Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It’s (Not) All About the Cake

This is the first in a series of posts on the recent Are We There Yet?: Economic Justice and the Common Good Conference, which took place in Edmonton on May 12-13.
by Allyson Carr

Have you ever been to a county or school fair and participated in a cake walk? It's a bit like musical chairs, only it's pay-to-play, there's no sitting, and the last person standing gets a cake instead of a grab bag. But it's a winner-take all game that is focused entirely on the promise that there will be cake[1]—a promise that doesn’t come through for most of the players. There isn't even usually a prize for second place, so if you really want that carrot cake and you didn't get lucky this time, you'll have to either plunk down more money on the proverbial table, or go home empty handed. If any of the losers can’t afford to play again, and want to get a piece of the cake, they have to rely on the generosity of the winner, who might be willing to share some. In a cake walk, win or lose, it’s all about the cake.

In many ways, our current global economy reminds me a bit of a cake walk. There are many more losers than there are winners. People play on the promise that they will get the “cake,” when only a very small percentage of the players actually manage to do so. Because you have to pay to really play--or to put it another way, because it takes money to make money--the more resources you are willing to throw onto the table, the more likely you are to win, because you can just keep trying. Those who do win get their cake and can eat it too (carrots and all). While it’s considered generous for “winners” to share, there is no real social or legal mandate to do so. And, increasingly, there are a lot of people going away hungry.

This kind of cake-walk approach to the global economy is unsustainable, and no matter how many charitable and sincerely generous cake-winners there are out there sharing their wealth with people who are cut out of the game, it will not be enough. It is not a system founded on justice, and where justice (in a rich, robust sense) is not a founding mandate in any system, injustice is not only bound to happen, but is bound to happen systematically. One person’s carrot cake is another hundred, or even thousand, peoples’ stick. What can be done to change this?

Just a short while ago, the ICS' research centre, the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, co-hosted a conference on economic justice with the King’s University College in Edmonton. The conference looked at many different sides of economic justice, with panels on the oilsands resource extraction, business, aboriginal rights and land use, climate change, poverty, urban food security, law, and others. It tried to avoid the aforementioned cakewalk mentality, and instead worked on the founding belief that the economy (and wealth) deals with more than money: the economy is about the whole, about knowing how to work with and care for all the things around us that make living possible. In the words of one of our keynote speakers, economist Bob Goudzwaard:
So often the word ‘economic’ is trivialized into a matter of money or the distribution of money. The problem of economic justice then boils down to the question of how much money should be reserved for provisions for the poor. What poverty lurks behind this view of poverty! For in the Biblical context the word economy, oikonomia, is always related to the mandate of stewardship, which means the responsible governance of all goods and resources of the earth, including vulnerable eco-systems. Then all people can sustain their lives in such a way that nature can survive and future generations can live with dignity.  
We can hear in this formulation of the word “economy” an acceptable description of the common good. For it deepens the idea of justice. Economic justice is not just about pursuing more provisions for the poorest people. It also deals with the needs of future generations and demands continuous care for vulnerable ecosystems and the preservation of threatened species. There is no economic justice in a country or a region where these interests are systematically neglected.
What does it take to let economic justice flow like the river Amos speaks of? On Goudzwaard’s account, it takes a continual pursuit of the common good--where the common good is understood to include not only all humans, but all creation. This requires a fundamental shift in how we understand the economy and our actions within it, but it is a shift that more and more people are making. As his talk amply demonstrated, we are not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Just the opposite.

In the coming months, we will continue to populate the conference website with more resources for people to draw on in our collective pursuit of economic justice, including videos and notes from the conference itself, as well as other resources. If you have any suggestions about resources to include, please send them our way! In the meantime, may we grow in our ability to understand and actively pursue the common good of all.

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.

[1] Yes, that is a Portal reference for you gaming geeks out there

First image by jeffreyw, used from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs_Js_Famous_Carrot_Cake_(4992072384).jpg. Second image used from http://www.nieuwwij.nl/interview/er-moet-minder-focus-komen-op-geldgroei/.

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