James is Spot On
“I don’t generally think much about the Bible, but that passage was spot on.” A trade union officer spoke to me after a Workers’ Memorial Day gathering in April. I had been asked to read from James chapter 5: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. … You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
For James, the way people used their money and how employers treated and paid their employees were important parts of his very practical letter to a group of early Christians. The new Christian way, brought by Jesus, had something to say about what we would call social justice or economics. It wasn’t just about what Christians did as they gathered to worship their Lord.
James wouldn’t have understood anything about the relative proportions of GDP being taken as profits or being paid as wages, but he did know what it meant for a worker not to receive his or her due pay. In a subsistence economy, where a person worked for a day to feed their family for a day, the consequences would have been obvious and immediate.
Today things are more complex. People may be able to save, or borrow to see them through difficult times. But this cannot be sustained for very long, and though we have a welfare system to support people, eventually there will be difficulties both for those whose earnings are restricted and for the economy as a whole. The Quaker economist Richard Murphy writes, in “The Courageous State”:
"…those with monetary assets are continually wishing to extend more borrowing to those who have, as a result of the corporate drive for profits that forces wages down, static incomes over time meaning that they must, if they are to fuel their drive for consumption, borrow to fund that consumption, which … is a desperately negative economic activity. This is the real cause of our economic crisis."
Another economist, Michael Hudson, points to other effects of low wages, making the stark point that, “As wages fall, suicide rates rise, life spans shorten, and marriage and birth rates plunge.” (“Killing the Host”).
It is said that Henry Ford paid his workers above the going market rates so that they could save and afford to buy the cars they produced. He recognised the importance of maintaining demand in an economy: as we would say today, “We are all in it together”.
The Bank of England held a meeting of their Citizens’ Panel in the Midlands recently. They wanted to listen to the views of local people about the economy. The main concern people had was the growing level of inequality. Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. These people are even celebrated in the “Rich List” published annually by a Sunday paper. Their wealth may be inherited, derive from profits, or be gained through the financial sector of our economy where wealth is used to gain more wealth, extracting it from productive activities. Other than highly paid sports stars, there are very few wage earners in the Rich List.
It is 10 years since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published “The Spirit Level”. They showed how inequality was bad for all members of a society, the rich and the poor, and those in between. Hoarding wealth and failing to share the rewards of work fairly damage societies and the people within them. This isn’t what God wants for his world, and He hears their cries, says, James.
James didn’t set out to write about economics, but he is “spot on.”