While this decidedly Christian phrase is usually reserved for marriages between people of different faiths, or a relationship where one partner has no faith, it can really refer to any relationship that should be covenantal. It should be used in church situations in which people who see the role of church as ministry are pitted against those who wish to follow a secular, business model. It should be used in the strained relationships between the various ecclesiastical levels. It most certainly should be used when describing the all too common broken contracts between governments and constituents. In decidedly counter-cultural fashion, I would like to suggest that it applies to all things economic – that, in a just society, all transactions would be covenantal and mutually equitable.
Now, I know, that statement reeks of anti-capitalist rhetoric. Capitalism is based on “free enterprise” and, as such, should be free of this kind of expectation. Profit is profit, and whatever it takes to bring value to the shareholders is virtuous. Well, as someone who made and lost – and made and lost and made, again – considerable fortunes from free enterprise, I would just like to say, “What a load of tripe.” Capitalism, originally, was based on two primary influences: Jean Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva in which profits were expected to percolate for ensuring the common good; and, the philosophy of Adam Smith who also believed that “no man [sic] would take advantage of another, because no man rightly wants what is not his.” The intent of capitalism, originally, was to create and encourage a covenantal relationship between profit and common good.
THERE IS A FREE LUNCH – and you’re it!
At his point I dare anyone to claim that this relationship has been maintained – especially in light of the past several years from Enron to the bank melt-down. Greed, avarice, envy and accumulation have superceded fairness and equity in transactions and, perhaps worse, have become the lingua franca of business. People expect little more than big business gaining advantage and profit on the backs of the vulnerable. While I agree that it is what it is, i strongly suggest that for Christians it isn’t what it ought to be – and Christ was all about the “ought” and not the “is”.
At this point, I’m not going to rail against big business, if for no other reason than big business is not inclined to listen to a small town, urban pastor for it’s investment and behavioral advice. The best I can hope is that someone, somewhere, might read these words and say to themselves, “Hmmm. I can do that.” That would, of course, require that what I am about to say inures to the mundane – the daily lives of nobodies like us and the organizations, like churches, to which we belong.
But what motivation would anyone need to listen to the ramblings of an insane cleric? Try this, big business is getting a free lunch and, as I said in the subtitle, you are it – you and me, and others like us. We could live our lives envying and coveting their free lunches and thereby reduce ourselves to economic cannibalism, in which we strive to get that last little penny’s worth of buying advantage by making sure that, if we get more for less, someone else gets less for more, or … Oh, wait a minute, that is what we do. While we get eaten for lunch, our response is to at least have a snack by taking a bite out of someone else’s a… Perhaps, I should change my demeanor a little – I’m beginning to sound like a street preacher.
Let’s talk solutions, shall we? Actually, there’s only one that I’m going to offer up at this point, but it’s one that can affect the way we do commerce in almost every instance. The concept is to treat your disposable income like you were a tither at church. Now relax – I said LIKE you were a tither. This isn’t a church stewardship article – that will come later. Look at your disposable income and take ten percent of it. Now, make a rule – the only money I will spend with companies that are not located right in my community is that 10%. The other 90% stays as close to your zipcode as humanly possible. Now, I did say disposable income because you will have very little control of certain fixed expenses like mortgage, utilities and the like. I am including groceries in disposable income, however.
I am going to let you ponder that for a while before describing more fully what I have in mind. So, go ahead – run all the pros and cons through your mind. Dare to think about how that would get you lunch while ensuring someone else get to eats their’s as well.
[Imagine music playing while you ponder]
YOU’RE AN EQUALIZER – USE YOUR POWER WISELY
Okay, I’m back. I think I gave you sufficient time to ponder what is wrong with the suggestion I made. I’ll recap that idea: The rule – the only money I will spend with companies that are not located right in my community is 10% of my disposable income. The other 90% stays as close to your zip code as humanly possible.
