Food justice is a bit of a touchy subject for me.
By day, I am a mild-mannered PhD student studying Agricultural & Resource Economics. By night Sunday morning, I don a mask and cape choir robe and masquerade around as a Lutheran. Around my economist colleagues, I generally avoid discussing where I go on Sunday mornings. Likewise, when I’m in church, I try to leave economics at the door. Most of the time, this double-secret-identity balancing act works out just fine. Except when the issue of food justice comes up.
I have gotten accustomed to disagreeing with just about everyone when it comes to the issue of food justice. Among academic economists, I am chastised for even using the word “justice.” (The concept is too normative for our discipline.) Among my fellow Lutherans, I am often accused of being insensitive and callous when I use the words “cost-benefit analysis” in a conversation about access to food – something widely considered a human right.
And so I ask myself: Where does the church belong in the secular discussion about food policy? This is one question where I feel my experiences both as a technocrat and as a Lutheran offer insight, and I hope this article spurs further reflection and discussion among my fellow Lutherans.
As an economist, it is particularly difficult to hear the gospel of Jesus feeding thousands with only a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish. It seems the story’s primary message is that “God will provide;” that scarcity is on some level an illusion. This message flies in the face of the discipline of economics, which is fundamentally the study of scarcity. It seems very ungodly for me to suggest that all the prayer and generous giving in the world isn’t going to fundamentally change the ongoing food-related injustices we see globally. It seems even more ungodly to suggest that “market mechanisms” (gasp!) may increase program “efficiency” (blasphemy!).
And here we come to the first fundamental tension between Christianity and economics: Christianity is fundamentally moral while (properly-practiced) economics is fundamentally amoral. In fact, many economists view our discipline’s amorality as its greatest source of legitimacy; it is above our pay grade to determine what is just, so we limit ourselves to studying things like “efficiency” or “welfare” (both are often-misinterpreted technical terms).
So, when I as an economist think about a food-related policy such as the SNAP program in the US, I think almost exclusively about its efficiency. For instance, SNAP recipients are only able to spend their benefits on food items and are restricted from buying things like alcohol or tobacco. Furthermore, they cannot use their SNAP benefits to pay for housing or healthcare. The classical economist reaction is that such restrictions limit the program’s efficiency. If one wants to make a poor individual or household better off, the argument goes, the most efficient way to do so is to give them cash; an individual recipient knows better than the government what will most improve their well-being.
And an even more fundamental economic critique of traditional welfare programs is that their purpose – furthering economic equality – is not something motivated by economic theory. This is not to say that economists do not understand that increased economic equality is a valuable or moral goal, but rather that our discipline does not provide a theoretic foundation to justify or quantify such a goal.
On top of that, there is a well-documented trade-off between economic efficiency and economic equality. To use the imagery so popular among economists, if you want to make the slices of the economic pie more similar in size, the size of the entire pie decreases.
Sounds pretty bleak, huh?
Two years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with the World Hunger staff at the ELCA Churchwide Office. They brought me in to present an “Economic Reflection” on the 2012 Hunger Report published by the ecumenical advocacy group Bread for the World of which the ELCA is a member. The ELCA World Hunger staff does amazing outreach, education, and advocacy work, and they wanted to learn more about the economics behind many of the national and international hunger programs being debated in Washington.
I learned a lot from presenting at ELCA World Hunger. First of all, it became very clear to me that economists and faith-based activists are almost always talking past one another. Too often, economists hear activists’ calls for justice and equality as arbitrary or irrelevant to “serious” policymaking. Likewise, many social-justice-minded Christians hear economists’ technical, amoral analyses as normative statements about how the world “should” work.
Neither of these assessments is true or fair. They are symptoms of looking at the same issues through different lenses. And the great tragedy is that when economists and advocates of justice do not learn from each other – do not hear each other – a great opportunity is lost. So what is the silver lining? How can this gap be bridged? Where does the church belong in the secular discussion about food policy?
