Just A Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and The Fate of the Common Good is a book by Pastor Tim Carlos Anderson, who serves St. John/San Juan Lutheran Church in Austin Texas, and formerly served Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Houston.
This book is chock-full of statistics and information about history, economics and ethics. Reminiscent of my college textbooks, it took me a little while to get through this, as I needed to take it piece by piece and digest it.
Tim engages in a critique of the god of mammon, age old yet revitalized with the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. He laments that the concept of “the common good,” so central to American history, has fallen out of favor. Citing the great father of modern economics Adam Smith: “Those who live by profit” are “an order of men whose interest is never the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.”
Anderson agrees that capitalism is the economic system that has provided more wealth to more people, however he points out the obvious: in capitalism, wealth flows upward to the rich and powerful, leaving disadvantaged and disabled populations marginalized if there is no social accountability or conscience.
Beginning with a fascinating look at John D. Rockefeller who retired from Standard Oil in 1913 with a net worth of $1 billion, the richest person the world had ever seen, Anderson points out Rockefeller was asked, “How much is enough?” He reputedly responded with the now famous answer, “Just a little bit more,” hence the name of Anderson’s book.
Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country — the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarily formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.”
Anderson goes on to talk about greed, which, while it has some evolutionary advantage, can be destructive if taken to the extreme. He gives examples of Bernie Madoff, Enron, Arthur Andersen and others.
The book then takes a look at the once-revered concept of egalitarianism. During World War II, personal income of more than $200,000 was taxed at a rate of 93%. After the war, through the 1950s, that rate remained at 91%. It was commonly understood that those with greater resources had a greater responsibility.
What follows is a very theological look at the God of money. Paul Tillich defined religion as “ultimate concern.” Theologian Philip Goodchild, in his intriguing work “Theology of Money,” argues that in today’s world money has replaced God as Supreme Being and object of ultimate importance. Money talks. Money delivers. Monet posits itself is the universal supreme value. It promises the world. Commerce then becomes paramount. The mall is the holy place, where santa resides, the embodiment of consumption. His belly is the symbol of self-indulgence. Our malls are cathedrals of consumption.
The book constituted a (well-deserved) rant on capitalism gone out of control, consumerism, excess, entitlement, the lucrative war industry, unregulated corporate greed, that have led us to obesity, plastic surgery, steroids, spiraling debt and more.
Capitalism provides much, but it leaves a lot of people out of the equation, because it does not provide equitably. How is it that one of the wealthiest countries in the world can have one of the highest child poverty rates in the world? (23.1% child poverty rate.) How is it that coffee farmers in Nicaragua, cultivating one of the richest crops in the world, live in poverty? Is this not a byproduct of an unregulated multinational corporation bent on receiving profits at all costs?
Think of corporations as plantations. A few living in in obscene wealth because the many are living in slavery. Maybe not slavery like before, but sweatshops, economic exploitation, predatory lending and other practices that keep people in economic slavery in order to maximize profits for multinational corporations. (For more on coffee growers in Nicaragua, my trip there, and Lutheran World Relief’s response to the situation, read here: https://bishopmike.com/2012/08/22/lwr-delegation-in-nicaragua-full-article-www-bishopmike-com/)
So, what is Anderson’s solution? The majority of the book is focused on defining the problem. The last chapter suggest some ways forward.
“All we are saying is give egalitarianism a chance.” Imagine a different economic system than the one we have now.
Japan has one of the most egalitatian societies among the developed nations. It’s people have the highest life expectancy rate of industrialized nations, the smallest gap between its richest and poorest, and a median net worth for individuals three times greater than the level for Americans. Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland are also highly egalitarian in terms of income.
Anderson borrows from economist Robert Dahl to lift up five characteristics of economic democracy. I’ll list them here, but not go into detail. I encourage you to get his book if you want to know more.
1. Set limits.
2. Balance. “America’s inequality is the result of market distortions with incentives directed not it creating new wealth but it taking it from others.” Economist Joseph Stiglitz
3. Development. Corporations, the power of people working together, can do great good. It can also donmuch exploitation. Cut spending and raise revenues to battle unsustainable long term national debt.
4. Sustainability. Balance present needs with the needs of those who will come after us.
5. Common good: place a higher value on social capital, duty, honesty.
Anderson believes liberty and egalitarianism need not fight with one another. They can coexist in such a way that all can have enough.
You can read Tim’s blog, and purchase his book at http://justalittlebitmorebook.com.