Book Break: Small Is Beautiful: Economic As If People Mattered

One of my regrets from my college days is not taking any courses in economics. I received a relatively unstructured liberal arts education: aside from a few specific prerequisite courses for my undergraduate degree, all class were divided into four groups, and we had to take a certain number from each group. Math and physical sciences were grouped together, so the classes and labs I took in chemistry meant I didn’t have to take math. I heard only complaints from my friends in economics classes, and since I had so many other interesting classes in the social sciences to choose from, I skipped it.

This teenage shortsightedness bothers me still today, since our news and politics revolve around the economy. E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered recognized this utter domination of economics over all, warned against it, and proposed specific antidotes. Written in 1973—a year before I was born—and recommended to me by a former boss, it strikes me as a book that was likely read, loved, and then neglected by many in the last 40 years as they were swept along by currents too strong to swim against.

With no economic background of my own with which to offer a proper review or critique, I will instead offer a couple of objections and a few ideas I loved from the book.

The most obvious grounds for dismissal of Schumacher’s book for many will be that the alarms he sounded in 1973 were, in retrospect, too shrill—the gloom and doom he predicted, especially in terms of natural resource shortfalls and environmental crises, have not yet come to pass. For some readers, this alone will “prove” that the author obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Schumacher himself, a Rhodes Scholar and economic advisor with the British Control Commission and the British National Coal Board, warned against trying to predict the future. Common sense told him that finite resources can’t last forever, and exploratory calculations suggested that, at the rates of consumption and growth he was seeing in the 1970s, we were living on borrowed time. He acknowledged it was possible that we would find new sources of fossil fuels and other rapidly consumed resources—his point was, to what end? Unless we change our habits, eventually we will suffer.

The second objection was, for me, the more difficult: at this point in his career, Schumacher had strong opinions about what was wrong in the world and what needed to be done about it, and his blunt negative assessments of markets, economists, and motivations in his day leave little room for compromise or evangelization. I found myself nodding in agreement with three-quarters of his writing, only to run against passages about which I thought, surely not everyone in capitalist society is solely motivated by relentless profit-taking?

On the other hand, Schumacher does an excellent job of drawing our attention to the underlying problems with an economic approach to everything. Early in the book  he quotes his fellow British economist (and an early benefactor of sorts) John Maynard Keynes from 1930: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

Is this not contrary to the Christian ideal and common sense? Can fallen man use sin to achieve virtue? Of course not—but he can use his fellow man to achieve personal prosperity.

Schumacher goes on to write, “This was written forty years ago and since then, of course, things have speeded up considerably. Maybe we do not even have to wait for another sixty years until universal plenty will be attained. In any case, the Keynesian message is clear enough: Beware! Ethical considerations are not merely irrelevant, they are an actual hindrance, ‘for foul is useful and fair is not.’ The time for fairness is not yet. The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”

Lest you think of Schumacher as a naïve idealist imagining utopia, consider that two simple, practical ideas he advocated in his writings were the continuation of coal development and reducing energy consumption. He recognized that mankind is notorious for developing new problem-solving technologies that create new problems; that turning one’s back on an entire energy source on the belief that we could replace it entirely with oil or nuclear energy and meet rapidly growing worldwide demand, was foolish, even if it turned out to be true; and that wasting resources we cannot, ourselves, replace never makes sense.

This, to me, is (at least in part) what conservatism ought to be: maintaining the tried and true even as we explore new possibilities and conserving, even when a crisis is not looming, because it’s the sensible and moral thing to do.

Am I good at it? Not very—but getting better.

His biggest idea, however, was the concept of intermediate technologies for developing countries. Schumacher traveled the world and saw that most economic development supported by wealthy nations not only replicated the patterns of economic dysfunction he was in the developed world, but deepened the economic problems in the developing country for all but a fortunate few.

One example he uses (which I will paraphrase and expand on) is that of a large earthwork project that needs to be done in a developing country. You have a range of options you may employ for accomplishing this work, from people using their hands to scrabble and scrape away at the earth to the most modern and powerful earth-moving machinery. The former approach would cost almost nothing and “employ” a lot of people for a long time at menial and nearly impossible work; the latter would employ relatively few people for a relatively short time, unless the expensive equipment broke down and needed repairs—in which case there would be no parts or expertise locally to fix it. In the middle, however, are a range of intermediate technologies, however, that could put people to work, providing income for their families, value for their time, and dignity for themselves. For example, equipping a hundred men with well-built shovels and wheelbarrows would put those men to work—plus many more making and repairing shovels and wheelbarrows using local materials. The money earned by all those people (instead of just a few heavy-equipment operators) could be used to support other local industries—because what good is producing food or consumer goods if no one has any money to buy them?

