When political strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “the economy, stupid” during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign, he was creating messaging to link the policies of the White House to a voter’s pocketbook. President George H.W. Bush was facing an economic recession and running for a second term. Third-party candidate Ross Perot used charts to talk about the importance of sound financial oversight in government. Perot made the practical case. Clinton made the emotional connection. Bush could not convince enough voters that he truly felt their pain. And Clinton won the election.
Fast forward to 2020. Incumbent candidates are tout how well everything is going, while challengers point out everything that is going wrong. One phrase every candidate and political pundit has at the ready is “the economy.” When “the economy” is the topic of conversation, potential voters listen, assuming that what is done about “the economy” will have broad implications on one’s standard of living, but it is used as a catch-all word and vague indicator of financial health.
One of the pitfalls of our sound-bite culture is how complex topics get reduced to very simplistic understandings. Listening to political candidates, one might assume “the economy” corresponds to the stock market, or the “GNP” or “GDP,” the consumer confidence index, the unemployment rate, or some combination of those. And while each of these serve as indicators of certain aspects of the nation’s financial health, none of these on their own are “the economy.”
This abstract phrase is applied generically as if it means the same thing to people at every point on the financial spectrum. Cultural columnist David Masciotra argues,
…‘the economy,’ as most of the commentariat discusses it, does not exist. It is an illusion, a phantom that is never quite visible. What do all of the economic forecasts mean for the 58 percent of Americans who have less than $1,000 in savings, or the 28 percent who have no savings at all? They are one misfortune away from financial obliteration.
And yet, conversations about “the economy” stoke the fires of political debate across the country. This year’s presidential campaign also includes two other generic trigger-words: “capitalism” and “socialism.” These words are tossed around and incite a variety of emotions in people. Pundits and candidates alike seem to count on an electorate that knows just enough to appreciate how these words might matter, but not enough to really know just exactly how the ideas work. These words are pitted against each other as ideological opposites as far apart as good and evil are themselves.
The reality is that there are aspects of both already embedded in our US American culture. And people seem to appreciate how the blend of both serve to contribute to life as we know it. What gets discussed more often in media are the most extreme versions of these principles. And it seems the fear of a capitalist authoritarianism or a socialist authoritarianism is really driving the political discourse.
But the bottom line still comes back to people and how the transfer of wealth impacts their daily lives. Masciotra argues that the indicators are not as important when a person living on the financial margins is simply struggling to make ends meet. He writes,
whether “the economy” grows by 3 percent or 3.5 percent next quarter will have no relevance in the lives of Americans who are manically juggling thousands in credit-card debt and student-loan payments, along with the ordinary expenses of living, all while praying with every breath that their children don’t get sick, their car does not break down and their landlord does not raise the rent. There is no “economy” for most poor and working-class Americans. There is only everyday life.
Thus the problem. Karl Polanyi writes in “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time” about the rise of industrial capitalism and the phenomenon that as the wealthy amass more wealth, the poverty level rises as well. He writes that in fact, the two are inseparable. Yet instead of recognizing this as an exploitation of working people, the market made a commodity of human labor. By the 18th century, the correlation between a nation’s wealth and its poverty was becoming clearer. Wealthy countries did not pay the highest wages to laborers. And the income gap continued to increase.
One response to the increasing poverty levels in the 18th century was the value of activism in the early Evangelical movement. For his part, John Wesley and the early Methodists sought to help the plight of the poor. Wesley founded a home for widows and others who had no place to go. He created a Sunday school for children whose parents could not afford to send them to school and for those who were working six days a week. He started a free medical clinic. And he helped organize laborers to keep them from being thrown into debtor’s prisons. These efforts were all well-meaning, but the funding could not keep up as the demands on the services increased.
Still we try. Recently, some congregations have received publicity for raising massive amounts of money and then applying the funds to cover the medical debts of families in their communities. Is this transfer of wealth a form of socialism? Is it a positive by-product of the capitalist idea of “trickle-down economics?” Is it an expression of “survivor’s guilt” from privileged households? Or is this exemplary of what the Church should be about, a reflection of the model of Acts 2 and others? “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
In my project research, I am learning more about those living at or below the poverty line and how the Church, community service agencies, and government agencies can collaborate to make life better for people. Specifically, what is the appropriate role of agencies in society when it comes to the way we care for others? Questions like this are not adequately answered with sound-bites. And I am honestly unsure as to how the issue gets solved. “The economy” continues mystify us and give talking heads ample fodder in the 24-hour news cycle. Perhaps a healthy collaboration of the Church, the community, and government might be a way to begin to bridge the gap. Prophets and deep thinkers like Polanyi might offer a road map, but it is only useful when serious minds and solution-oriented leaders put aside partisan ideologies and shallow rhetoric to seek the greater good for all.
 David Masciotra, “Anyone Who Says ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid is Being Stupid,” Salon, November 9, 2019. https://www.salon.com/2019/11/09/anyone-who-says-its-the-economy-stupid-is-being-stupid/.
 Jeff Spross, “Capitalism and Socialism Are Just Words,” The Week, November 11, 2019. https://theweek.com/articles/877260/capitalism-socialism-are-just-words.
 Karl Polanyi, “The Great Transformation: The Economic and Political Origins of Our Time,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944,) 106.
 Polanyi, 107.
 Polanyi, 108.
 Acts 2:44-45, NIV.