The first and most important silver lining is that economists don’t legislate. In fact, economists make pretty terrible public decision makers. We see our role in policymaking as the technocrats who can help figure out “if you do this, then that will happen.” We’re good at crunching numbers and estimating how much a policy will cost in terms of economic efficiency. But we’re not so good at valuing the (economically) intangible benefits of things like increased economic equality.
That’s where the church and other social justice advocates come in. As I mentioned before, there is an efficiency-equality trade-off. Economists can estimate the cost side of that trade-off, but we cannot estimate the benefit side very well. Of course there are benefits, and I see the church as one of the best mouthpieces to make those benefits salient to actual decision makers.
What I mean is this: the church and other advocates can say things economists cannot. For example: “We need to increase economic equality and thereby support a society where human dignity is upheld and every person is treated with inherent value.” Or: “It is worth reducing the size of the economic pie to make the slices more similar.” Or, as a more concrete example: “The SNAP program supports those most in need in our society with one of the most fundamental human needs: food. The goal of eliminating hunger in our neighborhoods and communities is worth the reductions in economic efficiency the program incurs.”
I believe the church’s role is to vocalize and highlight the non-economic benefits that food policies provide. Are there economic costs to these policies? Yes. The economists can tell us all about them. Are there also benefits? Yes of course! But it is the church’s role – in my view – to beat legislators over the head with these non-economic benefits. It is the church’s role to argue that these benefits far outweigh their costs because we as a society care about things like equality, dignity, and care for the least of these.
Returning to the question at hand: Where does the church belong in the secular discussion about food policy?
My answer to this is: Giving voice to the value of non-economic benefits of food policies. The church’s role is not to debate economists on the foundations of the economics discipline, but to fill in the side of the benefit-cost analysis that economists are not equipped to quantify.
As I wrote at the beginning of this article, food justice is a touchy subject for me. I hope it has touched you too. And I hope this article has challenged you to grapple with the question of where the church belongs in food policy debates. For myself, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to be a good economist and a good Christian advocate, but that being both simultaneously is near impossible. So, for the time being, I’ll probably keep up my double-secret-identity charade. Perhaps one day, we will find a way to break down the dividing lines and talk more effectively with one another. I certainly hope so.
How has your congregation entered into secular conversations about food policy?
Have you struggled to navigate dual vocations of your own?
- ^ For those interested in jargon: economic theory tells us that each individual person has a positive marginal utility of wealth (i.e. having more money makes you “better off” or “happier”), but that this marginal utility is decreasing in wealth (i.e. going from having $1 to $2 makes a bigger difference to you than going from having $1,001 to $1,002). What economic theory cannot tell us is how to compare two different individuals’ levels of well-being. Does an extra dollar make a bigger difference to a millionaire’s level of “utility” or a pauper’s level of utility? I’m guessing you have strong opinions about the question, but economic theory is unsuited to provide an answer.
- ^ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly called Food Stamps – is a program run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- ^ Abstracting away from the pie metaphor, here is another (admittedly over-simplistic) way to think about the efficiency-equality trade-off: imagine a world where there is no redistribution of resources at all. Each individual keeps 100% of the income and wealth she attains. Now imagine a redistribution scheme where wealthy individuals pay income taxes and poor individuals receive some of the tax revenue. Now, the wealthy individuals have a reduced incentive to work as hard; they don’t get to keep as much of what they make as they used to. Similarly, the poor individuals have a reduced incentive to work as hard; they are now receiving a subsidy specifically because they are poor. This doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily stops working, but it does mean that overall productivity of society goes down since everyone has a marginal incentive to be less industrious. In the world with taxes, resources are distributed more equally (the pie slices are more similar in size), but since everyone is working a little less hard, there is less money in total to go around than in the tax-free world (the pie is smaller).
- ^ http://hungerreport.org/2014/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/2012-Hunger-Report-final.pdf