There is much to love in this book, including Schumacher’s very Catholic views on the dignity of work and the human person. He speaks against an all-pervasive economic approach to efficiency, which quantifies and assigns value to the incalculable and invaluable. When everything is assigned a value, the sacred (such as human life) is diminished and no longer sacred. He speaks against an approach to labor and productivity that reduces work to individually pointless tasks without freedom or creativity and fails to employ large segments of society that, because they see no value in their time and effort, quickly devalue themselves. And he speaks against the underlying assumption that one who works less and consumes more is better off than one who works more and consumes less.
It is a thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it. 



Who Reigns In Your Heart?

Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. 
Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing. – Psalms 146:3-4

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, celebrating the authority and lordship of Jesus over all of creation and marking the end of the liturgical year. Falling just before the all-consuming holiday season and the secular New Year, this feast provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what holds mastery over our hearts before the avalanche of turkey and tinsel. And since it specifically celebrates Chris’s kingship, it takes on special relevance in the aftermath of a contentious election.

Who is this Jesus who rules over all? We are blessed to have an immense icon of Christ the King in the dome of our church. This image, called Pantocrator or “ruler of all,” depicts our glorified Lord looking down from heaven, holding the Book of Life by which we are judged (God’s justice) but with His right hand raised in blessing (God’s mercy). The three-rayed halo behind His head and Greek letters in the image identify Him simultaneously as Jesus Christ (IC XC) and as “I Am Who Am” (WON), or God Himself.

This God-man is the same Jesus who was born in a stable; who grew up a carpenter’s son; who ate with sinners and challenged authorities; who said to His followers, “This is my Body; take and eat;” who suffered humiliation and torture to die on a cross; who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; and who sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in these latter years. This is the same Jesus about whom Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) and Thomas said, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).

We have a second icon of Christ behind the altar and tabernacle, depicted in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Though within His mother, He does not appear as an infant or as any child we have likely ever seen. His high forehead and discerning eyes convey wisdom and judgment beyond His years. This is the same Jesus that St. Augustine calls, “ever ancient, ever new” and that dwells in the tabernacle, in the Eucharist. He is the very Word of God referenced in John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5
What joy, what hope, what light we have when He who is the very source of all blessing sits upon the throne of our hearts—and what sorrow, what despair, what darkness we experience when we yield His seat to idols: to fallen persons or passing things that will not—cannot—sustain us.

Advent begins next weekend: four weeks of penance and preparation Christmas. As the Church year ends and we prepare to welcome the newborn King of Kings, let us ask ourselves in whom we have placed our hope and trust. What or whom have we set upon the throne of our hearts? The time is now to elevate Christ to His proper place, that all else may fall into place and peace may prevail.

Reflection on Freedom

From my Facebook page on Nov. 3:

Reflecting on, of all things, a line from the old song Remember the Alamo: “Young Davey Crockett was singing and laughing/With gallantry fierce in his eyes/For God and for freedom, a man more than willing to die.” 

Freedom like that — courage and even joy in the face of persecution, destruction, and death — does not come from politicians, legislation, constitutions, or economies. It comes directly from God. It is not freedom from, but freedom for, and it can only be taken away by the Devil. Only he can bind us, and only if we let him. 

Make no mistake, we are free men and women. This next week, and next four years, can only change that if we allow it. 

Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful morning.

It’s another beautiful day today. We are blessed by God with life and liberty — may we be as free as that song lyric: free to laugh in the face of power, danger, and death, knowing these things cannot touch our inner mystery: that we are made in His image, out of love and for love.

I’m not suggesting armed conflict is coming, but reminding us that we are always — always! — free to do what we think is best. We may suffer for it, but suffering in this life is expected and temporary. And as the Catholic evangelist Mark Hart says, even when our legs shake, the rock upon which we stand will not be shaken.

Take courage, whatever happens. You are free, unless you yield it up yourself.

Your Eternity Begins Now


For the past few years, our family has joined numerous others from our parish and surrounding churches for Life Chain, an hour of silent public prayer for an end to the evil of abortion in our country. We spread out along Highway 19 between the parish school and Middle School West and stand facing the road, holding signs and praying.

On the back of the signs are suggested hymns, prayers, and petitions to guide our personal reflection during that hour. Every year, I am taken aback by the petition that asks me to pray for God’s mercy for all I have failed to do to protect life and work for an end to abortion—because every year, I am convinced I could have done more.

