Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Does Making Money From Money Work?

What do you produce?

I've heard that one of the worries some experts have regarding America's economy these days is that as it transitions from a manufacturing base to a knowledge base, we risk losing the sociopolitical leverage that comes from actually building stuff that people need to live a highly mechanized lifestyle.

In other words, brain over brawn might not be the optimum balance for a player in a global economy.

Yes, America still holds title to being the world's largest manufacturing country, but as we all know, we're swiftly ceding chunks of that status to Asia.  Although all of the off-shoring that has taken place in the past couple of decades has reduced our manufacturing output, we're still a global manufacturing powerhouse.

We're just not as powerful as we used to be.

That fact struck me as I reviewed - of all things - the listing for new elder candidates at the church I attend.  Our church is what's called "elder-led," which means a group of men - who have been deemed to be highly responsible individuals by the congregation - make all of the official decisions for the church.  In many churches, especially mine, the men chosen to be elders tend to be wealthier than average, possessing more social prestige, and generally of a more charismatic personality than the rest of us.  They go through a special months-long class on theology, doctrine, and church rules, so we assume they're spiritually-fit for the role of elder, but it's their demonstrable qualities in our culture's metrics of "success" that often play as significantly in these choices as how we view their faith.

As an aside, let me affirm that, overall, the system, despite its obvious flaws, seems to work out for God's glory.  If I was particularly suspicious about the motives, integrity, spiritual qualifications, and commitment to Christ held by the elders at my church, I wouldn't be attending it.  Indeed, they've provided some remarkable leadership during some dark days for our congregation, and I believe the Lord has blessed their ability to govern our church well.

And frankly, nothing I see as I review the new slate of candidates our church will vote into office later this summer leads me to assume anything different.  Indeed, my observations here have nothing to do with any of these men personally.

Yet, as I perused the listing of each man's profile, which included their profession, I quickly realized that of the four, three of them are money-pushers.  They sit in luxurious offices here in Dallas and electronically push money all over Wall Street.  They are in stocks and private equity.  In other words, they take other people's money and make more of it for them.

Now, obviously, there's nothing criminal or immoral in such work, as long as professional standards are maintained and government regulations followed.  But, let's face it:  there's nothing really being created here, is there?  Nothing except more money.  Yes, it takes money to make money, but when we're talking investments and private equity, all we're really talking about it betting on somebody else's ability to create something - however ambiguous - upon which we can apply a monetary value.

At the end of the day, more wealth has been generated, but not because anything has been made, standing as material witness to the value of the money that has been generated.

Some people - particularly right-wing Republicans, of which my church is chock-full - don't see any problem in such a scenario.  If you can make new money by creatively shuffling old money about, you're creating something, right?  You're creating wealth!  And considering how most people's retirement accounts are based on such philosophies, I can see the value such activity plays in our national economy.

But compare these money guys to the one current elder candidate in my church who's actually creating wealth the old-fashioned way; by producing something.  This man is an executive in the oil and gas industry, which, obviously, produces the energy upon which our economy is dependent.  Judging by the man's photo, he's not a roughneck out in the oil fields, or a driller out on some rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  But his company (and it's not listed in his profile) is actually going out, researching the world's natural resources, and extracting a tangible commodity that other entities will buy so they can make stuff.

My church is voting on deacon candidates, too, and of the five, only one of them earns his living outside of the financial sector.  He's a real estate developer, whose company actually builds stuff out of wood, bricks, and metal.  They create something that has both tangible and aesthetic value.  Where there was once an empty lot, they construct a three-dimensional commodity that other people can rent, or sell, and buy, and in which people can live and work.

I realize I can't extrapolate comprehensive economic data from what nine men at my church do for a living, but here's why the numbers I can crunch seem troublesome to me.  First, as I said, the usual candidates for church leadership jobs like elders and deacons are guys who are seen by the congregation as being relatively successful, which many of us assume to be an indicator of responsibility, credibility, and authority.  And it stands to reason that these guys have taken their jobs only after exceptionally strategic evaluations about how they can most lucratively use their abilities.

Secondly, my church is unusual in that we have a lot of prominent leaders within the Dallas business community in its membership.  For better or worse, our congregation is not a healthy cross-section of Dallas' stratified demographics, but heavily weighted with the city's elites.  This means that in terms of what makes successful, robust, and dynamic cities like Dallas tick on the executive level, my church likely provides decent indicators.

If only two out of the nine elder and deacon candidates up for congregational approval this summer make their livings outside of the financial sector, what might that say about the direction our country's economy may be headed?  How long can our national prosperity be sustained if we're create fewer and fewer commodities to sell and use across the globe?  How dominant should the financial industry be in any nation's economy?

In terms of "commodities," many financial offerings are called "products," because they can be bought and sold like any shirt or magazine article or airplane.  But like most products, don't financial buyers and sellers have to create more and more complex money products to compete in the increasingly complex free market of dollars?  And isn't some of this complexity partly to blame for the Great Recession that has crippled broad swaths of our economy?  After all, it wasn't the building of homes that sparked the mortgage meltdown, but the reckless handling of marginal credit.  Just because the houses being foreclosed upon may not have much value on paper doesn't mean that their construction doesn't have much value.  Somebody, somewhere, is losing out on whatever was paid to create that three-dimensional product.

Let me be clear:  I'm not blaming any of our elder and deacon candidates for the jobs they have, or criticizing them for those jobs.  They're obviously working in fields that our economy has decreed as important and valuable, and I trust that they're serving as salt and light for the Gospel in our financial industry.  It's actually a good idea that we have Christ-followers hard on the money trail around Wall Street.  I'm just looking at what significance or effect may be taking shape in our society by seemingly having what appears to be a disproportionate number of well-educated, highly-marketable people choosing to work in an economic sector that never produces a raw product.

Then again, I tend to gripe about our hedonistic consumer mentality here in the United States, so maybe having fewer people in industries producing raw commodities isn't entirely bad!

So... is this anything?  Maybe not.  Maybe all of the doctors, lawyers, and legacy industry CEOs in our congregation can't afford - HA! - the time it takes to be an elder or a deacon in my church.

From what I hear, all of these unpaid leaders put in a lot of hours for our congregation.  Perhaps private equity gurus simply have the most flexible schedules of Dallas' executives.

Oh well - just like all of those manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in America, church volunteers don't punch time clocks, either!

Update:  It's called "financialization," and some money experts are beginning to question its true value in our economy; click here for more.

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