In the book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, author Gregg Easterbrook, claims we are experiencing great economic progress. The incomes of Americans have doubled in the last fifty years, he says. Even poor people have air conditioning, televisions and cars, and many middle class Americans actually own more than one home and drive multiple vehicles. Many even own boats and airplanes. The environment is getting cleaner and crime is on the decline.
Yet, he claims, people think they are worse off. They feel poorer and more pessimistic. He attributes this growing pessimism about life to “choice anxiety” and “abundance denial”. He recognizes the existence of extreme global poverty and rightly claims that there is enough wealth in the world right now to eradicate it. If we would just accept that fact that we are indeed wealthy instead of bemoaning what we don’t have, we could put our wealth to work on social ills.
I found myself arguing with Easterbrook throughout much of the book. While some poor people may indeed be better off, the people who come to our shelters and those that I see on the street corners certainly are not, and the conditions I have seen in third world countries are very bleak. The gap between extreme wealth and extreme poverty continues to widen in America and certainly in the world. Those of us who own computers are in the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people. (Check out the global rich list to see where you stand.) The system is working for us.
I want to be hopeful about progress and would love to be able to embrace the notion that the benevolence of the wealthy will rebuild the world. It would be encouraging to know we are winning the war against poverty, but many of Easterbrook's observations don't ring true in my experience. He clearly writes from a western context where, indeed, things are looking better. Even Chicago is "gentrifying". But he disregards the growth of consumer debt and the fact that there are more Pay Day Loan stores in America than there are McDonalds as people struggle to make ends meet.
I am not ready to celebrate prosperity while there is so much poverty in the world. American consumerism is causing global suffering. We need God's redemptive power to redeem us individually from our selfishness and greed and corporately from the shared structures that perpetuate global poverty while benefiting the wealthy. It will only be when we embrace the way of the cross as the people of God that these structures will become forces of redemption instead of oppression.
I think his observation of the discontent of the wealthy is right on. As we have seen in the tragic lives of some of our wealthy celebraties lately, money does not buy happiness. Vandana Shiva points out in a very thoughtful article in Resurgence , that “people can have immeasurable financial wealth and be socially impoverished – without love and companionship, without solidarity and community, with an empty soul in spite of overflowing bank accounts.”
I am privileged to know people of great wealth through my fundraising endeavors for Breakthrough who have discovered the transforming joy of giving. Deuteronomy 8:18 says that it is the Lord who gives one the ability to produce wealth. When God gifts individuals to give to the work of the kingdom, the world is blessed by their generosity. Jesus said in Matthew 5:16 that we are to let our lights shine before men, that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
We need to promote rigorous thinking about economics and the poor. I was challenged by a podcast from wiredparish.com with Greg Horton and Jon Middendorf in which they discuss Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof and the plausibility of redeeming big business to bring healing and restoration to the world. Here's the iTunes link.