An economic covenant is a mutual promise that all parties in the transaction will benefit equitably. I contend that trying to get more for less, the long standing mantra of US companies, households and individuals, is remarkably expensive in the long-run. While the economy is not finite, as in no room for growth, it is a fairly compact system. It is largely true that if one entity gets more for less, the other get less for more. That is a system of advantage-taking – intentional or not.The larger the company, the more likely it is to take more advantage of its suppliers. In those cases, other companies that supply goods, and other regions or countries from which the resources come, get substantially less than what the goods are worth. Many of the third-world countries, if not US communities like ours in Schenectady, are standing testimonials to what happens when resources are sold cheap.
Besides companies and governments, however, there is the most important loser in this economic slight of hand. The workers, wherever they are located, are forced to take less than their labor is worth in order to afford their employer to price cut.
In any endeavor, other than retail sales, the highest single expense is employee wages, which makes this item the easiest way to cut costs. Our need for “more for less” ensures that other workers earn substandard wages. Likewise, if you earn substandard wages it is because someone else is getting more for less. The cycle has to be broken and, as usual, the burden is falling on the average Jane and Joe because they can understand the plight of underpaid work.
Now, the difference between buying in your zip code and buying elsewhere is important. If you cannot actually see the company you are buying from, e.g. Amazon, then you have no idea who they are paying nor how much. The chances are good, especially the more discounted the prices are, that the labor is far cheaper than it should be and the more distant it is. Big box stores in malls or distant areas also employ many people, but the vast majority are behind the scenes. The general rule is that the more invisible the worker, the more they are being taken advantage of. If we continue to purchase from these companies, we are complicit in underpaying those employees – and, incidentally, we are equally complicit in our own situation because we continue to say “it’s okay, I accept the underpayment.”
Which brings us to buying locally. You can actually see the workers, as there are fewer of them relegated to working behind the scenes. It is also true that if each community had a hardware store, for example, they would collectively employ more people than all big-box and internet hardware stores combined. The local employer is and always has been the foundation upon which capitalism thrives. Besides that, you are able to walk up to an owner or manager of a local store and say something like:
“Hi. I’m interested in having a covenantal relationship with your store. I want to make sure that I spend my money locally, but I also want to make sure that my community benefits when I do. So, do you pay a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? Do your employees have the option of affordable health insurance? I know I may pay a little more for your product, but will you assure me I will always get a fair price? If so, I want to commit to buying my hardware needs and underwear from Joe’s Hardware and Lingerie.”
If you’re the first person to do this, Joe will think you’re a little nuts – even so, Joe will respect you and know where you stand. If another person comes in and does the same thing, then Joe’s going to start to pay real attention. About the time 10 people have done this, Joe is going to think he better take care of his employees pretty well because someone just might ask them. Before you know it, you’ve started a grassroots movement for fair wages and treatment. So, do you have friends you can get to help you? What are you waiting for? By the way, just try doing this at Target, Walmart, Amazon or a host of others. Try doing it with an online pharmacy instead of your local one.
I won’t drive this point home, but pay attention to how you feel when you do this. Notice how you back just got a little straighter and you flexed your shoulders. This what they call power and, contrary to what big business wants you to think, you have some. Use it wisely.
There’s another advantage to doing this – it’s called local economy. Local economy includes something called the local tax base, which includes sales tax, property tax and income tax, if you have one in your community. The profitability of local companies is important because to will help keep your taxes lower than they might be otherwise.
I know. I know. You may pay more for what you are buying than if you ordered it online from Amazon, or than if you drove to the mall in East Overshoe. You may pay less when buying at a distance, but it may cost you in the end. As already discussed, chances are really good that Amazon does not have an office or distribution center right there in your taxing district. So, if you have to pay 10% more to buy from Joe’s Hardware and Lingerie, but Joe pays local property and income taxes, that discrepancy starts to get smaller. Joe’s probably not big enough to get a 10-year tax abatement like Walmart or Target, so he pays taxes from day one. More of the sales tax that is generated in Joe’s stays in your community than that spent outside of it.
Ultimately, if Joe stops paying taxes because he went out of business, someone else is going to have to pick up the tab for that – and you know who that is, right? There’s probably a dozen more reasons to buy locally, so let me know if you need to hear them. These are the top ones, and the others trickle down and just add more and more benefit to your own community. Talk to me if you have ideas or questions. Okay?