It is estimated that one percent of world’s population will own two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. It’s time we consider a second audacious experiment.

Last week I suggested an image for human flourishing. A rising tide lifts all boats. Today we see a tide rising, but mainly benefiting the top ten percent. In fact, a new study predicts one percent of the world’s population will own two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. The last time such a concentration of economic power occurred (the late 1800s Gilded Age), government stepped in, redistributing the wealth of the wealthy.

I’m not sure that’s human flourishing. It seems a far cry from what historian Paul Johnson calls the Puritans’ “audacious” vision.[1] The New World was to be “A City On A Hill,” a New Jerusalem, seeking the flourishing of all. The Puritans felt conscience was critical to this vision.[2] People of good conscience are virtuous. They’re self-governed, putting the flourishing of the community before individual concerns.

George Washington echoed the Puritans’ audacity in calling America an “experiment.” Our audacious experiment? Can a nation’s people be self-governed? The Framers said yes. They crafted an infrastructure, arranging our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power. This included the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

The legislative branch is where the sausage is made (making law is often equated to sausage making—messy). The executive branch administers the law. The judicial is an outsider. It doesn’t make or market sausage. It judges whether the sausage is good for all.

Modern economics lacks such an infrastructure, or framework. “We have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power,” writes Matthew Crawford, “or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible.”[3] Rising income disparities lend credence to this.

The solution is an infrastructure arranging financial institutions to prevent the concentration of economic power. This is already happening in other organizations. Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik, authors of “Meltdown,” say healthy organizations keep themselves honest by leveraging “designated outsiders,” leaders who understand enough to be relevant but are removed enough to see things differently.

The Norwegian government is doing this. In 2005, it hired an outsider, Henrik Syse, a philosopher, to act as advisor regarding it’s $190 billion Petroleum Fund. Syse has no background in oil or finance. He’s a writer, philosopher, and Sunday School teacher. As an outsider, Syse often sees what petrol insiders overlook. Insiders are not stupid. They’re focused, and with focus we often lose peripheral vision—the wider picture.

All sorts of organizations rely on outsiders. Southwest Airlines, Pixar, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Innocentive, and Quirky, a manufacturing company that builds products dreamed up by a global throng of amateur inventors. Quirky’s founder Ben Kaufman says company insiders “know too much.” They think inside the box. He says outsiders often present the most interesting answers to complex problems, not despite their lack of expertise, but because of it.

That’s been my experience. Over the years I’ve helped several financial firms discover whether their investment strategies are contributing to a rising tide lifting all boats. I do it as an outsider. I know little about how the sausage is made in finance. My background is history (including church history), anthropology, sociology and theology.

An insider/outsider model ought to be the infrastructure for every investment firm. Maybe that sounds audacious, but maybe we’re due for another audacious experiment. Organizations go from good to great when they have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), a 10-to-30-year objective that serves as a unifying focal point of effort.[4] The Puritans had a BHAG—the flourishing of all. Our nation is heading for a new Gilded Age. If we’re to see a rising tide benefiting all, we’ll have to change the reigning investment model (which is largely focused on maximizing individual return).

The change might be underway. Today some Christians are thinking more broadly about investing, and what promotes human flourishing. I’d encourage them to establish an insider/outsider infrastructure so that this audacious goal might be achieved.

 

[1] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (HarperCollins, 1997), 3.

[2] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), 107.

[3] Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009), 209.

[4] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (Harper Business, 2001), 233-234.

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5 Responses to “A Second Audacious Experiment?”

  1. Dave T says:

    The solution is an infrastructure arranging financial institutions to prevent the concentration of economic power?

    The Norwegian government is doing this, it hired ONE outsider?

    I don’t know how the Norwegian government is sitting on 190 billion but that can’t be good for starters.

    Outsiders are a great idea per everything, you’ve proven that with countless great examples. Outsiders can only be outsiders when they’re not hired to be outsiders. Once hired – they’re insiders.

    Outsiders are prophetic – they can’t be hired – and they have influence from the force of their depth.

    Good parents, Mike, teach/model/mentor/parent(!) a flourishing that is contagious. It will take generations of child-bearing (or fostering) by flourishing families to tilt our populace toward family-centered policies in every institution. These things take time.

    A second audacious experiment? Have or foster one more child.

  2. marble says:

    Hmmmm. . . . As an aside, I wonder if you’re actually ascribing the role of Ethicist to the Judiciary. Ethicists seek to determine the good. Judges look more to the just, as determined by law. Even their equity jurisdiction is constrained by some “higher” law, a law that is rarely called into play as we deepen the chasm between God and the United States. In other words, they judge law by the law.

    The Constitution is pretty much the sole remaining ‘higher law’ by which to judge laws these days – and that is under increasing assault as well. A changeable ‘higher law’ eventually ceases to be a higher law at all.

    I would agree that the increasing importance of the political leanings of judges (and who has appointed them) seems to underscore the erosion of the judicial role. Insofar as judges are issuing their view of what is “good” for all, however, they seem to have entered the political realm. . . . They are no longer judges.

    And that leads us back to you much larger question: what does lead to the flourishing of all?

    Dave T’s thoughts are interesting with respect to what hiring an ‘outsider’ does to his outsider status. . . . I like the idea there, too, of outsider as prophet.

    Ultimately, the problem will turn on what is ‘good’ – and as followers of Jesus, we know that there is none good but God. I don’t think that it is possible to provide for human flourishing within a society that denies the goodness (or even existence) of God.

    Comments in your last entry brought up the question of the specificity of who flourishes – and Gerard pointed out that the Puritans sought the flourishing of those who shared their religious convictions. There must be some sense of community in order to have a common view of what is ‘good for all’. . . .

    That is still missing.

    Nonetheless, I think you’re on to something! This idea of limitation is an important one. I keep coming back to E.F. Schumacher – and his thoughts on human-sized economics.

    As ever, you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    I disagree with Dave T’ that hiring an outsider makes him or her an insider, or corrupted by filthy lucre. In fact, outsiders used to receive an honorarium, from the word “honor,” referring to respect and recompense. Scripture says teachers of the Word are worth “double honor.” Their work is incalculable, worth more than can be monetized by the market.

    Today, an honorarium is more a tip. Ugh. That’s gotta stop. Outsiders such as clergy (what I’ve done) are not corrupted by being paid well.

  4. Tom Nesler says:

    I question the idea of the 1% vs the 99%. Much of the wealth of the 1% is on paper. If you purchased stock on a Dow Jones Index in 2008, your stock value would rise 20 times in 9 years. All that can vanish with the next Crisis.

    More importantly, is the question of a living wage and what is depriving people in getting that. I am not a fan of wage increases to remedy the problem. We need to keep healthcare costs from destroying any wage gains we get. Housing costs is another area that is out of control in many cities.

    Christians need to see beyond their own backyard to their hurting neighbors and be proactive in finding ways to help.

  5. marble says:

    I wonder if allowing people to subscribe to comments would promote more of the sense of discussion?

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