One thing the modern financial system tries to teach us is that with the miracles of compound interest, we can be fairly certain that the funds we invest today will be worth much more a few years from now. All we need to do is invest in the stock market, or some type of insurance “product,” or even in a bigger house than we need, and in a few years, the value will grow, and we will be rich.
For a while, this seemed to work. But it is really a difficult system to make work, if one is living in a finite world, whose resources are depleting. Realistically, we have to assume that the financial system is not going to be able to provide the kind of returns we have been told might be available. In fact, there is a good chance that the amount of goods and services we will have in the future will be less than we have today, no matter how much we try to store up. All of this “investing” may not give us a positive return.
So what do we do? I think at least part of the answer is that we learn to be less attached to what we have; we learn to be more willing to share what we have with others. I have written earlier about gift economies. The idea behind gift economies is that each member shares freely of what he has with others, and in fact, in judged by the amount he is able to share, not the amount he saves for himself. The example would be a hunter in a hunter-gatherer society who kills a deer, and shares it with others in the village. In primitive societies, there is no practical way of saving the deer for later, so sharing is a solution with what to do with the excess. If everyone shares when they have more than they need for themselves, there is a possibility of the group as a whole having enough.
I am not sure gift economies are entirely practical in a world of 6.8 billion people, but it seems like they can be helpful, at least in extended family situations, and maybe in other situations where people know each other well. I know my own extended family has tended to operate very much as a gift economy–each helping others out in the way they can. I have commented that most of the “arguments” I heard growing up and even in my marriage are the reverse of the “standard” arguments. The arguments tend to be about “you are doing too much”. You have washed the dishes too often, I should be able to do it part of the time, too. Or your family is contributing too much toward the cost of the take out meal that we are buying for they group to eat. No one ever complains that someone is not doing their part–in part because that rarely happens.
My background is fairly religious. I graduated from a Lutheran college (St. Olaf College). If you listen to Prairie Home Companion, I am from a background not too different from what Garrison Keillor talks about. Some of the kinds of things I learned included*:
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endures for ever. – Psalm 107:1
Honor your father and mother. – Exodus 20:12
Do not store up your treasures on earth. – Matthew 6:19
Love your neighbor as yourself. – Mark 12:31
Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Matthew 7:12
If you believe that everything you receive is a gift, it is easier to give freely of what you have. I bring up this issue because at the end of the year, everyone is thinking about what they should be doing in terms in of investments and contributions. My own view is that a person would do well shift more toward contributions, and toward helping their own family and friends, and less toward investments.
I am not asking for contributions myself. My posts and my website are my contribution.
*I do not believe that the Bible is literally true, for all times and all places. For example, “Be fruitful and multiply” is not helpful now, and the world was not created a few thousand years ago. I think religions–not just Christianity–tend to pass down the wisdom of prior generations, and we would do well to learn from such religions. But I also think we need to disregard what no longer seems relevant.