.9 Many of the early Christians also regarded the fourth of the Ten Commandments as obsolete, because it was part of the Old Testament, which had been fulfilled by Jesus. They regarded the Jews as an apostate people and sometimes criticized them for being lazy because they rested on the seventh day.10 But for the first three centuries, some Christians observed both the Jewish Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. This explains why so many elements of the Jewish Sabbath found their way into our observance of Sunday. If this is all a bit confusing, welcome to real life.
In AD 321, the Emperor Constantine declared Sun Day as the official holy day in the Roman week. And by the later fourth and early fifth centuries, Christians began treating Sunday as a day of rest. After the fall of the Roman Empire, church leaders continued supporting Sunday as a day of rest and worship. According to Craig Harline, the Council of Rouen, in AD 650, “was the first church council explicitly to require a twenty-four-hour Sabbath-like Lord’s Day, to make rest and worship obligatory.”11 The council also produced a list of penalties for violating the day of rest—but only after “first condemning all ‘superstitious’ rules and penalties of the Jewish Sabbath.”12 In the year 755, “the Frankish king Pepin III gathered the bishops of France, condemned Judaizing within the Church, then promptly proclaimed a long list of prohibited Lord’s Day activities.”13
This is a tendency that has prevailed since ancient times. We know that the Jews of the Old Testament had created numerous rules and penalties regarding what a person could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath, which caused them to criticize some of Jesus’s activities and caused Jesus in return to remind them that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. This tendency is obviously hard to avoid. In our LDS efforts to make sure people are observing the Lord’s Day appropriately, we often resort to similar sorts of formal or informal list making. But I think this may defeat the purpose of the day.
There are two general types of commandments we are given. There are higher laws and lesser laws. The lesser laws are usually rather straightforward and involve some minimum standard of acceptable behavior. There is, for instance, only one way to keep the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” You just don’t kill anyone. Likewise, there’s only one way to keep the commandment “thou shalt not steal.” You don’t take something that’s not yours. Higher laws, by contrast, are usually open-ended. An example is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. There are millions of ways to keep this commandment. So, of which type is the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy? For the most part, I would suggest, it is a higher law. It has a stated objective, but it is pretty much left up to us just how we go about keeping the commandment.
Of course, there’s also the question of why, exactly, we think that Sunday is the Sabbath. It’s not really, of course. Sunday is the Lord’s Day. But over the centuries, Christians have largely transferred both the intent and the injunction given in the fourth commandment from the seventh day of the week to the first day. As Craig Harline concludes, “It would remain this way for so long that countless generations in the Western world would consider the day’s very existence, name, and status as obvious, unquestioned facts of life, as if things had always been this way.”14
He spends chapters discussing how Sunday was observed over the centuries in various countries. He explains, for instance, how America inherited (through the Puritans) a very strict version of Sunday, while in continental Europe a very different and more pleasant sort of Sunday prevailed. One aspect of Sunday was rather common, though. In the agrarian economies that existed until the Industrial Revolution, Sunday, of necessity, was for most people a day of work, to one degree or another. In spite of all the lists of rules. And after the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist owners of businesses made sure that it was a day of labor for the working class, until the labor unions and churches gained enough influence to convince business owners to give their workers one day off each week.
If you look at all the tributaries that flow into the river of modern LDS Sunday observance, they would include the ancient Jews, the Romans, the early Christians, the Catholic Church, the Reformers, labor unions, a particularly strict Puritan writer named Nicholas Bownd, the Methodists of the 1820s and 1830s, latter-day scripture, and, dare I say it, the modern corporation, which is at least partially responsible for the extreme level of organization we now have and all the planning meetings Mormons like to hold on Sunday.
So, what instructions does the Lord actually give us in modern revelation about what we should do on his day? The only information we get is in D&C section 59. In verses 9 through 14, we read:
And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;
For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;
But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.
The phrase that jumped out for me in these verses was “And on this day thou shalt do none other thing.” I wonder how all of our meetings and other Sunday duties fit in with this commandment. I know, for some of us, Sunday is actually the busiest day of the week. Hardly a day of rest, and often not a day of rejoicing and prayer either. Perhaps we should strive to view the Lord’s day as the early Christians did—as a day of joy.
I can’t help thinking of Sunday evening two weeks ago. Sheri and I, somewhat like peasants in the Middle Ages, were out in the garden picking raspberries because they were ripe and we weren’t going to have time to pick them Monday morning. I couldn’t help hearing what was happening in our next-door neighbors’ backyard. Their kids and grandkids were there, and I could hear some of them playing some sort of a game. It may have been kickball. If you know the Nelsons, it had to involve a ball. But they were having a great time. Now, some people might look down on this sort of activity on Sunday, but I knew at the time that I would be speaking on this topic, and I couldn’t help thinking that there was a lot of joy going on in the Nelson’s backyard. And joy is what the Lord’s Day meant to early Christians.
One other thing we ought to remember is that we shouldn’t judge each other on how we decide to keep this higher law.
My hope is that you will focus more on the purpose of the Lord’s Day, which is to remember him and worship him, and not get bogged down by lists of rules or questions about what is and isn’t appropriate. If you get the purpose right, chances are you’ll also get the behavior right.
1. Craig Harline, Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1.
2. Harline, Sunday, 2.
3. Harline, Sunday, 2–3.
4. Harline, Sunday, 3–5.
5. Harline, Sunday, 5–6.
6. Harline, Sunday, 7.
7. Harline, Sunday, 6.
8. Harline, Sunday, 7.
9. Harline, Sunday, 16.
10. Harline, Sunday, 12, 19–20.
11. Harline, Sunday, 22.
12. Harline, Sunday, 22.
13. Harline, Sunday, 22.
14. Harline, Sunday, 25.