Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 13, 2008

Warren Buffett, G.K. Chesterton, Barack Obama & the Economics of Failure

I don’t know diddly about money, and I don’t much care, either. In fact, the only D I ever received academically was as a college freshman in a basic Economics class. It was taught by Dr. Robert Eisner, a hard-ass conservative professor who was known to be an advisor to the Reagan administration.

In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t “get it” back in school. Maybe even at age 18, I could intuit who the real winners and losers are in the  brazenly capitalist system we’ve been running since the 1950s, and I didn’t like how the deck was stacked against the losers. as an idealistic youngster of working-class parents, I didn’t want to believe that the economy of my own country depends on such an unfair system, so maybe in my denial I refused to learn the equations and principles upon which that system is based. However, I’m not a communist or socialist, never have been. It wasn’t until later, about ten years ago, that I found out what my economic philosophy is called: I’m a distributist.

Wiki says this: “According to distributism, the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of a few state bureaucrats (some forms of socialism) or wealthy private individuals (capitalism). A summary of distributism is found in G.K. Chesterton’s statement: ‘Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.’[4]  “

G.K. Chesterton, a free-thinking British novelist, theologian and amateur economist of the early twentieth century, was another of those gutsy Roman Catholics that I claim as heroes. And right up through Pope John Paul II, I think the Catholic church offered a good social justice critique of both the capitalists and the communists.

So as a Catholic-Mennonite-evangelical hybrid, I’ve always tried to keep my eye on the interplay of politics, economics, and the church.  I find it fundamentally, theologically scary that the U.S. has a $250 billion dollar deficit now. I can’t stand that so much of the “paper” for that debt is held by China, whose suppression of religious and human rights in their own country and worldwide is beyond the pale. (Therefore I’m pleased that Stephen Spielberg withdrew yesterday as an Olympics consultant because China’s hands are so filthy with the blood of Darfur.)

I am also shocked and scared at the prospect of Warren Buffet (or any single investor, for that matter) wielding so much power that he can practically buy and sell the entire municipal bond market. When I heard this news story yesterday, the first thing I thought of was Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, at the onset of the Depression, saying: “Potter’s not selling, Potter’s buying!” And indeed, smart opportunists always succeed in such a warped economy as ours. The weight of credit card debt alone among the middle class in America threatens to topple us into another severe depression, if we’re not courageous enough to make big changes in what we teach and how we spend.

I’m not sure even Barack Obama is willing to go far enough in changing these fundamentally unjust and unsound systems. But nobody else looks even interested in trying to elevate the poor and curb the injustice perpetrated upon them by the top 5%. So on the heels of his primary sweep this weekend, and looking toward depressed, working-class Wisconsin (up next), I say this:

Share the wealth! Vote Obama!



  1. Good to see socialist ideals are still alive in America (although of course in America never call them ‘socialist’ 🙂

  2. I am not sure if you call yourself Catholic (Mr. Nielsen) but the Church does not support Obama. While he may or may not have good (good being defined as following the Church) economic policy (this is yet to be seen) he still is very much against the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church when it comes to his position on human life. Also, the economic model that G. K. Chesterton was a proponent of was not socialism, though I do not think that Mr. Nielsen was arguing that; distributionism is very much different from socialism in that it does not involve a government entity that controls the market or the wealth of the people. Instead it is a combination of social and economic ideals where the power and responsibility starts with the family and then moves to the immediate community and then perhaps to the government. It is a balance between the theft of personal wealth by the government and stinginess, selfishness and apathy on the part of individuals in society. Instead of the government forcing the people to care for the sick and the poor through social programs that do not solve the problem of sickness or poverty the people in a family or community care for their own sick and their own poor; neighboring communities care for each other etc. It is basically the practice of the Christine virtue of charity.

  3. Here is a link to something that better explains what I am trying to write:

  4. Mr. Novak,
    I appreciate your response and your clarifications. I am baptised Roman Catholic, and very much influenced by Catholic teaching on social justice, economics (e.g. John Paul II was careful not to celebrate socialism, nor capitalism, but instead the kind of attitude toward charity and money that you discuss above), and even right-to-life issues. I support the Consistent Life ethic, which includes (for me) both reduction of abortion and reduction of capital punishment, plus an overall non-violent political/social system throughout the lifespan.

    But the relationship between church/moral law and civil law is complicated, so that in a diverse nation, each can and should inform the other, but neither should dominate the discussion. Since “sin” is still the state we’re all sort of stuck in (aborters and right-to-lifers, gay and straight, etc.), we have to take a less judgmental stance if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

    Personally, since you asked, I am currently at an ELCA Lutheran church, but heavily involved with several Catholic and Protestant churches and movements (examples: Call to Action, Emergent Village, the Mennonite Church, Center for Action and Contemplation [Franciscan], Evangelical Covenant Church). I very much believe in getting the followers of Christ talking to each other (and to other religions) again about these issues. It’s time to crawl out of the foxholes from which we’ve been taking potshots for too long.

    So I’m well-aware that Obama’s public/political position on abortion flies in the face of my own personal ethic, and the official Catholic one. But on dozens of other issues, he’s heading in the right direction — including reduction of poverty and increased personal/family responsibility (moral education), so that the situations which *lead* to the choice to abort will be drastically reduced.

    I’ll look at the Jerry Pournelle site, and thanks again for taking the time to discuss distributism and religious issues here.

  5. Thank you for your words and I did not mean to be rude at all in my comment so I apologize if I came across that way.

  6. […] by a comment on Marking Time, I just re-read my analysis of Chesterton’s distributist idea (sort of a “share the wealth” system, though not of the socialist variety).  And even […]

  7. […] the dominant (and inaccurate) Western mindset when it comes to economics, capitalism, socialism, distributism, and a government’s ability to act unilaterally for the “common […]

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