Commentary: America's economic house includes everyone

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

The president is in the midst of a series of speeches about the future of the American economy. I hope he takes us back to the basics of what an "economy" is.

Economics is about a household and how to manage it. The household is a family, a state, a nation, a planet.

The English word "economy" comes from the Greek work "oikos" -- the Greek word for house. The word "economics" derives from the Greek word "oikonomia" -- the management of a household. Before it is anything else, economics is a perspective, a frame of reference. Before it decides anything about household management, it knows that there is only one house. Good household management -- good economics -- pays attention to the well-being of the entire house and all its residents.

In America and elsewhere across the world, we are coming to realize that the planet itself is one house. What happens in one room of the house -- one family, one city, one nation -- affects what happens everywhere in the house. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich caught the clear sense of it when he wrote that "[humankind] and nature belong together in their created glory -- in their tragedy and in their salvation." That is to say, there is only one house.

The essential question of economics is not about systems: capitalism, communism, or socialism, or something else. The first question is spiritual, philosophical, and ethical. It's whether we believe that there is only one "oikos," one house; the subsequent question is about how best to manage it to honor the dignity of all its residents and the fragile web of nature without which the house of the living would not exist.

Very often what we call '"economics" is not economics. It's something else. It assumes something else. And when we forget what an economy and economics really are, we enshrine greed as the essential virtue, ignoring and imperiling everyone else and everything in the one house in which we live.

I dream that the president will preach the old Greek common sense: that in his own way, he will reclaim the essential premise of an economy and the ethical task of economics. By bringing the Greek origins to our television sets, headsets, and iPads, he can call us to move forward out of the partisan houses, houses of nonsense. There is only one house.

Gordon Stewart is a freelance writer and pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.