February 29, 2012

How Do Economics Shape Food, Faith and the Future?

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

Last week, Sylvia Nasar, author of Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, addressed the issue of economics as it relates to food systems and the future, at the sixth session of the Baltimore Food and Faith Project’s Enoughness series. Complex and massive, the topic garnered a number of diverse responses. Here are two contrasting written responses, excerpted from attendees of the session.

Avram I. Reisner, PhD, rabbi of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek, Baltimore:

Sylvia Nasar gave an important presentation for us to hear, this morning, precisely because it so represented economic orthodoxy and failed to grapple with the very issues we are convened to consider. … We must be thankful for and preserve those gains [from the Industrial Revolution], no doubt. But her prescription for the future was continued productivity gain through the free market. And I, and I think all of us, question whether that is a reasonable prescription for the future. She presumes a continued escalator; that productivity can and will rise in the future as it has in the past. Is that likely? … Granting that humankind was not producing enough before the Industrial Revolution, are we now, and should we now remain in thrall to the old orthodoxy that rapid productivity growth is necessary? Should fair distribution, instead, become the new primary concern of economists? GINI, a measure of the fairness and income equality of a society, may be more important going forward than the measures of GDP. We might even wonder whether more is always better. I was struck by Dr. Nasar’s reference to caloric intake historically being around 1500 calories daily, and even in Africa today averaging about 2500 calories, a measure of the success of rising life styles. This is another of those non-infinite escalators. 2500 calories is better than 1500, and 3500 would perhaps be better still, but is human thriving enhanced by hitting 10,000 calories daily, even if we motorize personal scooters, find the medicines to control diabetes and heart disease and build homes with larger doorways? The religious question is always to define then strive for the good. Granted that our rising life styles have been good. Does that fully capture or exhaust our sense of the human good toward which we strive?

William (Bill) Roberts, ordained deacon of New Creation Christian Church, Baltimore, and professor at the Chesapeake College and Seminary:

Dr. Nasar said that man [is] a creature of circumstance and that the Grand Pursuit of economic thinkers was to overcome scarcity instead of being prisoners of circumstance. …  The only way this can occur is with an increase in productivity (doing more with current resources). …  Her conclusion is that it is ideas [and innovations] that really matter and that large numbers of people cannot be lifted out of poverty unless they produce more with the same resources. … Genesis tells the story of Joseph, who stored surplus food supplies in expectation of times of famine. The only people who survived during this time were those who saved and put aside coin during the time of abundance for seven years.  Joseph demonstrated wisdom in preserving and preparing for times of lack, and even experienced a time of great prosperity during what was, no doubt a down economy. … Are we not responsible to do the same? God has set us managers and stewards over the works of His hand.

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