Now we are two weeks out from electing a new president. Most of us have likely made up our minds how we will vote—guided, I hope, by reason and a well-formed conscience.  God willing, no Catholic will cast a vote in support of abortion or its proponents. Beyond that, faithful Catholics can and do disagree on how best to combat the evils in our society by our actions at the ballot box. With that in mind, I would like to share three thoughts about the aftermath of Election Day.

First, remember the words of St. Therese of Lisieux: “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” We are a pilgrim people, and although our country is great and worth fighting for, the kingdom to which we truly belong is not here. We are called to evangelize and make disciples; to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. The outcome of this election will not change our mission.

Second, we are all called by God—and not one of us is worth less in His eyes because of the votes we’ve cast, the mistakes we’ve made, or the sins we’ve committed. Whatever happens on November 8th, we will continue to suffer for our faith, as Christ foretold, and our nation and world will continue to need our light, our service, our faithful example. Cast your vote on Tuesday and move on, because we must pull together as one body, one spirit, in Christ.

Finally, we have no time to waste. Too often our efforts on behalf of the unborn, marriage, freedom of conscience, or religious liberty hinge on the headlines and reach a fever pitch every four years with the election of a new president. We support particular candidates or policies; we act as though everything is riding on the results of the next election, then shake our heads when nothing changes and go back to minding our own business.

What about the roughly 1,460 days between presidential elections?

As Catholics, our opposition to abortion and the other great evils of our time is not primarily about saving lives, but about saving souls—including our own. Obedience to Christ and His Church is a daily choice. Disobedience is also a choice. So is complacency and non-action.

Every moment, God calls; every moment we respond. Our eternity begins now.
Lord, have mercy on me for all have failed to do here in my own community to draw people to you and build your kingdom. Amen.

Our Hope Demands Change

I don’t know about you, but I avoid the news like the plague. No matter the source, the media today is a place of constant conflict, and it’s easy to get caught in the ceaseless spin cycle and feel as though everything is falling apart around us. It’s easy to lose the perspective that we are in this world, but not of it. And once we lose that perspective, it’s easy to lose hope.

But as Catholics, our hope is in God and transcends this world. Specifically, our hope is in a personal God, who loves each of us enough to become like the least of us: wriggling and helpless in a Bethlehem stable; hungry and homeless on the road to Egypt; hard-working and cash-strapped in the wood shop in Nazareth; hounded and criticized by His own people; persecuted and abandoned by those who should have known and loved Him best. Jesus’s perfect and total Yes to the Father finally silenced the steady drumbeat of Nos that had echoed through the ages since the fall of Adam and Eve. He lived, He died, He rose again—we know this through the words of the prophets, the witness of the apostles, and the blood of martyrs. Never before have so many sacrificed everything—their very lives!—for so outlandish a claim as a God-Man who let himself be humiliated and slaughtered only to rise again from the dead. Who would die for such a thing? If you had any doubt in your mind, would you give your life?

Thousands of people have, from Jesus’s day to the present. We believe far more these days on less credible evidence, and yet we’re skeptical of this?

When the apostle Thomas encountered the resurrected Jesus in the flesh, his famous skepticism was transformed—he declared, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied, “Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed.”

That’s us: believers in an unseen Christ. Blessed are we who persist in the faith.

Of course, as Catholics we still encounter the living God, just not by sight. We encounter Christ in His Body, the Church, and in the sacraments—particularly the Holy Eucharist. We know that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus by His own words: “This is my Body…This is the cup of my Blood.” Jesus is God, and just as in the Creation story, what God says, is.

This is Good News—the Best News, in fact, and we are obliged to share it. It’s not enough to just accept Christ’s mercy and grace, or receive His Body and Blood. We are called to be disciples: not dependants, and not simply students, but followers, who learn, live, and spread the Gospel. No one encounters God without changing, and indeed Jesus says whoever wishes to be His disciple must pick up His cross and follow. If we are unwilling to change our behaviors and priorities; to work, suffer, and die for the sake of the Kingdom, we are not yet full-fledged disciples.

Why should we care? Because it takes disciples to make disciples. We can’t lead others to Christ if we aren’t following in his footsteps ourselves. Fr. Mike Schmitz reminds us that Jesus gave us one job to do while He is gone: go and make disciples of all nations. When He comes back, it won’t matter that the car is waxed; the laundry, folded; or the recycling, sorted. He’s going to look around to see if we did that one thing. Our hope demands change.

Blogger’s Note: This article appear in the Sunday, July 19, parish bulletin.