Economics 101

Understanding Economics as Stewardship

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We’ve talked broadly about economics and how an economic way of thinking can help us navigate a fallen world. Economics is the study of individual choice under scarcity. Last Friday, we looked at how scarcity is a ramification of the fall that impacts each of us. It constrains our choices. All of them. This means that economics is inseparable from all of life; no area is untouched by individual choice under scarcity.

Understanding this gives us an entirely new perspective on the topic of stewardship. My colleague Hugh Whelchel refers to this as “Stewardship with a capital S.” When most Christians think about stewardship they think about tithing and giving to the poor. When economics and stewardship and are used together it is often in reference to the environment and being good stewards of the earth.

I want to suggest that neither, tithing alone nor environmental stewardship alone, is a holistic Biblical view of stewardship as it pertains to our understanding of a fallen world with scarcity.

This new view of stewardship, along with our understanding of opportunity cost, means that to be a good steward requires us to be aware of the tradeoffs we face and to confront them with intentionality. Stewardship with a capital “S” means thinking about how we steward all of our resources and gifts, not just our money. I have said in an earlier post that economic decisions include where to work, live, what to eat for dinner and what degree to pursue among countless other daily choices. Regardless of whether the choice is big (which job do I take?) or small (what do I have for lunch?) they all represent tradeoffs. These two choices and everything in between represent stewardship.

I remember shopping with my friend who found a cookbook on sale, and she had been wanting to get for a gift. She grabbed it victoriously and proceeded to the check-out. It was Christmas time and the line was long. It was hot in the store with our coats. We had been in line about ten minutes and I asked her if she really wanted to stay in line and buy the book. She responded “well we’ve already waited, so I should stay!”

My friend wasn’t counting the opportunity cost of having to stand in line another 10 to 20 minutes. The time we had already spent in line was gone forever. Those minutes were, as they say in business, a sunk cost. But that doesn’t mean we had to forgo even more time, just because we had already given some time.

We were called to assess our new situation. The store is crowded and the line is moving much slower than we thought it would. Our coats are getting hotter and our bags are getting heavier. She had to re-calculate how much more time in line the cookbook was worth.

Only she knows how much it was worth to  buy the cookbook and give it as a gift and only she could make the calculation of how long it was worth waiting for. But like the rest of us, she is called to be the best possible steward of her time. And we left the store, without the cookbook.

Economist Thomas Sowell, author of Basic Economics, writes:

Knowledge is never perfect, and the longer the time between a decision and its consequences, the wider the gray area of uncertainty. One of the ways of dealing with this uncertainty is to prepare alternative courses of action. (pg. 15)

These are all economic decisions we are called to make every day and even the little choices, like how long to stand in line, need calculated thought behind them. If we are not intentional, we waste the resource more precious than all others: our time.

Keep in mind the prayer of Moses, recorded in Psalm 90: 12, “So teach us to consider our mortality so that we might live wisely.”

Question: What economic choices have you made that have helped you to more effectively use the time, talents, and resources God has given you? Leave a comment here.

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  • anarchobuddy

    I think this post brings up a very good point and addresses what many people misunderstand about economics: it’s not just about money. This makes me think of a blog post I wrote addressing this issue, where a journalist writing about the flu vaccine said, “Among the long list of reasons the fearful give for reasons they’re not getting a flu shot (hatred of needles, skepticism about vaccines, laziness), there’s one that relates more closely to economics: It’s not free.” Besides the poor writing, the author is mistaken in thinking that a person’s subjective preferences to avoid needles, not purchase things they are unsure of, or not wanting to expend energy don’t have to do with economics. Indeed, all of these things keep getting the vaccine from being free (if we are to define “free” as costless).

    And, as you said, this point very much relates to Christians who desire to be good Stewards. Understanding scarcity, they should be more effective and intentional about their stewardship. At least in this case, good economics meshes with good theology.

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